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

Hollow Tin Jingles: Poems By Fred Rosenblum

bookhollowtinjingles

Fred Rosenblum went to Vietnam in 1968 as a nineteen-year-old Marine. He served with the 1st Marines in I Corps “from the triple canopies in the Annamese Cordillera to the sun-bleached savannahs that stretched and spilled out into the South China Sea,” he notes in his book of poetry, Hollow Tin Jingles (Main Street Rag, 80 pp., $14, paper).

Rosenblum has presented us with fifty poems in this small book. A few of the titles give the flavor of what these image-rich poems deal with:  “Cherries,” “Rotor Song,” “Green Smoke,” “Shelled,” “Rifles in the Rain,” “Mosaic of Lies,” “Hard Corps,” “the Patriot Zombie.”

I encountered my favorite line in the book in the poem, “In The Road to the Ruins of Hue City:

I remember the bastard that day

pitching cans

of ham and moms

at old papasans peddling out of the city

I love how this poem puts the frosting on a dead-on portrait of a sergeant who is evil, “an obese porcine caricature/shaven head and handlebars.”  I love the “moms” resonating against the “papasans.”  The moms in question the oft-cited ham and lima beans, the C-Ration meal more commonly referred to as “ham and motherfuckers.”  I had not seen the “ham and moms” contraction before, and I loved it.

frosenblum_px-222x300

Rosenblum

Rosenblum includes a two-page short story in the form of a poem about three Marines: Spunky, Gator and Doc smoking ganja and eating cookies that Spunky’s mom sent in the mail.  “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” is playing. The scene evokes three young men enjoying a moment decades ago.  By the time they enjoy this moment, Otis Redding, the singer of the song, is already dead in a plane crash. Death hangs over this little story in every line, as does over most of the poems in this book.

It is a great thing that some forty years after our war poets are reflecting and summoning up quality thoughts about it—thoughts powerful enough to stop us in our tracks, make us scratch our hoary old heads, and think the occasional new thought about that long-gone experience that lies slumbering in our old bones, only to seep out when we least expect it.

That’s how Rosenblum’s poems hit me, hard like a seasoned two by four to the head. “Truth comes by blows,” a great writer once said, and Rosenblum hits hard.

I kept a list of the words and cultural references that worked to make these poems great. Here’s a sample:

Theodore Cleaver, love beads, The Doors, “We Gotta Outta This Place,” Pall Mall Amphetamines, Ho Chi Minh’s revenge, trophy ears, “Proud Mary,” defoliation, napalm, shit burning, bloods dapping, thousand-yard stare, John Wayne, chik-chak geckoes, gibbons, parrots and coppersmith barbets, the Beatles, Coca-Cola, the Velvet Underground, CCR, The Kinks, Raggedy Anne, and orange poison mist. This list constitutes a rough poetry of its own.

Then there is the anachronistic and seemingly obligatory reference to “Hanoi Jane, who would not make her ill-fated trip to North Vietnam for a few years yet.

I don’t want to give the impression that Rosenblum just plays the same tune that other Vietnam War writers have. His great poem, “Mosaic of Lies,” calls to account the so-called “Greatest Generation” leaders who lied to us.  “the D.C. tube steaks lied to us/painted our sons and brothers for war/presidents congressmen secretaries generals.”  This poem alone is worth the price of the book.

My job as a reviewer would be so much more fun if all of the Vietnam War-related books were this well produced, designed, edited and written. The book even has one of the greatest of covers for a Vietnam War book of any kind.

Hollow Tin Jingles  sets the bar high for quality in Vietnam War literature.  I would ask prospective authors to please read this book before you think you have something new to write on this subject.  Pause and reflect.

—David Willson