Inverted Flight by Don Mercer

VVA life member Don Mercer graduated from USAF pilot training in 1970. He flew the Cessna O-2A flying out of Bien Hoa Air Base as a Forward Air Controller during his 1970-71 tour of duty in Vietnam. His call sign was Rustic 41 in flying combat missions supporting the Rustic Operation over Cambodia.

In the foreword to Flight: A Collection of Verse (Xlibris, 208 pp., $31.99, hardcover; $21.99 paper) we are told that the verses in this book were “inspired by the events and emotions of the year Don spent in Vietnam serving both his country as well as the Cambodian nation.”

The largest and most important section of the book is entitled “The War in Southeast Asia.”  It contains thirty-two poems in rhymed verse in the manner of Robert Service. This section contains poems with titles such as: “Arrival,” “The Good Men,’ “My Peashooter,” “A Water Buffalo Has the Last Laugh,” “Arc Light,” “Shot Down,” “Nui Ba Dien,” “Body Count,” and “Hanoi Jane.”

A reader can infer from the titles that the author covers many of the same subjects that seem to obsess many other Vietnam veterans who write books. I expected to find a poem on Jane Fonda ranting that she was a traitor. I was not disappointed.

In the verses “The Vet,” “What Price Paid,” “Midnight on the Mekong,” and “In My Face” we encounter some of the other often-voiced concerns of returning veterans, particularly the airport interaction with an push antiwar protester. In this encounter a “peacenik” calls a returning Vietnam veteran a babykiller and offers him a flower, which is rejected with the threat of leaving the peacenik with a stump if he did not withdraw the insulting flower.

Don Mercer

In “Who Should Fight” Mercer kicks both LBJ for his undeserved Silver Star during World War II and John Wayne for being a “reel” hero rather than a real hero.

There are lighthearted verses about Alaska in this collection, along with the Vietnam War poems. My favorite was a short poem about how Mercer loves dogs but does not have time for cats.

There are also a lot of verses dealing with Mercer’s love of flying. They are among the best in the collection. I’d buy this fine-looking and well-designed and edited book for them alone.

The author’s website is www.rustic41creations.com

—David Willson

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Hollow Tin Jingles: Poems By Fred Rosenblum

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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.

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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