G. Lowell Tollefson served in Vietnam as a Marine civil affairs interpreter attached to an infantry battalion. He holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Washington and has taught philosophy at the University of New Mexico’s Valencia campus.
The long poem that makes up the book Vietnam War Elegy (LLT Press, 34 pp., $5.50, paper) “was born on a hilltop over forty-five years ago in Vietnam,” Tollefson tell us. “Time and the loss of this war have shown America that it was politically wrong in prosecuting it.”
Tollefson takes to task the use of H & I (harassment and interdiction fire) as he saw many innocent people die from that indiscriminate use of heavy ordnance. He says that it is time we owned up to it. “Let us admit the full measure of what we have done and learn from it,” he writes. “This is the reason I have written and am now publishing this elegy.”
There are some great lyrics in this elegy. Chapter 6, I believe, is the strongest example of Tollefson’s poetic gifts and moral sensibilities:
Along the copses of trees, the dense
jungle, beside the corn fields,
honeycombed like the damp-rooted rice
we set out ambushes and waited.
In the morning after the killing, we
washed the night away with sunlit
patrols. The people were smiling, over-
joyed they could see us and to know
where we were. They brought us
their broken-skulled, infected, rancid corpses.
We gave them candy, placebos, the stone
silence of force. Fractured and folded in flat
fields under bombs, this peasant nation
endured, drawn to closure in a rhythm of
wounds, shadowed in movement like a snake come together,
come out of an old skin into one.
C. Lowell Toleffson is a new, strong voice in Vietnam War poetry. I look forward to his next work.