ARVN Soldiers’ Poetry edited by Nguyễn Ngọc Bích

s-l500

Nguyễn Hữu Thời, who translated the poems in  Tho Linh Chien Mien Nam: ARVN Soldiers’ Poetry (CreateSpace, 416 pp., $20, paper), tells us that this poetry collection “is a product of soldiers. Not the ‘ghost soldiers’ or the decorative ones, nor the desk bound or office soldiers, but real soldiers, fighting ones in a difficult war, facing hardened and tricky warriors who give us very little breathing space: it’s either you or he, there was no other choice.”

Nguyễn Hữu Thời himself  “has gone through thick and thin in real battles, [and] can therefore empathize with the ‘powerful feelings’ of these poets, his valiant comrades in arms.”

There are no poems in this anthology by noncombatants. The translator hopes he’s represented the ideas of men who spent twenty years of their lives “defending the peace and security of some twenty million South Vietnamese, a quarter million ARVN soldiers died, hundreds of thousands were left handicapped for life and 300,000 went to concentration camps.”

These translated poems—which are presented side by side with the original Vietnamese ones— are often about that experience and represent a bleak picture of both the war and the post-war period. The language is often harsher than the language of poems Americans have written about their experiences in the Vietnam War. These poems also more than match the bitterness found in American Vietnam War veterans’ poems, which express the notion that they were sold down the river by political interests.

Here’s one example, “The Meal on the Battlefield” by Tran Dza Lu, who served as an officer in Kien Hoa province:

Four or five boys look helpless

In their ragged clothes

Eating besides the bodies

They pick their rice, holding the rifles

 

My heart’s with Mom in the Western Paradise

My mind’s with sister in the refugee camp

Villages and hamlets are inconsolably sad

The world is more deserted

 

After the meal, we scoop from the field

Some water we drink to get by

At home, do you know it?

The war dooms us the soldiers

 

It’s still lucky I can eat

Sometimes for two or three days

Having neither meal nor drink

I lie beside the plants and trees

airborne_arvn32

This is one of the book’s shorter and milder poems. My favorites are by Tran Dac Thang. Each one begins with the word “fuck.” Such as: “Fuck! Why sleep in the jungle again?/All night, the mosquitoes bite and bum one’s back.”

I highly recommend this book to American veterans who have complained about ARVN soldiers. They may not have been the paragons of virtue that we were, but they certainly suffered and died in very large numbers. I think they deserve respect for that.

Read this book and weep.  I did.

—David Willson

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

cjzpld1uyaazvd_

A few weeks ago, I spent a lot of time emailing people at Copper Canyon Press lobbying them to publish a book of poetry by a Vietnam veteran. Nobody there deigned to mention one of their newly published books, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (96 pp., $16, paper) by Ocean Vuong, winner of the Whiting Award.

It is possible that they don’t think of it as a Vietnam War poetry book? The author, Ocean Vuong, was born in Saigon in 1988. He now lives in New York City. But almost every page of this book has reverberations of that war in his country that continues to produce literature.

The cover photo shows a little boy sitting on a bench between two beautiful Asian women, one his mother and the other his grandmother, I assume. His yellow tee-shirt reads. “I love my daddy.” And, indeed, this book is filled with daddy references.

Ocean Vuong’s photo on the back cover shows us a pale, slight young man. So I wasn’t surprised to read this line in his book: “An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farm girl. Thus my mother exists./ Thus I exist. Thus no bombs=no family=no me.” A powerful statement of identity.

This small book is one of the most powerful of the recently published Vietnam War-related poetry books, ranking right up there with Yusef Komunyakaa’s The Emperor of Water Clocks, which we reviewed in these pages.

I would recommend Vuong’s poem “Aubade with Burning City” to those who doubt this is a Vietnam War poetry book. In it, the reader encounters a soldier who spits out his cigarette as footsteps fill the square like stones; a bicycle hurled through a store window; a black dog lying with his hind legs crushed in the dusty street; a chief of police face down in a pool of Coca-Cola; snow shredded with gunfire; and a red sky with tanks covered with snow rolling over city walks.

A helicopter lifts the living just out of reach. The radio says to run, run. “Don’t worry, he says, as the first shell splashes/their faces, my brothers have won the war/and tomorrow.” This poem is interlarded with lines from a Christmas song that begins, “May your days be merry and bright….”

Vuong writes about entry wounds, amputated hands, and Agent Orange, about Ha Long Bay in ’68, napalm-blasted wind, and a “brown gook crumples under John Wayne’s M16.” We get dead babies, too, from a Grandma-told story, “In the war they would grab a baby, a soldier at each ankle and pull… Just like that.”

81xcdyuoscl-_ux250_

Ocean Vuong

There is much more in this image-packed book. The back cover blurb promises that Vuong aims straight for the ‘perennial ‘big”—and very human—subjects of romance, family, memory, grief, war and melancholia.” He does that and more.

This third-generation voice of the American war in Vietnam shows that an Asian perspective is worth reading. It also shows that, contrary to what we’ve been told, the young generation of Vietnamese, those born long after the war was over, has not forgotten war—and, in fact, they have been marked by the war.

The author’s website is oceanvuong.com

—David Willson

The Physics of War & Land of Loud Noises and Vacant Stares by Peter M. Bourret

Peter Bourret served with 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, as an 81 mm mortar man in Vietnam in 1967-68. He is a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America.

His two small books of poetry–The Physics of War: Poems of War and Healing (CreateSpace, 92 pp., $15, paper) and Land of Loud Noises and Vacant Stares (CreateSpace, 106 pp., $15, paper)—revisit many of the same things that many Vietnam War memoirs, poetry books, and novels dwell upon.

PTSD is much in evidence here. Agent Orange gets serious time. We read about Indian Country, the Thousand Yard Stare, John Wayne being AWOL, the light at the end of the tunnel, Walter Cronkite, trigger time, the sins of Dow Chemical, Marine veterans being spat upon, and the Animals’ “Sky Pilot.”  The National Anthem and the rocket’s red glare get needed attention.

Peter Bourret puts his boots back into the red clay of 45 years ago, revisiting the pain that has never left him. I hope that Bourret gives the reader some concrete images and passages dealing with the important job of being an 81 mm mortar man in his next book of poetry. I have a great curiosity about how Bourett would turn his considerable word skills on that job. I spent my time in Vietnam as an Army stenographer, so I could learn a lot from Bourett, and would enjoy the chance to do so.

These are handsome books and would make great reading for those who have grappled with PTSD since their return from Vietnam—or for others working through a traumatic event that left them with PTSD. Buy these books for that person in your life who is brave enough to sit down and read these poems.

The poem “a twenty-first-century Hawthorne character” is a fine example of Peter Bourret’s  best work. There’s pain on the page here:

i wear no Purple Heart upon my chest

but rather

i wear the scarlet letter

PTSD

and

hester Prynne will show me

the road

that leads me

away from the shame

that has stained my days

newwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww

—David Willson

Service

Bruce Lack served honorably in the United States Marines from 2003-07, including two deployments totaling twenty-one months in Fallujah in Iraq.  His book, Service: Poems (Texas Tech University, 128 pp., $18.95, paper), contains dozens of fine poems dealing with Lack’s time in Fallujah. I looked hard for references to the Vietnam War, but failed to find any.

I’ve read many books about America’s recent wars in the Middle East: poetry, novels, memoirs, histories, every kind of thing.  Service is one of the finest of all of them. The poems deal with all aspects of a Marine’s time in Fallujah, and many are heartbreaking. Some deal with how Marines build life-saving skills for dealing with the war in Iraq—skills that are not helpful when they return home.

The language of Lack’s poems powerfully evokes the physicality of Marines in Fallujah.  These are not airy-fairy poems. They hit hard. “Assholes from Blackwater:  All These Things Can Kill You” is probably the most powerful sixteen-line poem I’ve ever read—and I was an English major back in the sixties when we were required to read what seemed like millions of great poems.

Bruce Lack

I won’t quote from the poem here. But I recommend you buy this book just for this short poem—and then get knocked back on your haunches by the rest of the book.

Service is not for the faint of heart, but it is a book filled with heart, and love, too. But you have to read the book carefully for that.

I wish that Lack would give classes to Vietnam veterans about writing poetry. Memo to Vietnam veterans thinking about writing and publishing a poetry book: Please read this one before you do, and try to hew to this high standard.

I really loved this book. I’m eager for more books by this fine writer.

—David Willson

The Abundance of Nothing by Bruce Weigl

Bruce Weigl served in Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division from 1967-68, and has written many books of poetry and prose dealing with the war. All are well worth reading. I have all but one or two on my poetry shelves, so this review of The Abundance of Nothing (Triquarterly, 88 pp., $16.95, paper) is coming from a huge fan of Weigl’s work.

I also have heard Bruce Weigl read a time or two, so when I read his poems, I hear his voice in my head.

Somehow I missed this book of poetry by Weigl when it came out in 2012. These poems deal with all of his usual subjects: the Vietnam War, the return from the war and the difficulties of that process, and of course, all the aspects of being a human on this planet.

“Thank You for Thinking of You” has the lines: “Thank you Sergeant X for leaving me/behind on the abandoned LZ,/where all night small arms fire/crackled in the trees along the river,/night of my downfall that won’t go away.”

Weigl tops that powerful memory in the very next line with: “Thank you teacher, coach,/who fondled my dick and balls,/telling me I had to be checked.”  Weigl always has the ability to shock the reader with an image.

Bruce Weigl

The poem that hit me the hardest in this book was “Response to ‘Why Don’t You Write About Something Happy?’”  I’ve been asked that question, too, and the next time I get it, I’ll refer the person who asked to this poem, which, by itself, is worth the price of admission to this fine book. 

I hope I’ve motivated readers to buy and read Bruce Weigl’s thirteenth poetry book. The blurb on the back by Yusef Komunyakaa also highly recommends the book, so you don’t have to take my word for it. 

If anyone would know a fine book of poetry, it is Yusef Komunyakaa.  While you are at it, buy his books, too. 

—David Willson

The Secret of Hoa Sen by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Nguyen Phan Que Mai, the author of The Secret of Hoa Sen (BOA Editions, 208 pp., $16, paper), was born in 1973 in a small village in what was then North Vietnam. She has published many poetry books and has won many honors.

I could not read the Vietnamese versions of her poems, but had to depend on the translations she did with Bruce Weigl, who also translated this volume. Weigl, who wrote Song of Napalm (1988) and other books of poetry, served with the 1st Air Cavalry in Vietnam from 1967-1968. He is one of the most honored poets who took part in the Vietnam War.

In The Secret of Hoa Sen we first get a poem in Vietnamese and then, on the next page, the English translation.  Many of the poems deal, directly or indirectly, with the American war in Vietnam.

“With a Vietnam Veteran, for BW,” is my favorite in this small book. Two people are eating pho with chopsticks, and steam rises from those bowls of hot noodle soup.

“He can’t explain the reasons for the war

the reasons why my relatives had to fall,

and why so many children are imprisoned

in the pain of Agent Orange.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai

“Quang Tri” is another powerful one, a poem of loss and death. It should be read by those who are ignorant of the human cost of the war for the Vietnamese.  “Babylift” also brings home, in a hard-hitting but poetic way, how good intentions often sow tragic consequences.  “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” mentions Agent Orange, as well Nick Ut’s iconic photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, aka, “the girl in the photograph.”

I agree with the poet that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is “Black, silent,/the silent answer for thousands of questions.” But the questions must still be asked.

Poetry is an effective and beautiful way to deal with the horrific aspects of war that have marked all of us. Those who have been avoiding Vietnam War poetry should try this book. You might find it surprisingly affecting.

—David Willson

 

 

The New Oxford Book of War Poetry Edited by Jon Stallworthy

The New Oxford Book of War Poetry (Oxford University Press, 448 pp., $29.95) starts with the Bible and works its way to modern times. The youngest poet I spotted in this book was David Harsent, who was born in 1942, the same year I was born. He is in the age group referred to in English literature classes as “young poets.” I hope he feels younger than I do.

The book, edited by Jon Stallworthy, contains fewer than a dozen poems by Vietnam War veterans. The arrangement of the poems in this large book—with no subject categories—makes it difficult to determine exactly how many deal with particular wars. The book is arranged roughly in chronological order, but the lack of subject arrangement is a serious lapse and does not make this an easy reference book to use. Nor does the fact that it’s printed on cheap paper.

Patrons come into a library looking for poems that deal with a specific war or wars. To find them in this book, you need to know the name of the poet associated with a particular war. Yes, birth dates help, but not a lot.

I used the birth dates of the poets as a rough guide to locate poems dealing with specific wars. Doing that, I generally found that the book included most-often-cited poets for each war.  For the Vietnam War, for example, there was the work of Yusef Komunyakaa, W. D. Ehrhart, Bruce Weigl, John Balaban, along with one unusual suspect, Ngo Vinh Long. This group gets a total of seven poems between them.

I read the introduction to find out why the volume contains so few poems by Vietnam veterans. Editor Jon Stallworthy—a poet and Professor Emeritus of English Literature at Oxford University and a Fellow of the British Academy—explains it clearly: “For demographic and socio-historical reasons,” he writes, “the ratio of poets to other servicemen and women was less than in either world war. Most American intellectuals disapproved of the Vietnam War, and men of military age, particularly white men of military age, could avoid conscription by signing up for university education, and many did.”

Jon Stallworthy

As a university-educated white man and an intellectual who disapproved of the Vietnam War, where do I begin to take issue with this explanation? Is Stallworthy saying that those of us who served in Vietnam were too dumb or uneducated to write poetry?  I think he is—albeit hidden inside a velvet glove.

Since I wrote poetry while I was in Vietnam—just as many World War I poets wrote poetry during their war—I accuse Stallworthy of either not doing enough research or not reading enough Vietnam War poetry. Tens of thousands of university-educated men and women served in Vietnam. What’s more, many other men and women who took part in the war and who did and did not have university educations wrote worthy poetry after coming home from Vietnam.

I found nine poems by Wilfred Owen in the anthology. Many Vietnam veteran poets wrote nine or more worthy poems. You will not find them in this book.

The American poet of the Vietnam War who Stallworthy singles out for the most attention is John Balaban. He served in Vietnam as a conscientious objector, and is a fine poet, a very brave man, and an old friend.  One of the best memories of my life is the day he showed up to read poetry to my Vietnam War class. But why not a few words about Bill Ehrhart?  Space constraints, no doubt. Ehrhart was a Marine in Vietnam.

Don’t look in this anthology for much in the way of poetry dealing with wars since Vietnam. There is one fine poem by Peter Wyton, who was born in 1944, “Unmentioned in Dispatches,” that deals with the Iraq War.

—David Willson

Monsoon Blues by Elijah Imlay

Elijah Imlay’s Monsoon Blues (Tebot Bach, 88 pp., $14.25, paper) is a collection of poems drawn from the author’s experiences as an Army bandsman stationed at Camp Eagle in Vietnam in 1971. Imlay has arranged the poems chronologically, which results in a cogent poetic narrative of his time in the war zone. He uses a variety of styles in this book of short poems, making it fun to read.

This is a welcome book, as the literature of the Vietnam War relating to bandsmen is limited. The only other worthy published effort that leaps to mind is by Richard E. Baker, who went to Vietnam to play coronet but ended up setting ambushes.

When I tell people that I often stood formation in the early morning in Vietnam in the near darkness on a wet parade ground and had to leap out of the way to keep from being run over by a marching band playing a Souza march, that tale is often pooh-poohed. But the fact is that seventeen Army bands were stationed in Vietnam during the war. Imlay played clarinet with one of them.

In Monsoon Blues, we meet Imlay’s friend Bird, the man responsible for organizing a rock band to tour fire bases. We hear a lot from Bird. His is a voice worth hearing, conveying what it was like to be in the jungle with the First Cav.

Elijah Imlay

The book is arranged in four sections; each packs a punch. “Playing with the Band in Nam,” which appears near the end of the book, is my favorite poem.

It beings: “We sit on a hill/watching a firefight/while we eat supper”  One of the bandsmen plays “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” but the soldiers far below cannot hear “the throb of music/that rises out of their horror/into the sky’s abyss/from where they fall.”

The beautiful, fiery orange cover features band instruments and a bandsman, rather than the usual helicopter and beleaguered grunt that often adorn the covers of books dealing with the Vietnam War. The poems do not let down the hopeful reader. Buy and read this unique book of excellent poems.

—David Willson