It Looks Like What I’ll Take to My Grave by Emerson Gilmore

Emerson Gilmore’s book of Vietnam War poetry, It Looks Like What I’ll Take to My Grave: Viet Nam Fifty Years Later, a Memoir in Verse (106 pp. $15.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle), moves beyond the borders of the war to consider the effects of armed conflict in general and the unfortunate fact that war is apparently a consistent part of human existence.

Gilmore served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam from January 1970-February 1971 as an interpreter and interrogator. The book’s title refers to the fact that his war memories will stay with him for his entire life.

The book gets off to a great start with the first line of the first poem: “None of us was meant/to war.” Gilmore writes that Basic Training at Ft. Jackson taught him how to “guard empty buildings/with empty rifles.”

On his way to Vietnam, he writes, “I stopped in to fill my stomach with beer,/drank for nearly a year/and landed in Bien Hoa, Vietnam.” That was not Gilmore’s last beer, as he admits, “I drank the war.”

He also tells us through his poetry that he “never fired or was fired upon” and he spent much of his time in “the clubs of Saigon/where the whores/knew my name.” Gilmore sometimes writes disparagingly about street prostitutes calling out offers of sex, “Their breath tainted with rat and dog.”

There’s a great poem about both sides during the war singing “the ageless G.I. blues,” with a nod to the 1960 Elvis Presley song and the lyrics to a similar song in James Jones’ great World War II novel, From Here to Eternity, as well as the Hollywood movie version of the book.

Gilmore’s poetry gives us much to think about. Such as: “I will never fight another war/even if God says.” And:

“History without wars bores,

shortens the books,

drains the blood from professors’ careers,

and politicians’

cuts the balls from

man after man

Why Adam and Noah

if not for war?”

Several of the poems are written with a rhythm that would make them especially interesting to be read out loud. Some, if you read carefully, are love poems to lost buddies. Some are straightforward in their story telling; others make creative use of symbolism. A few are fairly light-hearted, but most are as serious as the idea of endless war.

I admire Emerson Gilmore’s poetic efforts to reduce the numbers of American casualties in the war: “If I turn on the radio,/sons will die. The man/will say so. I have not/turned on the television for/months, saving countless lives.”

There’s also serious PTSD at work here, along with occasional glimpses of possible redemption.

I read through this volume three times and different things jumped out at me each time. This book of poetry is alive and I encourage you to engage with it. It’s one of the good ones.

–Bill McCloud

Fragments by Bruce K. Berger

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Fragments: The Long Coming Home from Vietnam (Wordworthy Press, 92 pp. $12.95, paper; $11, Kindle) is a poetry chapbook by Bruce K. Berger. Berger served with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam in 1970, writing sympathy letters to hundreds of families. This chapbook is as good a collection of poetry dealing with the Vietnam War as I’ve read.

There’s no dipping a toe in the water here. In the first section of the first poem Berger references the My Lai massacre, napalm, Agent Orange, AWOLs and “Dinks and Gooks.”

Berger writes of the “bloody mathematics” involved in taking, abandoning, then re-taking territory. Men around him wonder why they were there. “Why the hell were we, where the hell we were?” At one point he notes that “The long war symbolized so many lies/some of them true.”

Elsewhere he writes about the sympathy letters: “What more could he write/without deepening their pain?” He also writes of holding buddies while their lives slip away and remembering one soldier who died with a smile on his face. You don’t realize at the time that being “Impregnated by orange rain” means you were killed in Vietnam, though you won’t die until thirty years later.

He addresses the times on guard-duty when you have a chance to note the country’s fleeting moments of beauty. Then the rain and other natural sounds seem to combine to create “the jungle band.” Eventually there’s “The precious gift of sunrise in Vietnam.”

He shares in the comfort that can be found in a stray dog. Then there’s the “contagious smile” of the young boy with a “missing foot.” There’s also an old woman who continues to look for her grandson, although he died months earlier after being “shot by Aaron from Akron.” A young girl has “tiny breasts” that recall “two little sparrows/poking just barely/under her tee-shirt.”

Returning home from the war means “picking up where they left off/one year a century ago.” Then memories began to hit like “hot grease spattering his brain.” Memories that you begin to think of as “just dead life.” There is some evidence of healing once you are “no longer drinking suicide” and have started doing “drive bys” of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

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Berger in Vietnam

The stories told in these poems are the memories of one American Vietnam War veteran. The collection is not all-encompassing. It doesn’t try to explain the causes of the war or the motives of the people fighting on the other side. It’s personal, and poetry may be the most personal form of written expression.

There are 34 poems in this book. None of them is a throw-away. Each brings something to the table. The inclusion of 24 illustrations creates a complete package.

This is an unflinching look at the horrors of war and one man’s life-long efforts to escape its memories told in the form of poetry. Berger is a true word-artist.

The book’s Facebook page is facebook.com/fragmentspoems

Bruce Berger is donating profits from book sales to Vietnam Veterans of America.

–Bill McCloud

Year of the Dog by Deborah Paredez

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The poet, scholar, and critic Deborah Paredez, a Professor of Creative Writing and Ethnic Studies at Columbia University, is the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran. The title of her new book, Year of the Dog (BOA Editions, 128 pp. $17, paper; $9.99, e book), refers to 1970, the year Paredez was born and the year that her father, a Mexican immigrant, deployed to the war zone.

Paredez divides the book into three sections: The first (53 pages) contains personal poems such as a self-portrait in flesh and stone and hearts and minds. The second is about Kim Phuc and the famous photograph of her being burned by napalm. The third deals with subjects along the lines of those explored in Trinh T. Min-ha’s 1989 documentary Surname Viet, Given Name Nam, which looks at the lives of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American women.

Some of the poems, including those about Kim Phuc, are difficult to read because of the painful subject, but they must be read. Dozens of photographs are distributed throughout the book, which add greatly the power of Paredez’s words.

Here are a couple of stanzas from “Mother Tongue” that give the flavor of what the book holds in store:

If I could bite my tongue

And have it split into two

Whole daughters that split

Again in endless fission

-ing splitting the very thing

Keeping their whole line

Going—If I could I would

Watch my tongue and its

Tongue-set wagging

Their tails, some silver-

Tongued some wicked—I’d hold my tongue

Out like an offering or a battalion

This is a book of powerful poems about pain and politics and war.

–David Willson

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

My Long Journey in Baltimore by Lawerence E. Mize

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Lawerence Mize enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1966, and did a tour of duty as a combat medic with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. He then served as a police officer in Baltimore for close to thirty years, retiring in 1999 as a sergeant.  In the early 1980s he was troubled by PTSD and dealt with that problem by writing the poetry collections Tortured Soul (1997) and Dead Men Calling (2002).  Both of those works are based on his experiences in Vietnam and helped him cope with the issues he was having with PTSD.

Mize’s latest collection, My Long Journey in Baltimore (Dorrance Publishing, 92 pp., $23, paper; $18, e book), contains eighty pages of poetry. The titles of the poems give away their subjects. “Cu Chi,” “Dead Men Calling,” “Screaming Eagle,” “Memories of Nam,” “My Gun,” and many more poems deal with his war, his family and his career in law enforcement.

 

Here are a typical few lines from “Screaming Eagle”:

Walk in the vills

Down beaten paths

Worm through the tunnels

I’m here to kick ass. 

I’m young and I’m strong

As hardcore as they come,

Humping in the Nam.

Keep Charlie on the run. 

Morphine syrettes, filling sandbags, big orange pills, PTSD, baby killers, cowards at home, rats fleeing to Canada, traitors should be shot in the head, napalm canisters—all of that rhetoric flavored the poetry with the politics of the time.

Read this book and weep. That’s the kind of book it is. I read it and wept myself and for myself.  Of course, these days it is a rare book that does not provoke me to tears because of the medication I’m taking—or the subjects of the books.

I recommend this book for anyone looking for poetry that captures the extreme language of the 1960s.

–David Willson

On the Shores of Welcome Home by Bruce Weigl

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It has been a long wait for this new book of poetry from Bruce Weigl as his previous collection, The Abundance of Nothingcame out in 2012. The great poet (and fellow Vietnam War veteran) Yusef Komunyakaa said then that Weigl’s poems often gazed into “the hellish, heavenly mechanics of life and death.” The poems in his new book, On the Shores of Welcome Home (BOA Editions, 104 pp., $17, paper; $9.99, e book), continue that scrutiny.

Weigl—who now has written more than twenty books of poetry, translations, and essays—served in Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division from 1967-68 and his work is heavily influenced by his participation in the war. All of his poems are of high quality and all should be purchased for any collection of literature dealing with the Vietnam War. This latest group deals with the difficulty of returning from war and adapting to a new life; all deal with life and death matters.

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Bruce Weigl

On the Shores of Welcome Home, in which Weigl meditates on the ghosts and the grace one encounters in life’s second act, justly received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award for 2019.

The poem that follows from the book is “Modern Paradox Sutra Fragment,” which exemplifies Weigl’s skills:

 

A sex offender father broke the jaw

Of his four-year-old cerebral

Palsy son in an unspecified act

Of rage. Change yourself the teacher tells me

Again, and again because you can’t change anyone else.

Knowing things ensures heartbreak.  Not knowing

Is worse. Change yourself the teacher says;

Make more room for the suffering of others

Is what he means. Make more room and then let it

Flow through you. Let the broken-jawed little

Palsied boy who couldn’t even understand

His own poor life flow through you, and let his

Blurred screams flow through you and not through you

To feel them deeply and then to let them go.

 

I found it hard to let this poem go. It lingered in my consciousness as do many of Bruce Weigl’s poems. They have a way of sticking in the brain like jungle thorns in the torn flesh.

–David Willson

All Present, Unaccounted For by Robert Flanagan

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Robert J. Flanagan was born in Mississippi in 1936. He entered the Marines in 1953 and served seven years in the U.S., Panama, and on the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas. He left the Marine Corps in 1960, joined the Army Security Agency, and put in sixteen additional years of military service. He retired from the Army in 1976 as a Chief Warrant Officer.

From 2001-12 Bob Flanagan published six books, including a trilogy of novels based on his ASA service. His nearly five decades years of journal-keeping has influenced much of his published writing. Flanagan, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, is currently assembling a new collection of non-war-related poetry. His recently released poetry collection, All Present, Unaccounted For (Connemara Press, 126 pp. $22, paper), on the other hand, is heavily war-related.

The book’s first poem is entitled “Vacation in Vietnam, 1964.”

Small brown sappers, hard core

Of the VC Three-Ninety-Fifth Battalion—

And equally vulgar aspirants to the title—

Dash ashore in the night wash of the South

China Sea at Vung Tau

Orchestrated, choreographed…not a ballet:

A quiet time-lapse jitterbug.

They don’t know that alien planners

Will name this place in-country R-and-R.

This poem gives a fine taste and sample of the selections in this collection. There are more than a hundred pages of such poems, all of them worth reading and all of them beautifully written—and related to the American war in Vietnam. They deal with topics such as heat rash, immersion foot, and crotch rot, as well as Operation Ranch Hand, Agent Orange, John Wayne, Tarzan, and Graham Greene.

This fine book ranks right up there at the top with W.D. Ehrhart’s recently published poetry collection, Thank You for Your Service. With these two poetry books on your shelf, you will have a good start on understanding the totality of Vietnam War poetry.

For ordering info, go to the author’s website, connemarapress.org

—David Willson

Thank You for Your Service by W.D. Ehrhart

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W.D. Ehrhart joined the U.S. Marine Corps right after he graduated from high school in 1966 and served on active duty for three years. He arrived in Vietnam in February 1967, and went on to experience an eventful thirteen-month tour of duty. He was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in action in Hue City during the 1968 Tet Offensive, among other decorations.

His service in the Marine Corps in the Vietnam War became grist for the poetic mill that enabled Ehrhart to produce hundreds of fine poems dealing that subject. Of course, talent and hard work combined with Ehrhart’s experiences to come up with the collection of poems that fills most of the pages of his latest book, Thank You for Your Service (McFarland, 310 pp., $35, paper)

I tried hard to select a few lines from this group of chronologically arranged poems to convey the totality of Ehrhart’s talent, but I failed in that attempt. It was just too difficult to choose among so many outstanding poems.

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Bill Ehrhart in County, 1967

If I had to list his best work (if, that is, an editor asked me to do so), I would name the following poems: “Scientific Treatise for My Wife,” “More Than You Ever Imagined,” “Afraid of the Dark,” “Waking Alone in Darkness,” “Desire, “The Fool, “ “Sins of the Fathers,” “Letting Go,” “Golfing with My Father,” “Home on the Range,” What Keeps Me Going,” and “How History Gets Written.”

If I had to choose a poem to quote some of Bill Ehrhart’s best poetic lines, I would go with “What Keeps Me Going”:

Pressed down by the weight of despair, I could sit for hours idly searching the ashes from my cigarette, the darkness of silos, the convoluted paths we have followed into this morass of disasters just waiting to happen,

But my daughter needs to sleep and wants me near.  She knows nothing of my thoughts.  Not one missile mars her questioning inspection of my eyes; she wants only the assurance of my smile, the familiar places just so:

Brown Bear, Thumper Bunny, Clown.

These are the circumference of her world.  She sucks her thumb,

Rubs her face hard against the mattress

And begins again

The long night dreaming

Darkness into light.

Ehrhart’s book is filled with such poems and I delighted in them.

Thanks, Bill, for another great collection.

—David Willson

Tributaries by Tim Ralston

When Tim Ralston died in 2010, his wife Mary Kay Keller Ralston and daughter Mariah Ralston Deragon went through his thirty-plus years of poetry, which he often scribbled on the backs of receipts or on other scraps of paper. They chose a group of poems for a book of his work, often needing a magnifying glass to read the words.

That book, Tributaries (Buffalo Commons Tavern, 106 pp. $16, paper), is a labor of love.

Tim Ralston enlisted in the U. S. Air Force in 1970. He served as an English language instructor in South Vietnam, and received his honorable discharge in 1974. He wrote poems during the long period of time between his service in the Vietnam War and his death.

There are many poems in this book, a few of which deal with the Vietnam War. Early in the book, I encountered these lines:

Not in the ample list

But in the crossing outs

By a rougher, awkward hand

(Were they what was

Bought, or what

Couldn’t be afforded?)

Perhaps the last gasp

Of a dying world

Being medevaced far away.

These words made me hopeful that I would encounter much more in the book about—or at least flavored by—the Vietnam War. But I found very little more that dealt with the war.

Still, there was a lot well worth reading, including a poem with Norwegians eating lutefisk and lefse, and folks eating “Gooseberry pie/Puckered with rhubarb sauce.”  My poetic hunger was more than satiated by these references and many more that were equally powerful.

Buy this beautiful little book and savor the many flavors of poetry that Tim Ralston engraved on scraps of paper—and left for us lucky readers.

For ordering info, send an email to Buffalo Commons Tavern.

—David Willson

We Leave the Safety of the Sea By Art Elser

Art Elser’s We Leave the Safety of the Sea (Finishing Line Press, 64 pp. $12, paper) is a tiny book that contains a dozen and a half small poems that deal with the American war in Vietnam. There’s lots of pain in these poems and swallowing two aspirin won’t alleviate it. When Elser, for example, follows his shrink’s instructions to chase away nightmares by trying to remember something pleasant in his life, he wakes up with a body next to him that “has bloody stumps where legs should be.”

Art Elser retired from the Air Force in 1979 after serving for twenty years as a pilot, including a 1967-68 tour of duty as as a Forward Air Controller in Vietnam. Elser’s war experiences left him with powerful memories that have ended up in his poetry,

Walter McDonald describes Elser’s poetry as “fierce.” McDonald, a former Vietnam War USAF pilot and an acclaimed poet, ought to know. Hell—he does know. Most of Elser’s poems have” flashbacks so intense they don’t let me go. And isn’t that the point?” McDonald asks. Yes, that is the point.

“Helicopters carrying memories” could have been written by me about my life here in Maple Valley, Washington—if I were a better poet.

As I write on the patio, I hear the whine

of an approaching helicopter.

It doesn’t have the quiet whoosh

of a Jet Ranger carrying executives

to a business meeting downtown,

And it doesn’t have the noisy

wop wop wop of the ancient Huey,

a sound that carries me back to Vietnam,

and to painful memories I can’t forget.

It has the heavy, straining sound

of a Blackhawk the kind that hauls grunts

into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Years from now that sound

will carry them back to fire fights,

explosions, loneliness, fear and

painful memories they can’t forget.

Some days it seems as though helicopters of one sort or another spend all day flying over my house in Maple Valley. You’d think I was in the flight path of an airport in a major war zone.

Elser’s poetry summons up my war memories as effectively as those noisy helicopters do. More so.

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Elser’s A Death at Tollgate Creek: Songs of the Prairie (Walker Doodle Press, 91 pp., $12.95, paper) is proof that he can write excellent non-war poetry. Still, the poems in this collection are also filled with images of sadness and loss.

I guess I should have expected that from a man who spent two decades as a pilot, including a combat-heavy tour in the Vietnam War.

—David Willson