The Lice: Poems By W.S. Merwin

4142jld1ccl-_sx307_bo1204203200_

W. S. Merwin is well known for his Vietnam War poems. He was was born in 1927 and has been awarded pretty much every possible prize given to a poet, including a Pulitzer prize, a National Book Award, and the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress. He also served two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Merwin’s The Lice, the poet’s 1967 response to “the atrocities of the Vietnam War and the national unrest of the Civil Rights Movement.”  Or so a blurb on the back cover of the latest edition of the book (Copper Canyon, 96 pp., $15, paper) tells us.

The book’s most important poem, “When the War is Over,” is printed on the back cover, following the blurb, so that the dullest reader will not miss it.

When the war is over

We will be proud of course the air will be

Good for breathing at last

The water will have been improved the salmon

And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly

The dead will think the living are worth it we will know

Who we are

And we will all enlist again

Not all of us. I was asked to re-enlist. My response was unequivocal. Not me, Sarge.

W.S. Merwin, at 90, is alive and living on Maui in a nature conservancy of rare palm trees that he planted. The cover of this beautiful book is a Larry Burrows Vietnam War photo showing smoke rising from a cluster of thatched Vietnamese hooches, following bombing and resulting fire from napalm in Viet Cong territory (a so-called free fire zone).

31iv0jleqbl-_ux250_“The Asians Dying” and “For the Anniversary of My Death” both seriously hit home.  “The Asians Dying,” for reasons I don’t feel like explaining, and “For the Anniversary of My Death” because my doctors told me that 2017 I’d have been dead for at least five years due to the effects bone cancer caused by being exposed to Agent Orange. I don’t plan to live as long as W. S. Merwin, but one never knows.

As Merwin warns us in his poem “For a Coming Extinction,” “One must always pretend something among the dying.”  We can’t deny the obvious; we are all both the dying and among the dying.

This is the most beautiful book of Vietnam War poetry published in 1967—and again in 2017.  Buy it and read it.

—David Willson

Advertisements

The Smell of Light by Bill McCloud

51jnxdqck7l-_sx322_bo1204203200_

Bill McCloud dropped out of college in his second semester and volunteered for the Army. He entered the service on the ninety-day delay program, and was in uniform from September 1967 to September 1970. He served in Vietnam from March 1968 to March 1969 as flight operations coordinator with the 147th Assault Support Helicopter Company (the Hillclimbers) on the airfield at Vung Tau.

McCloud—who teaches U.S. History at Rogers State University and is best known for his book, What Should We Tell Our Children about Vietnam?—arrived in Vietnam just as I was leaving. He was stationed in a spot I thought of as an in-country R&R center for Americans—and for the enemy.

I wondered as I started reading his new book of poetry, The Smell of the Light: Vietnam, 1968-1969 as Told through Personal Poems (Balkan Press, 158 pp., $14.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), how long I had to wait before there was a mention of John Wayne. Page sixteen rewarded my patience with an entire John Wayne poem, one of the best poems of the Vietnam War and certainly one of the top two poems I’ve read dealing with John Wayne

I present Bill McCloud’s “John Wayne” here because it will give you an idea about the high quality of the poetry in this book and because it is pithy and well worth reading.

 

We keep hearing rumors

That they’re currently filming

A John Wayne movie about Vietnam

Everyone’s excited now about John Wayne

Everyone’s excited now about going to Vietnam

Now it’s a John Wayne war

 

That’s a hard poem to top.

51abellxphl-_sx314_bo1204203200_1McCloud, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, used his letters home as source material for many of these poems. I believe he was writing better and higher-quality letters home than many of us. Mining my letters for poetic nuggets would be a painful task, fraught with horror.  Not something I’m tempted to do.

McCloud deals with other universal Vietnam War experiences such as shit burning, but he does not weigh his poems down with this stuff. That is a  strength of these fine poems.

This book of Vietnam War poetry sits very near the top of the heap. Right up there where the star would go if this were a Christmas tree.

Thanks, Bill McCloud, for this beautiful book.

—David Willson

Poems in the Keys of Life By Kerry “Doc” Pardue

fpardue-poems_

Kerry “Doc” Pardue is a 100 percent service-connected disabled veteran. He is a former combat medic who served with the Scouts in the 2/47th Infantry of the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam from March 1968 to March 1969.

He tells us that he began to write poetry “to bring about healing” and “to deal with PTSD.” And that he learned two things in Vietnam: Men will die, and no matter what he did, he couldn’t change that. His writings have taught him, Pardue says, that “we did the right thing by going to Vietnam.”

When Kerry Pardue received his notification to report for his physical, he decided “it would be better for me to pick my field rather than be on the front lines as an infantryman.” Why he assumed that would happen, he doesn’t explain. The recruiter suggested that he go for medic training, and that most likely he’d be stationed in some nice hospital. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? The recruiter didn’t inform Pardue that medics also served with the infantry in the thick of the fighting.doc_pardue

As a result of his decision to become a medic, the poems in Poems in the Keys of Life: Reflections of a Combat Medic (PublishAmerica, 100 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $14.99, paper; $9.95, Kindle) are not about serving in that nice hospital, but about combat. There are titles such as “In the Heat of Battle,” “Playing Chicken with Mortars,” “Gooks in the Wire,” and “Daddy, Why Didn’t You Tell Me About War?”

Here’s a representative poem, “Happy Thanksgiving”

May your turkey be plump

Your potatoes without lumps

Your gravy nice and smooth;

And may your pumpkin pie

Stay off your thighs

I wish all Vietnam War poetry was this straightforward. It is not.

I respect honesty and good old American values. That’s what the reader gets in this small book of poetry.

Kerry Pardue’s website is kerrypardue247.com

—David Willson

Hollow Tin Jingles: Poems By Fred Rosenblum

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.

             Fred 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