Who is a Hero by Donald E. Pearce, Sr.

 

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Donald E. Pearce Sr.’s Who is a Hero: A Collection of Patriotic Poems (CreateSpace, 34 pp., $10.99, paper; Kindle, $3.49) is more a pamphlet than a book. It is an aggregation of reproduced Vietnam War artifacts such as manipulated images of a folded American flag in a triangle box with a rose on the top, similar to the one I was given after my father was consigned to the ground in the National Cemetery in Arizona. The image is accompanied by the words to a verse entitled “Lament for a Hero.”

I asked myself what my parents would think of it. Easy answer: They would have liked it. The words “God keep you in his loving arms forever” would have had a huge impact on them.

Every verse in this colorful, mostly red-white-and-blue pamphlet is supported by a full page of artwork.  “Heroes,” for example has an image retrieved from the internet of the POW/MIA flag.  “Heroes” ends with the line, “For we will never, never, ever, forget!!!

I am remiss for not mentioning the color scheme of this book again as it overwhelms the reader. Red, white, blue—and black. The theme, though, is not forgetting, but the fear that we will forget if we are not constantly reminded.

Late in this small book protesters are called out. As in: “Their families we vow, we will protect, from protesters who don’t, have any respect.”

“Who is a hero?  My Dad.  If Hitler had won that terrible war, you’d now be a slave, and nothing more.  So the next old man, that you see, don’t forget, He might be a hero, an American vet.”

This small work powerfully expresses fear of forgetting the dead. In fact, it practically creates a cult of the dead. It’s difficult o know what to do with this work, but I believe it expresses the thoughts of many veterans.

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The author, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, was born and raised in Massachusetts and is the fifth child of nine. His family has a proud history of military service. Three brothers served during the Vietnam War. Donald Pearce is Assistant State Captain for Massachusetts for the Patriot Guard Riders, which helps him express his patriotism and his love of motorcycles.

Books don’t get more sincere than this one.

The author’s website is whoisahero.com

—David Willson

The Light Where Shadows End and No Thanks by R.G. Cantalupo

I have a tendency to skip over narrative in italics in a book. R.G. Cantalupo’s long narrative, The Light Where Shadows End: A War Hero’s Inspirational Journal Through Death, Recovery and a World Without Home (New World Publishers, 171 pp., $9.99, paper), which the author calls a “lyrical memoir,”  is entirely printed—every single page of it—in italics, except for the illustrations. Why? I’ve no idea and the author does not tell us. I’m guessing, though, there was a purpose.

Cantelupo served in Vietnam as a Radio-Telephone Operator (RTO) with the 25th Infantry Division in 1968-69, and was awarded a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. In May 2015 he returned to Vietnam. He walked along Highway 1 “as thousands of motorbikes rushed by.” He sat at a table and reconciled with former “members of The Peoples Army, soldiers who lived in Trang Bang and who fought against me in 1968-69.”

The war’s legacy in Vietnam, Cantelupo says, includes “leaving hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs to kill more children,” as well as “fourth generation birth defects and genetic mutations caused by our massive spraying of Agent Orange.” That situation “will not allow for reconciliation.”

A member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the author took part in the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigations where he confessed to committing crimes and atrocities. This small book contains many powerful, poetic vignettes of the above, and covers much of the same ground as this same author’s book of poems, No Thanks (All in One Publishing).

Many of these two dozen poems in No Thanks were first published in the journal “War, Literature, and the Arts.” Their titles give a good idea of what they’re about: “Trang Bang,” “Monsoon,” “Search and Destroy,” “The Execution,” “Agent Orange.”

The poem, “Agent Orange,” hit me the hardest. How could it not?  Agent Orange is what’s killing me.

Breath in,

Nothing’s forever

Even this orange-brown haze

dies down, leaves a

tree of bone

There is a vignette in The Light Where Shadows End about a nurse nicknamed “Peaches” who the author fell in love with. There’s a full-page photo of her in jungle fatigues. There are many other full-page photos in this book, both famous ones and some I’ve not seen before. The photos are not credited. Some of them should be. John Wayne and his classic film The Green Berets are briefly discussed.

Read this book in tandem with his book of poetry, despite the italics.

—David Willson

Monkey Screams by Robert Joe Stout

Robert Joe Stout is a graduate of Mexico City College and has written books about Mexico. As far as his military service, he looks to be about the right age to be a Vietnam War veteran.

Monkey Screams (FutureCycle Press, 90 pp., $15.95) starts with a twenty-page section of poetry called “Testimonies from Vietnam.” It contains fifteen of the best poems I’ve read dealing with the Vietnam War: “Hero,” “Messenger,” “Good Reports,” “Propaganda Photos,” “In Command,” “God’s Grandeur,” “Yankee Know How,” “Purple Heart,” “Signals,” “Supply Clerk,” “Second Lieutenant,” “Ambush,” “Night Patrol,” “Why?” and “Day After Cease-Fire.”

The rest of the poems in this book are all worthy, but it’s the Vietnam War poetry that make this book. The very first poem, “Hero,” has a line about “four Marines with blankets where their legs had been, sit waiting for decorations just like mine.” Hard stuff to read, but necessary reading for everyone.

Most people don’t read a lot of poetry, but this is a good place to start. The poems are written to be accessible, and the book is very beautiful. The non-Vietnam War poems are about everyday things that we can all identify with, and I did.

I’d like to know more about Bob Stout, but I’ll settle for this.

The author’s website is robertjoestout.weebly.com

—David Willson

Where the Flowers Went by John Henningson

 

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John Henningson enlisted in the U.S. Army in July 1968. He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in August 1969. He went to Vietnam August 1970.

As Henningson writes in Where the Flowers Went In Poetry and Pictures (Mira Digital Publishing, 66 pp., $20, paper) when he shipped out to Vietnam he left “his wife who was 7 months pregnant with their first child behind.” In Vietnam he was assigned to the 3rd/82nd Artillery, which was part of the  the Americal Division in I Corps. Most of his time, he writes, was spent with infantry units as an artillery forward observer and later as a battalion artillery liaison officer.

Henningson’s  military memoir is entitled A Reluctant Warrior: 1968-1971. He tells us that Where the Flowers Went “builds on the prose” in that book, and that his “intent is to go beyond the direct recitation of events but rather to express how those experiences continue to affect my thinking today.”

Henningson’s poems are concrete and packed with detail about his tour of duty. I’m sure that much of the poetry came right out of his memoir, little changed other than to make some of the lines rhyme.

His poems have titles that let the reader know their subjects. “Baby Killers,” for example, is about his encounters with students when he drove his Jeep to bars near a university campus to drag drunken EMs home after trying to pick up college girls. “Their blame was misdirected not against the politicians who caused to all, but rather against those heroes so had answered their Nation’s call,” Henningson writes.

Other titles include “Night Lager,” “Grunts vs REMFs,” “When Death First Came to Call,” “A Grunt’s Feast,” and “Friendly Fire.”

Henningson can wax mighty poetical occasionally as in: “Suddenly a group of Cong appear and sprint toward a patch of trees/ We all draw down and fire at them but they disappear like a bit of smoke wafting in the breeze.”

“Grunts vs REMFs” is one of the best delineations of the eternal war between those two groups that I have read. It is well worth reading, as is every other poem in this fine collection.

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John Henningston in country 

Where the Flowers Went is one of the few poetry books written by a non-poet that I enjoyed reading. Why?  Because it is written from direct experience and that direct experience is on the page in a no-nonsense way. I look forward to reading Henningson’s next book.

I also enjoyed the many color paintings in the book. They remind me of the work of the great 18th century English poet and painter William Blake.

The author’s website is www.henningson.net

—David Willson

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

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A few weeks ago, I spent a lot of time emailing people at Copper Canyon Press lobbying them to publish a book of poetry by a Vietnam veteran. Nobody there deigned to mention one of their newly published books, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (96 pp., $16, paper) by Ocean Vuong, winner of the Whiting Award.

It is possible that they don’t think of it as a Vietnam War poetry book? The author, Ocean Vuong, was born in Saigon in 1988. He now lives in New York City. But almost every page of this book has reverberations of that war in his country that continues to produce literature.

The cover photo shows a little boy sitting on a bench between two beautiful Asian women, one his mother and the other his grandmother, I assume. His yellow tee-shirt reads. “I love my daddy.” And, indeed, this book is filled with daddy references.

Ocean Vuong’s photo on the back cover shows us a pale, slight young man. So I wasn’t surprised to read this line in his book: “An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farm girl. Thus my mother exists./ Thus I exist. Thus no bombs=no family=no me.” A powerful statement of identity.

This small book is one of the most powerful of the recently published Vietnam War-related poetry books, ranking right up there with Yusef Komunyakaa’s The Emperor of Water Clocks, which we reviewed in these pages.

I would recommend Vuong’s poem “Aubade with Burning City” to those who doubt this is a Vietnam War poetry book. In it, the reader encounters a soldier who spits out his cigarette as footsteps fill the square like stones; a bicycle hurled through a store window; a black dog lying with his hind legs crushed in the dusty street; a chief of police face down in a pool of Coca-Cola; snow shredded with gunfire; and a red sky with tanks covered with snow rolling over city walks.

A helicopter lifts the living just out of reach. The radio says to run, run. “Don’t worry, he says, as the first shell splashes/their faces, my brothers have won the war/and tomorrow.” This poem is interlarded with lines from a Christmas song that begins, “May your days be merry and bright….”

Vuong writes about entry wounds, amputated hands, and Agent Orange, about Ha Long Bay in ’68, napalm-blasted wind, and a “brown gook crumples under John Wayne’s M16.” We get dead babies, too, from a Grandma-told story, “In the war they would grab a baby, a soldier at each ankle and pull… Just like that.”

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Ocean Vuong

There is much more in this image-packed book. The back cover blurb promises that Vuong aims straight for the ‘perennial ‘big”—and very human—subjects of romance, family, memory, grief, war and melancholia.” He does that and more.

This third-generation voice of the American war in Vietnam shows that an Asian perspective is worth reading. It also shows that, contrary to what we’ve been told, the young generation of Vietnamese, those born long after the war was over, has not forgotten war—and, in fact, they have been marked by the war.

The author’s website is oceanvuong.com

—David Willson

Now I Lay Me Down to Weep in the Valleys of My Mind by Richard Kraft

The Vietnam War veterans I admire most served as corpsmen and helicopter crewmen. I rate their duties as the riskiest. Therefore, Richard (Doc) Kraft’s Now I Lay Me Down to Weep in the Valleys of My Mind: The Life of a Navy Corpsman (CreateSpace, 220 pp., $14.95, paper) pleased me.

Kraft’s combat life began as a child abused by a merciless stepfather. Robbed of a boyhood, Kraft ran away from home at fifteen and worked his way through high school. In 1957, at the age of eighteen, he enlisted in the Navy and went on to serve twenty-two years on active duty.

Introspection and compassion are Kraft’s strongest attributes—and also his most powerful enemies. He clearly expresses the fear he felt about combat and his nagging concern over providing proper care for the wounded and dying.

The book is a collection of Doc Kraft’s prose and poetry. The poems parallel and re-emphasize the messages in the prose stories. At times, the prose takes on its own cadence and grows more emotion-laden than the accompanying poems.

This style prevails in the Prologue in which Kraft labels his memoir as “a book of fiction” and delivers a grim lesson: “War is without morals, regardless of who is holding the weapon. The dying aspect is all that’s left for clarification. There can be no glory in dying for family and there can be no glory in dying for a war.”

Wounded twice in Vietnam, Kraft developed a front-line knowledge of death with the 2nd Battalion of the 9th Marines in Leatherneck Square.

A Navy Corpsman at work with U.S. Marines in the Vietnam War

In wrapping up his Vietnam War experience, Kraft presents one-page explanations of field gear, monsoons, sanitation, alcohol, combat patrols, helicopters, doctors, chaplains, and others. Although much of this can be found in many Vietnam War novels, memoirs, and history books, Kraft includes several short biographies that qualify as priceless reading.

Kraft—a member of Vietnam Veterans of America—retired from the Navy in 1979. He then endured bouts with leukemia (from Agent Orange exposure) and PTSD. The latter initially overwhelmed him in 1998, and he has never rid himself of the fear of not having done enough to keep others from dying or suffering pain. Kraft describes the effects of PTSD to a depth that is as enlightening as anything else I have read on the topic.

People who favor war over diplomacy should be required to read the PTSD portion of this book.

—Henry Zeybel

The Different War by Michael Miller

Michael Miller served as a Marine from 1958-62. He was a young Marine, joining when he was eighteen. The poems in The Different War (Truman State University, 64 pp., $$16.95, paper; $9.99 e book) deal with the Vietnam War, as well as our recent wars in the Middle East. The thrust of these fine literary poems is the butcher’s bill of war. 

Miller’s poems have been published in The New Republic, The Kenyon Review, Ontario Review, Pinyon Review, The Sewanee Review, Raritan, The Yale Review, and other places. They bear tribute that Miller is one of our finest current war poets. 

Here is one of Miller’s most powerful poems, “Corporal Torres.”

The white rose that was his brain

Had closed, its petals folded

Upon the seams of blood,

After a thorn of shrapnel

Lodged in the frontal lobe

Was delicately removed,

One patch of silver-gray titanium

Perfectly placed.

He awoke from his ten-day coma,

Swollen face recognizable

To his mother alone.

The next surgery was awaiting him.

He would never pronounce

Afghanistan again. 

My advice is for everyone to buy this small book of poetry and read it. Buy it for any young friends who are considering joining the military. Especially the Marine Corps. It is a thought -provoking book.

—David Willson