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.

                     **********

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

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A Shadow on our Hearts by Adam Gilbert

Writer and historian Adam Gilbert’s purpose in A Shadow on Our Hearts: Soldier-Poetry, Morality and the American War in Vietnam (University of Massachusetts Press, 304 pp., $90, hardcover; $32.95, paper) is to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the Vietnam War through an examination of the poetry produced by those who fought in the conflict. Looking at the poetry “through the lens of moral philosophy,” Gilbert notes how historians of the war have all but neglected it.

He quotes from almost 400 poems by more than sixty “soldier-poets.” I know many of the poets and have met many of the others. I should note that I am predisposed to love this book as my name is in the index, and the author writes positive things about poets and poetry I have a high opinion of.

With a book of this sort, I always first go to the index and look for my name. And there I was. Next, I look for the name of my closest friend, a poet of the finest sort, but one often overlooked because he is a novelist and poet-novelists often are unfairly given short shrift.

Gilbert makes the point that he deliberately has not included certain sorts of poets, and I am one of them. I was not a “soldier” according to his standards, even though I was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in the Vietnam War. But I was a REMF. In his eyes, I was far removed from the role of soldier. It hurts my feelings, but I won’t let that cause me to say bad things about this fine book.

Few “real soldiers” have suffered more pain that I have during the last ten years while I’ve been dying from Multiple Myeloma, but I was not in combat in Vietnam. Agent Orange, which caused my bone cancer, was there in Vietnam during the war for all of us.

I found it pure joy to read what Gilbert has to say about DS Lliteras, W.D. Ehrhart, R.L. Barth, Horace Coleman, David Connolly, Yusef Komunyakaa, Leroy Quintana, Dale Ritterbusch, Bruce Weigl, and many other poets I have met, spent time with, eaten dinner with, given readings with, and so on. I loved this book and think others will too, while learning a lot about the Vietnam War and about what its veterans think about it while we are seriously reflecting and pondering upon it.

Vietnam War veteran Bill McCloud recently reading his poetry to a veterans group at an Oklahoma Corrections Center

I apologize for making this review so personal, but I fear that if I don’t, potential readers will turn away from the book, thinking it too scholarly and serious to be fun to read. Yes, much of this book was far from fun to read—and wasn’t intended to be fun—but the book still is engrossing and even enthralling in parts.

I highly recommend A Shadow on Our Hearts to all who have a serious interest in learning more about the Vietnam War and about the people who went off to that war, not knowing what to expect, but dealing with it when they got there the best they could.

—David Willson

Vietnumb: Poems by Fred Rosenblum

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Fred Rosenblum served in the Vietnam War with the 1st Marines. He says that his first book of poetry, Hollow Tin Jingles, “began as an exercise in expurgation.” His new book, Vietnumb: Poems (Fomite, 104 pp., $15, paper),  is a result, he says, “of my inability to retch-up and rid myself of that entire toxic mass that’s kept me bellyaching all these years.”

Rosenbloom sees his poems as “a lyrical analgesic to others who bear some degree of residual shame for that era.” He goes on to write that “the war machine thrives today as it has never thrived before.” I can’t argue with that.

This short page book of short poems deals with many of the same issues Rosenblum dealt with in Hollow Tin Jingles, but it is well worth reading and revisiting those subjects. I started noting my favorite poems as I read the book, until I realized that I had marked most of the poems in the book. Finally, I winnowed out poems until I had just two favorites:  “Confessions of a Recluse” and “The S.O.B. Was Just Like Me.”

“Confessions of a Recluse” grabbed me because of the lines “I am a bearded man/with a long moustache that collects debris from meals

My hair (what’s left of it)

Is in a constant state of dishevelment

I wear overalls that are filthy

And grimy from my war in the woods

With the beavers who are trying to flood my property

My wife hounds me about my slovenly nature

And if I am not wasted I will submit to her requests to clean-up

Brush my teeth,

whatever

She keeps records of my medications and dispenses them

Per the prescribed instructions

It is too difficult for me to remember what pill and when

It should be taken

 

The man in this poem is not exactly me, but he’s close enough so that I don’t need to write that poem myself.

The other poem deals with the Seattle VA, a place where I’ve spent a lot of time having my head examined—and if not my head, what’s left of my feet. Fred Rosenblum says that the place is “sort of institutional dump that had the feel of incarceration.” He nailed it, for sure.

In his poem, he runs into a friend from the past, just as I have several times. I was born in Seattle, educated in Seattle, and drafted in Seattle, so it’s no kind of miracle that I’d bump into folks at the VA that I’ve known off and on for fifty years.

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Rosenblum

Rosenblum describes a mutual acquaintance of ours: “Lester was mad as a hatter/and had croaked from the fusion/of alcohol and pharmaceutical inclusion/that one might imbibe and ingest in those days

The concluding stanza is:  “a kid I’d known/yet the S.O.B. was just like me/ancient, anhedonic, Vietnumb

There it is.

Thank you, Fred Rosenblum, for writing these poems.

He refers to “the Duke” in these pages, the man that many young men sought to emulate by becoming Marines. Sad fate for them, which reminds me that Lee Ermey just died—the Drill Instructor  in Full Metal Jacket, from the book by Gus Hasford, a man I’ll never run into at the Seattle VA, as he’s long since dead.  RIP Lee and Gus.

—David Willson

Parrhesia by Timothy M. Bagwell

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Tim Bagwell

Parrhesia is a Greek word that means “to speak candidly or to ask forgiveness for so speaking.”  It first appears in Greek literature in Euripides. It implies freedom of speech, as well as the obligation to speak the truth for the common good, even at personal risk.

The pages Timothy M. Bagwell’s Parrhesia (Anti-War Press, 67 pp.), are very different looking; they’re coil bound and are printed on “card stock.” It is beautiful and profusely illustrated book and contains a couple of dozen poems and many photographs

Bagwell is a Marine Corps veteran of the war in Vietnam. He was in Vietnam seven months, from January-July, 1969.  He had enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17 in June of 1968 and was out of Vietnam by age 19. “I do not believe war is anything but human choice embedded in lazy acquiescence,” he writes in this unusual book.

It is not easy to find a typical Bagwell poem to use as an example of what sort of poetry Bagwell has produced for this book.  But here is one example: part of “I died in Vietnam”:

I don’t know what day, what time, what killed me.

I didn’t know I died.

No blood spilled.

No pain screamed

No medic came.

No NVA bullet touched me.

No shrapnel broke my skin.

Jungle rot?  Yes, to the bone on both shins.

I died in Vietnam.

I can name it now—forty-four years later

Because I write hard poems recalling the foul film

My five senses seared deep inside my skull.

I died in Vietnam.

I used to think I had escaped.

I used to think I had survived—I didn’t.

This is one of Bagwell’spowerful, accessible poems that hit hard and take all readers as prisoners. You won’t be unscathed by this reading experience.

Near the end of this book is a full page photo of Tim Bagwell. He is an old man with a huge, fluffy white beard.  He’s wearing a black beret, and is surrounded by artifacts and shelves of books.  He looks like I wanted him to look—wise and grim and beyond war.

Good for him.  Thanks, Tim Bagwell, for a great book.

For ordering info, email antiwarpressindiana@gmail.com

—David Willson

Inheriting the War edited by Laren McClung

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Laren McClung is a poet and the author of a book of poetry,  Between Here and Monkey Mountain  (2012) Her father served a 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War with the 173rd Airborne.

In Inheriting the Wind: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees (Norton, 400 pp., $19.95, paper) McClung has included the work of a fair and balanced assortment of forty-four veterans’ descendants. The list of familiar and non-familiar Vietnam War veteran writers and poets’ surnames includes Lily Katherine Bowen, Linh Dinh, Heinz Insu Fenkle, Adam Karlin, Elmo Keep, Ada Limon, Bich Minh Nguyen, Andrew X. Pham, Monica Sok, and Hanh Nguyen Willband.

The book—with a Foreward by the acclaimed poet (and Vietnam War veteran) Yusef Komunyakaa—is arranged alphabetically by author’s last name. McClung gives a brief bio at the beginning of each section, providing just the right amount of information iabout the authors and translators. McClung does a commendable job digging up new and different writers representing all the groups that made the Vietnam War possible by their participation and those who now have a life of suffering due to that war.

We’re told early in the introduction that the United States sprayed 5.5 million acres of land in Vietnam with Agent Orange. This toxin sickened both Western troops and Vietnamese, and is a theme throughout the book in poems and stories.

Hoa Nguyen, for example, writing after Emily Dickenson in “Agent Orange Poem”:

 

What justice foreigns for a sovereign

We doom in nation rooms

Recommend & lend resembling fragrant

Chinaberry spring

Here we have high flowers  a lilac in the nose

“The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorus”

and so stripped the leaves to none

Thanks to Hoa Nguyen for this fine poem. The quality of work in this book is always high and always thought provoking, as this poem was to me.

This isn’t a book to read a bedtime.  At least it wasn’t for me. I found it seriously disturbing on almost every page.

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Laren McClung

My favorite prose piece is “The Gangsta We Are All Looking For” by Le Thi Diem Thuy. My favorite sentence in the essay is: “When we moved in, we had to sign a form promising not to put fish bones in the garbage disposal.”

I laughed, out loud, when I read that sentence.

The author’s family had moved into old Navy housing in Linda Vista, California. I thought about the tales the garbage disposal could tell if it could talk. I guess it’s just as well it can’t.

A huge amount of work went into the success of this book, and I thank Laren McClung for it.

—David Willson

 

Paper Airplanes and Serial Lovers by p.a. delorenzi

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Peter DeLorenzi is a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, having served a 1968-69 tour of duty at Vandegrift Combat Base in Quang Tri Province in I Corps.  He lives, works, and writes on beautiful San Juan Island in the state of Washington.

DeLorenzi, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, has a rare way with a turn of a phrase. He displays that to great advantage in Paper Airplanes and Serial Lovers: The Making of a Poet (Outskirts Press, 126 pp. $14.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle), a collection of fine poems.

Here is one from DeLorenzi’s prison years:

 

the bare concrete floor

meets my naked feet

time after silent time

as I traverse

my steel enclosure

and let my mind rappel down

the glass smooth face

of the distant cliffs

of freedom

This poem is called “Sleepwalk-1980.” That year, DeLorenzi writes, “found me on trial for my life for the killing of a man in Oregon that was assaulting a woman. It’s a long story.”

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Peter DeLorenzi

He goes on to tell the reader that there are not a lot of events about prison life he cares to share with us. He does say, it’s “a tough way to wake up each morning. Stay free.”

That’s good advice for those among us who can envision being in such a place. I can, and I thank Peter DeLorenzi for his vivid poems warning of what can happen faster than you can imagine.

Read this book of powerful poems and appreciate how DeLorenzi has turned his experiences into these verses. He tells us he’s been doing his best “to be a good human being.”

There’s no greater goal for any of us. His poetry inspires me to do the same.

—David Willson

Feet of the Messenger by H.C. Palmer

H.C. Palmer was drafted into the Army and served as a battalion surgeon in the the Vietnam War. He’s also been a cattle rancher. Palmer’s poetry makes the reader aware of the high cost in young male flesh of war in a new way—kind of like a kick in the guts. It’s on display in his first book of poetry,  Feet of the Messenger: Poems (BkMk Press, 80 pp., $13.95)

Here is one example:

December 14, 2010, VA Hospital

 

Kansas City, Missouri

Back from his tour of Afghanistan, the soldier says,

Half my foot is gone, Doc, but I’m still in the Guard—

a peacetime soldier now.  I take his foot, a stub

grafted at the arch, trace the spongy edges with my fingers.

No feeling. He laughs.  Beautiful

work, don’t you think? 

 

Thanks for this beautifully brutal poem, Dr. Palmer. And for seventy-five more pages of equally beautiful poems.

The book includes a wonderful quote from Karl Marlantes:  “It won’t hurt you. It’s just to kill plants.”

I thought of that quote last night when I awoke screaming from the pain in my right knee. Then I laughed. That’s the power of poetry.

The more than seventy-five pages of poetry in this beautiful book all have impact on the reader, and they also have messages that all of us need. That’s also the power of good poetry.

H.C. Palmer

I wish I could include more of Palmer’s poems in this review, but space prohibits that. The poem on page 41 is a poem everyone needs. It’s a lucid conversation with an infantryman who is “cradling a bullet in his brain.”

He thinks he’s going home to the Madison River Valley in Montana. He talks of the 24-inch rainbow. My heart was breaking as he was loaded into the dustoff for Ton San Nhut Hospital. He’s not going to make it back to the “most beautiful place in the world.”

Palmer has founded and leads a writing program for veterans in Kansas City. I wish I was in that class.

—David Willson