Far and Away by Frank Light

Frank Light’s Far and Away (Finishing Line Press, 21 pp. $14.99, paper) is a poetry chapbook containing five poems—or eight, depending on how you count them. Its twenty pages tell of several lifetimes and a few trips around the world, including to South Vietnam during the American war. Light was drafted into the Army and served a 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty in Nha Trang.

The title of the first poem appears to be a made-up word–something a writer can more easily get away with in poetry. Said title, “Cotophrasis,” comes from the idea that it’s an ekphrastic poem about a painting by Frederic Edwin Church of the volcano called Cotopaxi in the Andes. The first line of this first poem is a great one: “Church went south of south.”

The second poem, “World of Wonders,” is divided into four parts. Each is also a stand-alone poem. One of them is a prose poem that creates a Swedish scene that comes to life as you read the descriptive stanzas. Another one makes interesting use of the space on the page and includes a French phrase that can be read as both a question and a reply, a great use of word play. This poem also deals with two groups in southern Morocco, non-believers and believers. Or perhaps it’s non-believers becoming believers.

The third part of the second poem drops us into the Long An Province in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam. The fourth part—a prose poem that includes a sentence that is 118 words long and contains seven commas—puts us in a Spanish town near the French border.

While reading these dense (that’s a good thing) poems we end up dropping anchor or pitching a tent in Gibraltar, the Congo, the Casbah, Dakar, the Canaries, the Sahara, and other places, primarily in the Middle East. Memories of past conflicts and wars keep bubbling up.

In Frank Light’s poetry there are no add-on or throw-away lines, so there’s great significance in words such as “her sunglasses which you broke rolling over.” This is a personal, challenging, small collection of poetry that rewards the reader who confronts these human adventures. Despite the title, I’m left with the sense that one can go far without actually going away. The final poem, fittingly, tells of a fruitless search for a certain gravestone in a cemetery.

Here are my favorite lines from the collection:

Full roof, half moon. Stars swoon.

Make a wish.

The book’s page on the publisher’s website is: finishinglinepress.com/product/far-and-away-by-frank-light/

–Bill McCloud

Fragments by Bruce K. Berger

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Fragments: The Long Coming Home from Vietnam (Wordworthy Press, 92 pp. $12.95, paper; $11, Kindle) is a poetry chapbook by Bruce K. Berger. Berger served with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam in 1970, writing sympathy letters to hundreds of families. This chapbook is as good a collection of poetry dealing with the Vietnam War as I’ve read.

There’s no dipping a toe in the water here. In the first section of the first poem Berger references the My Lai massacre, napalm, Agent Orange, AWOLs and “Dinks and Gooks.”

Berger writes of the “bloody mathematics” involved in taking, abandoning, then re-taking territory. Men around him wonder why they were there. “Why the hell were we, where the hell we were?” At one point he notes that “The long war symbolized so many lies/some of them true.”

Elsewhere he writes about the sympathy letters: “What more could he write/without deepening their pain?” He also writes of holding buddies while their lives slip away and remembering one soldier who died with a smile on his face. You don’t realize at the time that being “Impregnated by orange rain” means you were killed in Vietnam, though you won’t die until thirty years later.

He addresses the times on guard-duty when you have a chance to note the country’s fleeting moments of beauty. Then the rain and other natural sounds seem to combine to create “the jungle band.” Eventually there’s “The precious gift of sunrise in Vietnam.”

He shares in the comfort that can be found in a stray dog. Then there’s the “contagious smile” of the young boy with a “missing foot.” There’s also an old woman who continues to look for her grandson, although he died months earlier after being “shot by Aaron from Akron.” A young girl has “tiny breasts” that recall “two little sparrows/poking just barely/under her tee-shirt.”

Returning home from the war means “picking up where they left off/one year a century ago.” Then memories began to hit like “hot grease spattering his brain.” Memories that you begin to think of as “just dead life.” There is some evidence of healing once you are “no longer drinking suicide” and have started doing “drive bys” of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

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Berger in Vietnam

The stories told in these poems are the memories of one American Vietnam War veteran. The collection is not all-encompassing. It doesn’t try to explain the causes of the war or the motives of the people fighting on the other side. It’s personal, and poetry may be the most personal form of written expression.

There are 34 poems in this book. None of them is a throw-away. Each brings something to the table. The inclusion of 24 illustrations creates a complete package.

This is an unflinching look at the horrors of war and one man’s life-long efforts to escape its memories told in the form of poetry. Berger is a true word-artist.

The book’s Facebook page is facebook.com/fragmentspoems

Bruce Berger is donating profits from book sales to Vietnam Veterans of America.

–Bill McCloud

Lingering Fire by William Jackson Blackley

William Jackson’s Blackley’s poetry collection, Lingering Fire (Main Street Rag Publishing, 40 pp., $11, paper), which was published in 2015, contains excellent, mostly short poems with titles such as “Indirect Fire,” “Black Market Habits,” “Cities,” “Captain Crazy,” “Thermite,” “One Tour Too Many,” and “Blue Sunday.”

“Some of these poems were written during a very dark chapter in my life when I questioned even the existence of God,” Blackley writes. “They are based on my experiences growing up, with the draft, military training, battlefield action, coming home, talking with veterans and post-traumatic consequences of actions in Vietnam.” The poems “are, at times, my personal attempts to work through conflicted emotions rising from war experiences.”

The key to understanding this collection is a close reading of Blackley’s poem “Captain Crazy.” It’s about his fellow Vietnam War veteran Yusef Komunyakaa, the much-honored poet.

During my thirteen-and-a half-months in Vietnam I served as an office worker. However, in the months and years after I returned from the Vietnam War, I observed similar behavior to what Blackley describes in “Captain Crazy”. My sympathy for Komunyakaa and other returning Vietnam veterans was extreme, partially because I was similarly affected by my tour of duty.

Blackley

If you want to understand the fears of a Vietnam War veteran, read Komunyakaa’s poetry and your sympathy and understanding will be increased.

The poem I like best in the Lingering Fire is “Breaking Ranks.” Here are excerpts:

Home from Vietnam I carried engraved images of twisted and burned men everywhere I went

Never mentioned them, never even hinted at them until in the stands at my son’s soccer game one year I stunned myself and friends when ashen faced I stood and shouted “shut up shut up shut up” to a knot of teenagers chanting “kill them kill them kill them”

If you like hard-hitting poems that don’t mince words, this book is for you.

–David Willson

Year of the Dog by Deborah Paredez

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The poet, scholar, and critic Deborah Paredez, a Professor of Creative Writing and Ethnic Studies at Columbia University, is the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran. The title of her new book, Year of the Dog (BOA Editions, 128 pp. $17, paper; $9.99, e book), refers to 1970, the year Paredez was born and the year that her father, a Mexican immigrant, deployed to the war zone.

Paredez divides the book into three sections: The first (53 pages) contains personal poems such as a self-portrait in flesh and stone and hearts and minds. The second is about Kim Phuc and the famous photograph of her being burned by napalm. The third deals with subjects along the lines of those explored in Trinh T. Min-ha’s 1989 documentary Surname Viet, Given Name Nam, which looks at the lives of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American women.

Some of the poems, including those about Kim Phuc, are difficult to read because of the painful subject, but they must be read. Dozens of photographs are distributed throughout the book, which add greatly the power of Paredez’s words.

Here are a couple of stanzas from “Mother Tongue” that give the flavor of what the book holds in store:

If I could bite my tongue

And have it split into two

Whole daughters that split

Again in endless fission

-ing splitting the very thing

Keeping their whole line

Going—If I could I would

Watch my tongue and its

Tongue-set wagging

Their tails, some silver-

Tongued some wicked—I’d hold my tongue

Out like an offering or a battalion

This is a book of powerful poems about pain and politics and war.

–David Willson

Playing Chicken with an Iron Horse by Fred Rosenblum

Rosenblum is the author of Hollow Tin Jingles and Vietnumb, which contain some fine Vietnam War-related poetry. He joined the Marine Corps in 1967 and “Six months later, I’d piss myself on the banks of the Perfume River,” Rosenblum writes in his newest poetry collection, Playing Chicken with an Iron Horse (Formite, 104 pp. $15, paper; $4.99, e book).

Much of his poetry in this volume mentions the Vietnam War in passing. Here’s an example from one of the book’s longer poems, “That I would cheat that poor old woman.”

Future lung cancers were of no concern

When grandma sent a carton of Winston’s to me

Sleeping with rats in the charred mountainside bunkers

Of Quang Tri, a little more than a stone’s throw

From the DMZ in 1968

“Here, if Charlie don’t gitcha’, these will”

The Christmas card (should’ve) read

But lest I deviate, it was the game of cribbage

Or as we called it crib…about which I’d like to relate…

That I would cheat—gain leverage by carefully

Focusing on the lenses of my grandmother’s

Spectacles—stealing reflections of what she’d

Held in her hand

Rosenblum’s carefully composed poetry covers all aspects of American life, leaving no stone unturned and no cliché unplumbed. He is a careful student of the American vernacular. He benefits from careful reading. In fact, his poems make little sense if read in a hurry.The cover of this little book contains clues to that fact. The railroad ties the poet’s sneakers are walking on are not an accident.

This is an important book of poetry about the American predicament and situation. It should be handled carefully. I hope I live long enough to read Fred Rosenblum’s next book of poetry. I’m certain that will be a treat.

–David Willson

Empires by John Balaban

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Empires (Copper Canyon Press, 80 pp. $17, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is the award-winning poet, novelist, and translator John Balaban’s eighth poetry collection. As the title implies, the poems in the book covers the globe. Balaban—a conscientious objector who volunteered to go to Vietnam during the war and wound up carry a weapon during the 1968 Tet Offensive—has not let much grass grow under his feet. In the new book, he roams the planet and the centuries.

The Vietnam War is not mentioned until page seven in the book’s second poem, but that is not the last mention. Far from it. Balaban is one of those poets who has not gotten the war out of his system. Has he even tried to expunge it?  I doubt it.

The best way to communicate the purity and power of Balaban’s poetic vision is to quote from “Returning After Our War,” one of his many poems dealing with the Vietnam War. Balaban, a North Carolina State University Professor Emeritus of English, is at his poetic best when writing about that awful war that he was personally involved in, a war that was the subject of his acclaimed memoir, Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Story of Rescue in Wartime Vietnam.

 

I woke up to animal groans

Down in the stairwell  Flynn and Stone

Were beating up a young thief

Who had broken in to steal their bikes

Bucking an M 16 against the kid’s ear

Then punching him in the stomach with the butt

Before they bum-rushed him out the door doubled over and wheezing for air.

I stammered no in a syllable that rose

Like a bubble lifting off the ocean floor.

Ten days later, they were dead.  Flynn

And Stone who dealt in clarities of force,

Who motorcycled out to report the war,

Shot at a roadblock on Highway 1.

Nearly all those Saigon friends are gone now,

Gone like smoke. Like incense. 

The friends and the adventure exist only in this poem and in John Balaban’s mind and memory. But for now that’s enough. It’ll be a sad day when he puts down his pen and stops producing the best poetry of the war.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that Balaban never wore an Army uniform, let alone a Marine Corps uniform. He helped wounded and hurt children. Hard to top that mission.

John Balaban is one of the very few saints produced by the Vietnam War.

–David Willson

My Long Journey in Baltimore by Lawerence E. Mize

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Lawerence Mize enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1966, and did a tour of duty as a combat medic with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. He then served as a police officer in Baltimore for close to thirty years, retiring in 1999 as a sergeant.  In the early 1980s he was troubled by PTSD and dealt with that problem by writing the poetry collections Tortured Soul (1997) and Dead Men Calling (2002).  Both of those works are based on his experiences in Vietnam and helped him cope with the issues he was having with PTSD.

Mize’s latest collection, My Long Journey in Baltimore (Dorrance Publishing, 92 pp., $23, paper; $18, e book), contains eighty pages of poetry. The titles of the poems give away their subjects. “Cu Chi,” “Dead Men Calling,” “Screaming Eagle,” “Memories of Nam,” “My Gun,” and many more poems deal with his war, his family and his career in law enforcement.

 

Here are a typical few lines from “Screaming Eagle”:

Walk in the vills

Down beaten paths

Worm through the tunnels

I’m here to kick ass. 

I’m young and I’m strong

As hardcore as they come,

Humping in the Nam.

Keep Charlie on the run. 

Morphine syrettes, filling sandbags, big orange pills, PTSD, baby killers, cowards at home, rats fleeing to Canada, traitors should be shot in the head, napalm canisters—all of that rhetoric flavored the poetry with the politics of the time.

Read this book and weep. That’s the kind of book it is. I read it and wept myself and for myself.  Of course, these days it is a rare book that does not provoke me to tears because of the medication I’m taking—or the subjects of the books.

I recommend this book for anyone looking for poetry that captures the extreme language of the 1960s.

–David Willson

On the Shores of Welcome Home by Bruce Weigl

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It has been a long wait for this new book of poetry from Bruce Weigl as his previous collection, The Abundance of Nothingcame out in 2012. The great poet (and fellow Vietnam War veteran) Yusef Komunyakaa said then that Weigl’s poems often gazed into “the hellish, heavenly mechanics of life and death.” The poems in his new book, On the Shores of Welcome Home (BOA Editions, 104 pp., $17, paper; $9.99, e book), continue that scrutiny.

Weigl—who now has written more than twenty books of poetry, translations, and essays—served in Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division from 1967-68 and his work is heavily influenced by his participation in the war. All of his poems are of high quality and all should be purchased for any collection of literature dealing with the Vietnam War. This latest group deals with the difficulty of returning from war and adapting to a new life; all deal with life and death matters.

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Bruce Weigl

On the Shores of Welcome Home, in which Weigl meditates on the ghosts and the grace one encounters in life’s second act, justly received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award for 2019.

The poem that follows from the book is “Modern Paradox Sutra Fragment,” which exemplifies Weigl’s skills:

 

A sex offender father broke the jaw

Of his four-year-old cerebral

Palsy son in an unspecified act

Of rage. Change yourself the teacher tells me

Again, and again because you can’t change anyone else.

Knowing things ensures heartbreak.  Not knowing

Is worse. Change yourself the teacher says;

Make more room for the suffering of others

Is what he means. Make more room and then let it

Flow through you. Let the broken-jawed little

Palsied boy who couldn’t even understand

His own poor life flow through you, and let his

Blurred screams flow through you and not through you

To feel them deeply and then to let them go.

 

I found it hard to let this poem go. It lingered in my consciousness as do many of Bruce Weigl’s poems. They have a way of sticking in the brain like jungle thorns in the torn flesh.

–David Willson

Cowboys and War by Larry R. Fry

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Cowboys and War (CreateSpace, 64 pp., $15, paper) is a poetry collection written by Larry R. Fry, who served as in the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam in 1962-63. The poems are written from the point of view—and in the voice of—USAF Lt. Gary Bishop Deale. Lt. Deale also is a protagonist in Delta Sierra, Fry’s companion novel which tells the story of Deale’s Vietnam War tour of duty as an F-105D Thunderchief fighter pilot.

The poems in Cowboys and War deal with Deale’s thoughts about the war, as well as his hopes, what was accomplished by the missions he flew, and how he and his fellow pilots coped with the frustrations of combat flying—as well as how they coped with the every-day stress.

When Deale is in Thailand, his wife remains in North Carolina. A major part of the book involves Deale’s thoughts about her and about their marriage.

This small book contains fewer than two dozen poems. They are rarely longer than one page and are often much smaller than that. They are powerful and pack a punch much greater than their size.

Here’s “Pickle the Load,” an example of the fine poetic art in this collection. It was written on June 30, 1967, which happened to be my 25th birthday.

 

Pickle the Load

Rolling

His plane

Upright

Following smoke trails.

Stooping

Down the chute

Like

A bad-assed bird.

Flaming

Telephone poles

Blast

By seeking death.

Drifting

Off target then

Centering

His pipper true.

Punching

His red button

Pickling

The bomb load.

Flashing,

Six orange bursts

Explode

Behind and below.

Slashing

Hot iron shards

Shred

Life from limb.

Thanks to Larry R. Fry—a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America—for this inadvertent birthday poem.

—David Willson

All Present, Unaccounted For by Robert Flanagan

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Robert J. Flanagan was born in Mississippi in 1936. He entered the Marines in 1953 and served seven years in the U.S., Panama, and on the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas. He left the Marine Corps in 1960, joined the Army Security Agency, and put in sixteen additional years of military service. He retired from the Army in 1976 as a Chief Warrant Officer.

From 2001-12 Bob Flanagan published six books, including a trilogy of novels based on his ASA service. His nearly five decades years of journal-keeping has influenced much of his published writing. Flanagan, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, is currently assembling a new collection of non-war-related poetry. His recently released poetry collection, All Present, Unaccounted For (Connemara Press, 126 pp. $22, paper), on the other hand, is heavily war-related.

The book’s first poem is entitled “Vacation in Vietnam, 1964.”

Small brown sappers, hard core

Of the VC Three-Ninety-Fifth Battalion—

And equally vulgar aspirants to the title—

Dash ashore in the night wash of the South

China Sea at Vung Tau

Orchestrated, choreographed…not a ballet:

A quiet time-lapse jitterbug.

They don’t know that alien planners

Will name this place in-country R-and-R.

This poem gives a fine taste and sample of the selections in this collection. There are more than a hundred pages of such poems, all of them worth reading and all of them beautifully written—and related to the American war in Vietnam. They deal with topics such as heat rash, immersion foot, and crotch rot, as well as Operation Ranch Hand, Agent Orange, John Wayne, Tarzan, and Graham Greene.

This fine book ranks right up there at the top with W.D. Ehrhart’s recently published poetry collection, Thank You for Your Service. With these two poetry books on your shelf, you will have a good start on understanding the totality of Vietnam War poetry.

For ordering info, go to the author’s website, connemarapress.org

—David Willson