Rapture by Sjohnna McCray

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Sjohnna McCray has published poems in Black Warrior Review, Calalloo, The Southern Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and Shenandoa. He has an MFA from the University of Virginia and teaches at Savannah State University.  The citation from his Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets notes that McCray is “an ecstatic and original voice, and he lends it to family, history, race and desire in ways that are healing and enlarging.  Rapture announces a prodigious talent and a huge human heart.”

When I first saw the photo of the poet on the back of Rapture  (80 pp., Graywolf Press, $16, paper), I hoped this would be a book by an African-American dealing with his tour of duty in Vietnam. But this is not that book. It is a book that recounts, as McCray says, “a life born out of wartime to a Korean mother and an American father serving during the Vietnam War.”

The book’s title is a brave one, and it contains a poem called “Rapture.” You will find it at the end of the book, immediately after my favorite in the collection, “VI Civil Union,” which I’ll include here, as it is both a fine poem and it shows more about McCray’s art than I can with my pallid words.

No line will ever begin,

“As I lovingly look at my sleeping wife…”

At best, the winter keeps us mummified,

swathed in blankets and sheets.  I look over

at my partner—because he snores—

and I imagine us as soldiers

locked down in a trench under the tarp

of a foreign night.  Who else is there to consider

when the lights click off and there’s nothing left

but right-wing, warfare metaphors?  His snoring

as shrapnel, our farting as mutual,

biological terror, this continued

breathing as a sign of dual surrender.

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Sjohnna McCray

War permeates this book of revelations torn from the author’s gut and is presented honestly to us—the reader. We are lucky to have these poems and better off for reading them.

There is nowhere else that a reader would find the following lines:

“the unassuming black and the Korean whore/in the middle of the Vietnam War.”

—David Willson

 

 

 

 

The Physics of War & Land of Loud Noises and Vacant Stares by Peter M. Bourret

Peter Bourret served with 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, as an 81 mm mortar man in Vietnam in 1967-68. He is a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America.

His two small books of poetry–The Physics of War: Poems of War and Healing (CreateSpace, 92 pp., $15, paper) and Land of Loud Noises and Vacant Stares (CreateSpace, 106 pp., $15, paper)—revisit many of the same things that many Vietnam War memoirs, poetry books, and novels dwell upon.

PTSD is much in evidence here. Agent Orange gets serious time. We read about Indian Country, the Thousand Yard Stare, John Wayne being AWOL, the light at the end of the tunnel, Walter Cronkite, trigger time, the sins of Dow Chemical, Marine veterans being spat upon, and the Animals’ “Sky Pilot.”  The National Anthem and the rocket’s red glare get needed attention.

Peter Bourret puts his boots back into the red clay of 45 years ago, revisiting the pain that has never left him. I hope that Bourret gives the reader some concrete images and passages dealing with the important job of being an 81 mm mortar man in his next book of poetry. I have a great curiosity about how Bourett would turn his considerable word skills on that job. I spent my time in Vietnam as an Army stenographer, so I could learn a lot from Bourett, and would enjoy the chance to do so.

These are handsome books and would make great reading for those who have grappled with PTSD since their return from Vietnam—or for others working through a traumatic event that left them with PTSD. Buy these books for that person in your life who is brave enough to sit down and read these poems.

The poem “a twenty-first-century Hawthorne character” is a fine example of Peter Bourret’s  best work. There’s pain on the page here:

i wear no Purple Heart upon my chest

but rather

i wear the scarlet letter

PTSD

and

hester Prynne will show me

the road

that leads me

away from the shame

that has stained my days

newwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww

—David Willson

Service

Bruce Lack served honorably in the United States Marines from 2003-07, including two deployments totaling twenty-one months in Fallujah in Iraq.  His book, Service: Poems (Texas Tech University, 128 pp., $18.95, paper), contains dozens of fine poems dealing with Lack’s time in Fallujah. I looked hard for references to the Vietnam War, but failed to find any.

I’ve read many books about America’s recent wars in the Middle East: poetry, novels, memoirs, histories, every kind of thing.  Service is one of the finest of all of them. The poems deal with all aspects of a Marine’s time in Fallujah, and many are heartbreaking. Some deal with how Marines build life-saving skills for dealing with the war in Iraq—skills that are not helpful when they return home.

The language of Lack’s poems powerfully evokes the physicality of Marines in Fallujah.  These are not airy-fairy poems. They hit hard. “Assholes from Blackwater:  All These Things Can Kill You” is probably the most powerful sixteen-line poem I’ve ever read—and I was an English major back in the sixties when we were required to read what seemed like millions of great poems.

Bruce Lack

I won’t quote from the poem here. But I recommend you buy this book just for this short poem—and then get knocked back on your haunches by the rest of the book.

Service is not for the faint of heart, but it is a book filled with heart, and love, too. But you have to read the book carefully for that.

I wish that Lack would give classes to Vietnam veterans about writing poetry. Memo to Vietnam veterans thinking about writing and publishing a poetry book: Please read this one before you do, and try to hew to this high standard.

I really loved this book. I’m eager for more books by this fine writer.

—David Willson

If I Could Find a Way by John M. Koelsch

John M. Koelsch served in the Army in the Vietnam War as a infantry Platoon Leader in 1968. He is the author of Mickey 6, a novel based on his combat experiences.

Koelsch describes his book of poetry and short prose pieces, If I Could Find a Way (CreateSpace, 98 pp., $9.99, paper), as “a journey through the Vietnam War, through the aftermath of that war, and hopefully to at least the beginning of healing. These poems present the intensity of combat, and the descent into the darkest of valleys.”

That is a fair description of this book. There are fewer than fifty short poems, but they pack a punch. They are titled to let the reader know what they are about: “Claymore Mines,” “Payback,” “Bugs,” “Bobby-Trap,” “Barber,” “Sniper,” “Ten Thousand Meter Stare,” “Baby-Killers,” etc.

The poem “Barber” embodies one of the most common recurring motifs of the Vietnam War. It also is one of Koelsch’s finest poems, and gives the flavor of the book.

Duke was a fine patriotic fellow,

who gave solid military haircuts

and friendly “G.I. Numbah 1” chatter.

His sweet-faced wife provided laundry service,

while his small son would shine your boots.

A nice group; happy Americans were here.

That morning, none of them showed up for work.

Recon Platoon called in from their ambush.

Seven bodies of hardcore NVA.

A very successful operation.

Wait a minute! Duke is among the dead.

He’s wearing NVA Lieutenant pips.

Our barber guided enemy patrols

through our area using U. S. maps.

Duke, a good barber; a true patriot.

He will be missed, as will his family.

They never did return to work.

I loved this poem and many others in this book. I highly recommend it to lovers of Vietnam War poetry.

Koelsch mentions more than once that the Vietnam War was “the war we weren’t allowed to win.”  I’d like to know who exactly who connived not to let us win that war? If I have to guess, I’d say it was Duke, the patriotic barber—and his fellow patriots.

—David Willson

The Secret of Hoa Sen by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Nguyen Phan Que Mai, the author of The Secret of Hoa Sen (BOA Editions, 208 pp., $16, paper), was born in 1973 in a small village in what was then North Vietnam. She has published many poetry books and has won many honors.

I could not read the Vietnamese versions of her poems, but had to depend on the translations she did with Bruce Weigl, who also translated this volume. Weigl, who wrote Song of Napalm (1988) and other books of poetry, served with the 1st Air Cavalry in Vietnam from 1967-1968. He is one of the most honored poets who took part in the Vietnam War.

In The Secret of Hoa Sen we first get a poem in Vietnamese and then, on the next page, the English translation.  Many of the poems deal, directly or indirectly, with the American war in Vietnam.

“With a Vietnam Veteran, for BW,” is my favorite in this small book. Two people are eating pho with chopsticks, and steam rises from those bowls of hot noodle soup.

“He can’t explain the reasons for the war

the reasons why my relatives had to fall,

and why so many children are imprisoned

in the pain of Agent Orange.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai

“Quang Tri” is another powerful one, a poem of loss and death. It should be read by those who are ignorant of the human cost of the war for the Vietnamese.  “Babylift” also brings home, in a hard-hitting but poetic way, how good intentions often sow tragic consequences.  “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” mentions Agent Orange, as well Nick Ut’s iconic photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, aka, “the girl in the photograph.”

I agree with the poet that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is “Black, silent,/the silent answer for thousands of questions.” But the questions must still be asked.

Poetry is an effective and beautiful way to deal with the horrific aspects of war that have marked all of us. Those who have been avoiding Vietnam War poetry should try this book. You might find it surprisingly affecting.

—David Willson

 

 

The New Oxford Book of War Poetry Edited by Jon Stallworthy

The New Oxford Book of War Poetry (Oxford University Press, 448 pp., $29.95) starts with the Bible and works its way to modern times. The youngest poet I spotted in this book was David Harsent, who was born in 1942, the same year I was born. He is in the age group referred to in English literature classes as “young poets.” I hope he feels younger than I do.

The book, edited by Jon Stallworthy, contains fewer than a dozen poems by Vietnam War veterans. The arrangement of the poems in this large book—with no subject categories—makes it difficult to determine exactly how many deal with particular wars. The book is arranged roughly in chronological order, but the lack of subject arrangement is a serious lapse and does not make this an easy reference book to use. Nor does the fact that it’s printed on cheap paper.

Patrons come into a library looking for poems that deal with a specific war or wars. To find them in this book, you need to know the name of the poet associated with a particular war. Yes, birth dates help, but not a lot.

I used the birth dates of the poets as a rough guide to locate poems dealing with specific wars. Doing that, I generally found that the book included most-often-cited poets for each war.  For the Vietnam War, for example, there was the work of Yusef Komunyakaa, W. D. Ehrhart, Bruce Weigl, John Balaban, along with one unusual suspect, Ngo Vinh Long. This group gets a total of seven poems between them.

I read the introduction to find out why the volume contains so few poems by Vietnam veterans. Editor Jon Stallworthy—a poet and Professor Emeritus of English Literature at Oxford University and a Fellow of the British Academy—explains it clearly: “For demographic and socio-historical reasons,” he writes, “the ratio of poets to other servicemen and women was less than in either world war. Most American intellectuals disapproved of the Vietnam War, and men of military age, particularly white men of military age, could avoid conscription by signing up for university education, and many did.”

Jon Stallworthy

As a university-educated white man and an intellectual who disapproved of the Vietnam War, where do I begin to take issue with this explanation? Is Stallworthy saying that those of us who served in Vietnam were too dumb or uneducated to write poetry?  I think he is—albeit hidden inside a velvet glove.

Since I wrote poetry while I was in Vietnam—just as many World War I poets wrote poetry during their war—I accuse Stallworthy of either not doing enough research or not reading enough Vietnam War poetry. Tens of thousands of university-educated men and women served in Vietnam. What’s more, many other men and women who took part in the war and who did and did not have university educations wrote worthy poetry after coming home from Vietnam.

I found nine poems by Wilfred Owen in the anthology. Many Vietnam veteran poets wrote nine or more worthy poems. You will not find them in this book.

The American poet of the Vietnam War who Stallworthy singles out for the most attention is John Balaban. He served in Vietnam as a conscientious objector, and is a fine poet, a very brave man, and an old friend.  One of the best memories of my life is the day he showed up to read poetry to my Vietnam War class. But why not a few words about Bill Ehrhart?  Space constraints, no doubt. Ehrhart was a Marine in Vietnam.

Don’t look in this anthology for much in the way of poetry dealing with wars since Vietnam. There is one fine poem by Peter Wyton, who was born in 1944, “Unmentioned in Dispatches,” that deals with the Iraq War.

—David Willson

Monsoon Blues by Elijah Imlay

Elijah Imlay’s Monsoon Blues (Tebot Bach, 88 pp., $14.25, paper) is a collection of poems drawn from the author’s experiences as an Army bandsman stationed at Camp Eagle in Vietnam in 1971. Imlay has arranged the poems chronologically, which results in a cogent poetic narrative of his time in the war zone. He uses a variety of styles in this book of short poems, making it fun to read.

This is a welcome book, as the literature of the Vietnam War relating to bandsmen is limited. The only other worthy published effort that leaps to mind is by Richard E. Baker, who went to Vietnam to play coronet but ended up setting ambushes.

When I tell people that I often stood formation in the early morning in Vietnam in the near darkness on a wet parade ground and had to leap out of the way to keep from being run over by a marching band playing a Souza march, that tale is often pooh-poohed. But the fact is that seventeen Army bands were stationed in Vietnam during the war. Imlay played clarinet with one of them.

In Monsoon Blues, we meet Imlay’s friend Bird, the man responsible for organizing a rock band to tour fire bases. We hear a lot from Bird. His is a voice worth hearing, conveying what it was like to be in the jungle with the First Cav.

Elijah Imlay

The book is arranged in four sections; each packs a punch. “Playing with the Band in Nam,” which appears near the end of the book, is my favorite poem.

It beings: “We sit on a hill/watching a firefight/while we eat supper”  One of the bandsmen plays “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” but the soldiers far below cannot hear “the throb of music/that rises out of their horror/into the sky’s abyss/from where they fall.”

The beautiful, fiery orange cover features band instruments and a bandsman, rather than the usual helicopter and beleaguered grunt that often adorn the covers of books dealing with the Vietnam War. The poems do not let down the hopeful reader. Buy and read this unique book of excellent poems.

—David Willson