It would not be unreasonable to assume,” I wrote in a 1985 essay called “Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War” (published in VQR, V. 63, No. 2, Spring 1987), “that by this time whoever among Vietnam’s veterans was going to surface as a poet would by now have done so. . . . But the appearance in 1984 of D.F. Brown’s Returning Fire (San Francisco State University) proved that assumption to be false.
“Best of all,” I added, “poets like [Bruce] Weigl and [John] Balaban are still young and still producing. One hopes for the same from Brown, [Gerald] McCarthy and others. A poem of [Walt] McDonald’s recently appeared in The Atlantic. And other poets may yet emerge. Vietnam veteran Yusef Komunyakaa has published excellent poems in recent years in magazines and anthologies. . . . Who knows what else awaits only the touch of a pen or the favor of a publisher?”
The essay was a survey of the remarkable body of poetry written by American veterans of the war, the size and quality of which then already exceeded that produced in the wake of any previous American war. Have the poets I wrote about continued to produce? And have other poets emerged? The answer to both questions is yes.
Here is what the poets I discussed have accomplished since I wrote that essay. John Balaban has published a children’s novel, a memoir, and another collection of poems, Words for My Daughter (Copper Canyon, 1991), which was a National Poetry Series winner; Horace Coleman has published In the Grass (Viet Nam Generation & Burning Cities, 1995); Yusef Komunyakaa has published seven collections of poetry, including Neon Vernacular (Wesleyan, 1993), which earned him a 1994 Pulitzer Prize; Gerald McCarthy has published Shoetown (Cloverdale Library, 1992); Walt McDonald has published eight additional collections of poetry, including The Flying Dutchman (Ohio State, 1987), winner of the Elliston Prize, and After the Noise of Saigon (Massachusetts, 1988), winner of the Juniper Prize; Bruce Weigl has published Song of Napalm (Atlantic, 1988) and What Saves Us (TriQuarterhj, 1992), as well as co-translating Poems from Captured Documents (Massachusetts, 1994) with Thanh T. Nguyen.
Equally impressive is the number of soldier-poets who have published first books since I wrote my essay, most prominent among them R.L. Earth, George Evans, Jon Forrest Glade, David Huddle, Steve Mason, Leroy V. Quintana, Larry Rottmann, Bill Shields, and Lamont Steptoe. Of particular significance was the publication of Visions of War, Dreams of Peace (Warner, 1991), an anthology of poetry by women Vietnam veterans, few of whom had ever been published before, edited by two former army nurses, Lynda Van Devanter and Joan Furey. For the first time, the voices of women— some 15,000 of whom served in Vietnam with the U.S. military, the Red Cross, and the USO—joined the chorus of Vietnam war poets, filling a conspicuous void.
All of the poets I’ve thus far mentioned are discussed in detail in Vince Gotera’s Radical Visions: Poetry by Vietnam Veterans (Georgia, 1994), but within 18 months of the publication of Gotera’s landmark study, four still newer collections of poetry appeared, each of them first-rate books by Vietnam veterans, men in their mid-40’s to early 50’s yet only now publishing first books.
Doug Anderson, a navy corpsman attached to the Marines in Vietnam, ought to be familiar to VQR readers. Three of his poems, two of which are reprinted in The Moon Reflected Fire (Alice James, 1994), earned him the Emily Balch Prize after they appeared in the Spring 1993 VQR. The book itself was subsequently awarded the Kate Tufts Prize for a first book of poetry (Anderson had previously published only a chapbook, Bamboo Bridge, Amherst Writers & Artists, 1991).
The Moon Reflected Fire begins with a sequence of poems set in Vietnam during the war. In the first poem, “Night Ambush,” while lying in wait, listening to the unsuspecting villagers—”children and old people”—Anderson considers what he has become:
Things live in my hair. I do not bathe.
I have thrown away my underwear.
I have forgotten the why of everything.
The unresolved tension of the poem’s conclusion—”A black snake slides off the paddy dike/into the water and makes the moon shiver”—sets up the poems which follow.
In “Two Boys,” a machinegunner uses “three/children dawdling to school along a paddy dike” for target practice. In “Free Fire Zone,” an 18-year-old Marine “who thinks/Christ is about to rain death on commies/kicks the family altar to pieces in an old mud hut.” In “Infantry Assault,” an entire village (perhaps the one in “Night Ambush”?) is destroyed in one long sentence fragment spanning twenty lines and four stanzas (the fragment is a device Anderson is fond of, using it here and elsewhere to good effect).
The consequences of such actions are everywhere. In “Bamboo Bridge,” Anderson’s patrol comes upon a young woman bathing in a stream who “turns and sees us there/sinks into the water, eyes full of hate[.]” The same hatred stiffens the courage of the two Viet Cong snipers in “Judgement” who pin down Anderson’s unit, taunting them:
We will die to hold you here
while the others slip away toward the mountains.
What will you die for?
—and the recklessness of the old woman in “Mamasan” who “stands in front of the lead tank/[and] breaks the tank’s searchlight with her hoe.” The final poem in the opening sequence, “North of Tam Ky, 1967,” suggests both how Anderson survived and what it cost him:
I had inside of me in those days a circuit breaker between head and heart that shut out everything but the clarity of fear.
* * * *
I flipped the switch and went cold, the same whose wires I tinker with these twenty-three years after, a filament flickering in the heart and then the blaze of light.
The middle two sections of the book offer a historical and literary context for Anderson’s Vietnam war poems. Part Two, “Los Desastres de la Guerra,” is a ten-part poem set during the Spanish Civil War. Part Three consists of poems based on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in which Anderson repeatedly holds up for scrutiny the difference between legend and truth, myth and reality. The final poem in this sequence, however, “Erebus,” deals not with Homer’s place of darkness, but with Anderson’s. In a dream, he finds himself among the dead he thought he’d left behind:
What took you so long, Doc, they say.
They ask where you’ve been and you can’t tell them.
Over twenty years since you got lost coming home,
and now you’re back here, . . .but this time
naked and without a weapon.
It is this vulnerability, the sense of being “naked and without a weapon,” which gives the final section of the book so much power. “Used to be I’d get a bottle,” he writes in “Blues”:
and drink until the lights went out
but now I carry my pain around everywhere I go
because I’m afraid
I might put it down somewhere and lose it.
In “The Wall,” he writes, “We who fought there never imagined we would return to such a world/to such a monument, numb, we did not yet imagine that for us the war/had just begun[.]” In “Yes,” he describes how Corporal T
pushed the old man into a bunker,
rolled a grenade in after him
and I said No,
four seconds before the mortal crunch[. ]
Reflecting upon the incident years later, Anderson concludes:
. . . that sound, No,
echos even now in me,
a resonance from which so many yesses come,
and I’ve grown to love the part of me that spoke it.
But there can be no final resolution, no clean way to make it all come out okay in the end. In “Mugging, Brooklyn, 1981,” he writes: “How my life is known by glints that promise knowledge/and how with every truth the darkness seems to double.”
Kevin Bowen’s poems are quieter, less apparently anguished than Anderson’s, who seems to stand before a mirror, saying, “This is what I see.” Bowen knocks gently at the door and says, “Come, I want to show you something.” In Playing Basketball with the Viet Cong (Curbstone, 1994), one glimpses only occasionally the war itself, as in “Body Count: The Dead at Tay Ninh,” where he writes of “[b]odies so close together lies came easy./They slept; they weren’t really dead./They’d wake up when the war was over[, ]” or in “Incoming”:
Don’t let them kid you—
The mind . . . moves of its own accord,
even hears the slight
bump the mortars make
as they kiss the tubes goodbye.
Then the furious rain,
a fist driving home a message:
“Boy, you don’t belong here.”
But even “Incoming,” beginning in the then, slides into the now, concluding:
This is why you’ll see them sometimes,
in malls, men and women off in corners:
the ways they stare through the windows in silence.
Most of these poems deal not with the war, but with the war’s multiplicity of consequences. A former 1st Air Cavalry trooper, Bowen has spent the past decade as director of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, working with a wide range of American and Vietnamese veterans, both in the U.S. and in Viet Nam.
In “Reunion,” dedicated to Vietnamese painter Le Tri Dung, Bowen describes the first meeting in 40 years between a former North Vietnamese soldier and his aunt who left Vietnam and settled in Louisiana: “All night, like figures in his paintings, /they reach for sun and moon on wings/ride above a plain of sorrow.” In the title poem, he plays basketball in his driveway in Dorchester with filmmaker Nguyen Quang Sang. To Bowen’s amazement, the former Viet Cong guerrilla sinks ten baskets in a row. “It’s a gift,” Sang tells him, “good for bringing gunships down. . . .” In “Lotus Tea,” toward the end of one of his many trips to postwar Vietnam, Bowen wonders “[h]ow to say good-bye” to Vu Tu Nam, another former enemy and now general secretary of the Vietnam Writers’ Association. Affection for former enemies extends even to the dead. In “Pictures from Quang Nam,” Bowen writes of his wife lying beside him in a hotel in Da Nang:
You woke many times, finally
to see him laying across my bed,
a soldier, you said, a figure in black,
arm draped across my shoulder
as if to protect me.
Perhaps because he has had the opportunity to come to know so many Vietnamese so well, Bowen’s Vietnamese are neither faceless enemies nor inscrutable allies nor helpless victims, but people who are, and always were, not much different from us. In “River Music,” he describes a postwar evening in Vietnam in the company of Vietnamese friends:
We drink rice liquor, toast
ten reasons men fall
in love on a river.
The old men smile into their instruments.
A woman sings, such beauty
even the moon might die
on her shoulder.
And if in Vietnam today,
bombs still explode,
rip arms and eyes from farmers.
Fish never returned.
Each year more topsoil washes off.
Spring, the forests lose more cover[, ]
as he writes in “Graves at Quang Tri,” nevertheless “the full moon on the hill/returns belief, and nights the young go dancing.”
The young don’t go dancing in the poetry of David Connolly, who is the poetic equivalent of a punch in the solar plexus. So visceral and immediate are the poems in Lost in America (Viet Nam Generation & Burning Cities, 1994), they will take your breath away. Consider “Food for Thought, 3:00AM,” quoted in its entirety:
They moved in unison
like dancers in a ballet,
the spider, twenty inches from my rifle,
the VC, twenty feet farther out, in line,
each slowly sliding a leg forward.
I let the man take one more step
so as not to kill the bug.
Or these stanzas from “Thoughts on a Monsoon Morning”:
I hate every fucking one of you
who make dollars from our deaths.
I hate every fucking one of you
for my friends’ dying breaths.
I hate every fucking one of you
banker or corporation head.
I hate every fucking one of you
for so many, so young and dead.
Connolly, who fought as an infantryman with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, is peerless at bringing to life the ruthless drudgery of battle. In “The Chickenman,” he describes how a friend died “blowing snot and bloody bubbles, /eyes wide and full of fear/fingers digging at the clay.” In “Tet, Plus Twenty Four,” one of six extraordinary prose poems in the collection, he beckons: “See, around that corner, in neat lines along the street, there are beautiful trees in full bloom and American soldiers, dead for days, in full bloat.” Even the humor is ruthless, as if, D.F. Brown once wrote, “something warped it out of place.” Something did. Here is “No Lie, GI,” again in its entirety:
We had a deal, he and I,
of no bullshit between us.
If one of us got wounded,
the other wouldn’t lie.
So when he got hit
and he asked me,
“How’s my leg?”
I looked him straight in the eye
and told him, “It’s fine.”
It looked fine to me,
laying over there,
looked as good as new.
Connolly, like Bowen, has arranged his poems in one continuous but non-chronological sequence, moving back and forth between then and now. Because the center of gravity in Connolly’s collection is located closer to the war itself, however, the effect of the resulting juxtapositions is more pronounced, reflecting the ways memory weaves the war in and out of Connolly’s life. In “Psych Evaluation,” a young graduate student
is asking me why I’m smiling.
His eyes can’t see my Brothers
on either side of him
giving him the finger,
blowing kisses at this punk
and his clipboard full of questions[. ]
In “After Hearing Hueys and a Hunter in the Woods,” he suffers a flashback while walking with his two young daughters. In “The Lost Piece,” he says, “I still stand/with my back/to the wall.” And in “The Little Man,” he wakes up from a recurring nightmare “screaming, gagging,” his wife trying to comfort him:
‘Dave, it’s OK.’
But you see it will never be OK. That [VC] will make his run in my head as I helplessly watch and neither time nor her tears will make him stop. It is not my fault I couldn’t stop him. I know that. I’ve always known that.
But now she thinks its her fault because she can’t.
What animates Connolly is the desire to teach others—especially young people—what he has learned, so that another generation might not have to learn the same lessons all. over again. He is under no illusions, however, about his prospects for success. “Don’t believe a word I say,” he writes in “Don’t Go to War Stories”:
Don’t even listen.
I was nineteen once
and I knew it all.
Say, “Frig him”
over your shoulder
and go off
to kill other children.
Do it and die,
or drag home
what’s left of you
and try to deal with it.
Dale Ritterbusch, too, places the lessons of the war at the heart of his writing, even titling his book Lessons Learned (Viet Nam Generation & Burning Cities, 1995), but his expectations are, if anything, even lower than Connolly’s. In “Geography Lesson,” he decries “the silence of the world/in response to inarticulate horrorsf.j” Speaking to dead comrades in “Friends,” he laments, “all that death for nothing but a few stories,” then adds incredulously:
there are those who wish they’d
joined you—seen the gunship downed,
the fuelship blown up on the pad,
body parts strung out like ornaments,
who wish they’d gone and gotten a few themselves—
* * * *
Friends, a fool’s rain falls
and falls upon your sinking graves.
Not surprisingly, these poets return often to the dead, and Ritterbusch is no exception, condemning the callous squandering of so many lives. In “Shoulders,” he recalls a pre-war conversation with a fellow officer in which the two men talked not of women’s breasts or legs, but of their shoulders, then goes on to say that
some nights when I lie with my wife,
I curl my hands around her shoulders and pull tight—
and see your hands, your heart and lung all shot away,
and somewhere, shoulders, shivering.
In “When It’s Late,” he imagines the wife, son, and daughter another dead friend never got to have. But it is not only his own dead he mourns. In “Winning Hearts and Minds,” he writes of a woman who “has lost one son to the VC, another/to an air strike[, ]” and who tries to flee, an infant in her arms, from the Marines who are burning her house down, but instead “falls/against the hard luck of Vietnam[, ]” a country he describes in “On the Gulf of Siam” as “a land much loved by war[.]”
Ritterbusch, an army lieutenant and liaison officer based in Thailand, coordinated a program for the aerial mining of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But in “Search and Destroy” and other poems, he writes as convincingly of the ground war in Vietnam as if he had been an enlisted rifleman:
[S]o we threw in another grenade and one of the
dinks brought down his arms, maybe he started
to sneeze with all that crap running out of his face,
maybe he had a weapon concealed, I didn’t know,
so I greased him. Wasn’t much else I could do.
A sudden move like that.
After his discharge, Ritterbusch comes back to a world to which he no longer belongs. “I don’t recognize the family portrait/hanging on the wall,” he writes, again in “Geography Lesson,” describing his own front yard as a “land I cannot recognize as home.” Returning to college, in “Back in the World,” he has to borrow some notes from a professor:
I was . . . responsible for
my men, their lives, and megabucks worth of equipment and
such, and here he kept asking me if I’d bring
that chickenshit paper back to him.
“Yeah, right.” I knew then
I’d never make it.
The predominant feelings one gets from these poems are of bitterness, disillusionment, and betrayal, but there are poems in this collection (and not a few of them) whose tenderness startles all the more for being found in the midst of harsher emotions. In “At the Crash Site of a B-52: January 1994,” he writes of a Vietnamese mother whose young son died beneath the wreckage of an American bomber, and of the American recovery team that comes looking, years later, for evidence of the plane’s crew:
They find a major’s insignia[. ]
* * * *
They dig deeper, screen more bone[. ]
* * * *
[S]he recognizes the bones of her son
the way she imagines the major’s
mother would recognize hers, if she let go,
. . . if she’d only learn
that war is not something you come back from
whether you are killed or not, that resurrection
is only a story for the gods—that a candle,
the perfume of burning incense, a flower
growing from the garden of this blackened earth
brings more than a lasting peace, more
than a mother can hope for.
And in “Taps,” when his daughter hears taps being played in a war movie on television and, having heard the tune only around a Brownie Scout campfire, asks, “How do they know that song?” Ritterbusch silently prays
to all the gods who ever
interfered in the lives, the wars, of men
never to have her know that music
other than around the fire toasting marshmellows[.]
I concluded “Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War” by saying, “One would like to think that the soul of the nation might somehow be cleansed [by poetry], but that is hardly likely. More realistically, one hopes that in writing these poems, the poets might at least have begun to cleanse their own souls of the torment that was and is [the Vietnam War].”
Since I wrote those words, American soldiers have invaded Panama, Iraq, Somalia, and Haiti, and been dispatched to Bosnia; one of the most popular public figures in the United States is a Vietnam veteran named Colin Powell; and a president who actively avoided service in Vietnam has extended economic and diplomatic recognition to that country. For the nation as a whole, the Vietnam War has become only a bizarre assortment of myths and misinterpretations and is now rapidly disappearing into the fog of history.
But at least for those who fought the war, the ugly truth of it simply will not go away, as Anderson, Bowen, Connolly, and Ritterbusch vividly demonstrate. Revisiting old battlefields in “Nui Ba Den: Black Virgin Mountain,” Bowen wonders, “[W]hat grace is found/in so much loss?” These poems are the answer to his question. These poems are the grace that’s found in so much loss. And if governments and nations remain impervious to the grace of poetry, I’ll still pick poetry every time.