The Lice: Poems By W.S. Merwin

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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

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The Smell of Light by Bill McCloud

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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

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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

W.D. Ehrhart in Conversation edited by Jean-Jaques Malo

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W.D. (Bill) Ehrhart enlisted in the United States Marine Corps on April 11, 1966, while still in high school. He left for Vietnam on February 9, 1967, after receiving combat training at Camp Pendleton. When he arrived in Vietnam, Ehrhart served with the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment as an intelligence assistant and later as assistant intelligence chief.

He took part in many combat operations including Stone, Lafayette, Early, Canyon, Calhoun, Pike, Medina, Lancaster, Kentucky I, II and III,  Con Thien, Newton, Osceola II, and Hue City. Ehrhart was promoted to lance corporal on April 1, and to corporal on July 1.

Bill Ehrhart is the author and editor of a long list of poetry books, memoirs, essays, translations, and chapbooks. Eight of his poems were included in the pioneering 1972 book, Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans. He edited two important and excellent poetry collections: Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War and Carrying the Darkness: Poetry of the Vietnam War. His books of essays include Dead on a High Hill and In the Shadow of Vietnam.

Ehrhart is considered to be one of the major authors of the Vietnam War. I am on record as calling him a “master essayist,” which he is.

W.D. Ehrhart in Conversation: Vietnam, America, and the Written Word (McFarland, 236 pp., $39.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), edited by University of Nantes English Professor Jean-Jacques Malo, is a companion volume to Malo’s The Last Time I Dreamed about the War: Essays on the Life and Writing of W. D. Ehrhart.

In Conversation contains nineteen interviews of varying length and sophistication with Ehrhart done by folks from many walks of life. I enjoyed reading all of them, and was surprised how much I learned about Bill Ehrhart and his writing. I thought that after reading The Last Time I Dreamed and (full disclosure) having known him for decades, there would be no surprises in this new book. I was wrong.

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Bill Ehrhart

These interviews cover many subjects and three decades of Ehrhart’s life and career. Parades, Jane Fonda, being spat upon, Agent Orange, and many other subjects are covered. Ehrhart is not a cliché Marine. He didn’t want a parade; he was never spat upon; he has nothing bad so say about Jane Fonda.

Agent Orange is covered and in one of the interviews Ehrhart mentions that I am dying of multiple myeloma which the VA believes came to me via exposure to dioxins in Vietnam

If you have the slightest interest in Bill Ehrhart or the Vietnam War, buy this book and read it.  I read it in just a few hours and loved it.

—David Willson

Old Songs by Neal M Warren and Adam Lizakowski

Neal M Warren served in Vietnam with the U.S. Marine Corps from 1966-67. Adam Lizakowski is a Polish-born poet, translator, essayist, and author whose literary work has been translated into many languages.

Warren and Lizakowski are co-authors of Old Songs: Anteroom Poetry in Both English and German (Outskirts Press, 148 pp., $14.95, paper). Many of the poems and prose pieces in this little book comment on war, especially Warren’s. The story of his that impressed me most is “Imagery of War—1967 (The Story).”

Here’s an excerpt:

“Journal Entry—Sun—30 March 1986. My contribution, I used a weapon that could maim as well as kill. A projectile loaded with an explosive would be dropped down a reinforced tube by me and be propelled as far as four thousand meters. It was easy to be ignorant in the position I held. The more ignorant I was, the greater the burden of truth when it arrived.”

He goes on to say that time does not heal all wounds. That’s saying a mouthful.

I’ve noticed that myself about war. Because Warren was in country during the same time period I was, his words hit home more than those of Lizakowski. My favorite piece by Lizakowski in this book is: “The poet should be a dog who pokes his nose in the garbage can smells the roses in the emperor’s garden barks and howls at the moon even if it ignores him.”  Who can argue with the wisdom in those words?

I’d quote one of the German poems in this book, but it’s a struggle for me to translate even a short one as my high school German class was long ago and far way in the Yakima of the 1950s.

Warren’s prose poem, “Imagery of War,” is worth the price of this little book. It’s twelve pages of truth, poetry, and the best journal entries I’ve stumbled upon in the pursuit of writing book reviews.

I highly recommend you buy this book and read it.

—David Willson

Monkey Screams by Robert Joe Stout

Robert Joe Stout is a graduate of Mexico City College and has written books about Mexico. As far as his military service, he looks to be about the right age to be a Vietnam War veteran.

Monkey Screams (FutureCycle Press, 90 pp., $15.95) starts with a twenty-page section of poetry called “Testimonies from Vietnam.” It contains fifteen of the best poems I’ve read dealing with the Vietnam War: “Hero,” “Messenger,” “Good Reports,” “Propaganda Photos,” “In Command,” “God’s Grandeur,” “Yankee Know How,” “Purple Heart,” “Signals,” “Supply Clerk,” “Second Lieutenant,” “Ambush,” “Night Patrol,” “Why?” and “Day After Cease-Fire.”

The rest of the poems in this book are all worthy, but it’s the Vietnam War poetry that make this book. The very first poem, “Hero,” has a line about “four Marines with blankets where their legs had been, sit waiting for decorations just like mine.” Hard stuff to read, but necessary reading for everyone.

Most people don’t read a lot of poetry, but this is a good place to start. The poems are written to be accessible, and the book is very beautiful. The non-Vietnam War poems are about everyday things that we can all identify with, and I did.

I’d like to know more about Bob Stout, but I’ll settle for this.

The author’s website is robertjoestout.weebly.com

—David Willson

Where the Flowers Went by John Henningson

 

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John Henningson enlisted in the U.S. Army in July 1968. He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in August 1969. He went to Vietnam August 1970.

As Henningson writes in Where the Flowers Went In Poetry and Pictures (Mira Digital Publishing, 66 pp., $20, paper) when he shipped out to Vietnam he left “his wife who was 7 months pregnant with their first child behind.” In Vietnam he was assigned to the 3rd/82nd Artillery, which was part of the  the Americal Division in I Corps. Most of his time, he writes, was spent with infantry units as an artillery forward observer and later as a battalion artillery liaison officer.

Henningson’s  military memoir is entitled A Reluctant Warrior: 1968-1971. He tells us that Where the Flowers Went “builds on the prose” in that book, and that his “intent is to go beyond the direct recitation of events but rather to express how those experiences continue to affect my thinking today.”

Henningson’s poems are concrete and packed with detail about his tour of duty. I’m sure that much of the poetry came right out of his memoir, little changed other than to make some of the lines rhyme.

His poems have titles that let the reader know their subjects. “Baby Killers,” for example, is about his encounters with students when he drove his Jeep to bars near a university campus to drag drunken EMs home after trying to pick up college girls. “Their blame was misdirected not against the politicians who caused to all, but rather against those heroes so had answered their Nation’s call,” Henningson writes.

Other titles include “Night Lager,” “Grunts vs REMFs,” “When Death First Came to Call,” “A Grunt’s Feast,” and “Friendly Fire.”

Henningson can wax mighty poetical occasionally as in: “Suddenly a group of Cong appear and sprint toward a patch of trees/ We all draw down and fire at them but they disappear like a bit of smoke wafting in the breeze.”

“Grunts vs REMFs” is one of the best delineations of the eternal war between those two groups that I have read. It is well worth reading, as is every other poem in this fine collection.

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John Henningston in country 

Where the Flowers Went is one of the few poetry books written by a non-poet that I enjoyed reading. Why?  Because it is written from direct experience and that direct experience is on the page in a no-nonsense way. I look forward to reading Henningson’s next book.

I also enjoyed the many color paintings in the book. They remind me of the work of the great 18th century English poet and painter William Blake.

The author’s website is www.henningson.net

—David Willson