BY DAVID WILLSONR
Vietnam War poetry also deals with the challenges and struggles veterans have with PTSD, married life, fatherhood or motherhood, careers, further educationuniversal concerns that Vietnam War veteran poets have turned their talents and attention to. I trawled through hundreds of Vietnam War poetry books and chapbooks, and enjoyed the pursuit of the perfect poems for this piece. I found enough poems and produced enough comments and thoughts for a hundred-page essay. I’ll present just a sliver of that here.
Many poets tell us that there is life after our war, and that life is worth living and worth writing poetry about. Not all of our poets say that, but many do. Life after war is often hard, and the writing about that life can be angry and filled with blame, but it also can possess forgiveness.
Many Vietnam veterans returned home and got on with their lives and had great, productive lives. Others did not. There are no statistics on this that I trust. How could there be? It’s a subjective thing, a personal determination if your life has worked out. When we returned to The World on the so-called Freedom Bird (I never heard either of those expressions in Vietnam), our return could be a rocky experience, and Vietnam War poetry shows us what that could look likewhat forms that could take. Expectations were high, often unrealistic. Some young returnees actually expected a paradea delusion that always puzzled me.
We hadn’t left Hitler dead in his bunker, Mussolini hanging by his heels, or Tojo in whatever oblivion was designated for him. It was business as usual in Vietnam. And at home as well. A parade was out of the question. There was no counseling for us, nobody to talk to. So many of us wrote poetry. Poured out our souls. Some of it was fine stuff and some of it was not so fine. I’ve searched for honesty in the writing and will start off with a short poem by John Wilson that cannot be faulted for its bald honesty and for how it expresses feelings that I have seen in hundreds of Vietnam War memoirs, novels, and poems. This is from Wilson’s book, Coming Home: Reflections of Vietnam. Wilson served as a Navy journalist in Vietnam.
I’m many years older now
Mostly, I remember going there
Wilson’s short poetical reflection is a summation of the point-of-view of an enormous number of Vietnam veterans. His poem is an accessible crowd-pleaser, written as directly as he can make it. For contrast, look at Horace Coleman’s poem from his book, In the Grass.
It Was Jane Fonda’s Fault
Stirring us up.
When we reached our assembly point,
After we searched and destroyed
This poem might not be a crowd-pleaser, but it pleased me. It is also not immediately accessible, but like much good poetryor fine wineit rewards persistence and repeated exposure. It also brings home the oft-denied truth that some Vietnam veterans were comfortable returning from their war to college and antiwar demonstrations. I did it myself. Coleman’s fine book is filled with poems of great quality. Much of it is fun to read. Thought-provoking, too.
Marilyn McMahon, in her chapbook Works in Progress, delineated the future that some of us had in store due to exposure to bad stuff. We were told in grade school to believe in “Better Living Through Chemistry,” but our Weekly Readers lied to us about so much, and lulled us into being trusting automaton-citizens. So we bathed daily in Agent Orange and paid the price later. McMahon says it better in her poem, “Knowing.” Below the title of her poem is this quote:
(“Recent research indicates that Dioxin is the most potent toxin ever studied.” …news report, September 1987).
I watched the helicopters
I knew that it was called
I knew part of the price
How they grieved
I knew more
I choose not to know
This long poem is both hard and easy to read. Conversational about death, loss, and what shea woman who volunteered to be an Army nurse in Vietnamgave up without knowing the price for serving. McMahon speaks for all of us who have had our lives derailed by exposure to dioxins, with an anguished but dispassionate and scientific voice, as suits a person with her medical training.
Heartbreaking stuff to read, but necessary for all to read. Not just for veterans of that ancient war we served in, but for general citizens, to provoke them to think about the butcher’s bill being levied on the young who serve in our current wars. Their many deployments expose them to chemicals and violent forces that will cost them their health and their livesand the country trillions of dollars. As the late Pete Seeger (a fellow veteran) asked, “When will we ever learn?”
Time for two shorter poems written by veterans who returned and successfully had families and who were able to protect, nurture, and enjoy their children. The lucky ones. David Vancil served in Vietnam for a year as an officer and an advisor. He has written poetry of that year in his book, The Homesick Patrol. This poem is from a more recent book, Night Photo, which deals with some of what he has done since his war.
Geese Flying over the Basketball Goal
Above us two geese rose from the nearby pond,
Ball on her hip, my daughter didn’t complain
Vancil came back from his war, got more education, worked as a librarian and a professor, and wrote this lyric poem about the joy of spending time with his daughter. No bitterness here, only joy.
Another poem with a lot of joy is this one by W.D. (Bill) Ehrhart.
Coaching Winter Track in Time of War
The boys are running “suicides”
It’s thirty degrees, but they sweat
You could fall in love with boys
How do you tell them it’s not that simple?
You tell the boys “good work” and call it a day,
Ehrhart is a Marine Corps veteran who became a coach and teacher of young men, and it is easy for him to visualize them dead in aluminum boxes. The Vietnam War informs and infiltrates everything Ehrhart does. He has learned from his war. The poem’s joy is leavened with a sense of dread. It’s taken from a book of essays, The Last Time I Dreamed About the War.
Leroy Quintana wrote a classic volume of Vietnam War poetry dealing with his tour of duty, Interrogations. He has also written many books of poetry about his family and friends. Here is one of those poems from his book, The History of Home.
The winter I returned from Vietnam
I’m reading between the lines, but I feel that Quintana is saying that perhaps he was lucky to have been in warm and sunny South Vietnam, luckier than Tony, anyhow. Quintana survived to become a college professor and an acclaimed poet, but this is all we know of Tony. This isn’t quite a poem saying that the war had benefits for us, but it comes close. That war is in our bones and our souls. The proof is Quintana’s poem, “Eight Years After Vietnam.”
Eight years after Viet Nam
Nine years after Viet Nam
It’s an M-16 world.
This ultimate PTSD poem is from Quintana’s book, Sangre. There are many PTSD poems, but this one chills my blood and keeps me from searching the heap of poetry books for another. This one will do for all of the others.
R.S. Carlson served his year in Vietnam, but these many decades later still is working that time out of his soul. This poem is from his book, Waiting to Say Amen.
we come, blood
to take the
light of the
can blow all
For many of us, the war is that trick candle that we can never blow out. I’ve been trying since 1967 to do so. As you can see from this article, I have not been successful. For good reason, blood and fire often appear as images in the poetry of Vietnam War poets. Dennis Ward Stiles wrote Saigon Tea. Another of his books, The Fire in Which We Burn, contains his poem, “Today.”
I did not want anything
No new skulls
Even as the sun vanished
I wanted blood to be honey.
Stiles’s poem is life-affirming, filled with hope. A similar sentiment is expressed in this small piece of verse from Jerry Neren’s book-length poem, Once Upon a Time in Vietnam.
Once Upon a Time in Vietnam.
In this new world of mine,
This gives the reader an idea where Neren now stands on war. I stand there beside him. I did not raise my sons to be soldiers. There have been Willsons in America’s wars since the Revolutionary War, and all since then, up to and including the Vietnam War. But none after.
Some of us had a harder time than others with getting on with our lives. In his book, Lost Lambs, Bill Bauer introduces us to Larry, who had a strike or two against him. This poem gives more reasons why some of us are done with war. Bauer served in Vietnam in 1969 with his activated National Guard unit.
Sylvia knew Larry knew,
Larry is no longer a normal American and never will be again. That was true for many of us, but Larry couldn’t run. Couldn’t hide. Every time I go to the Seattle VA Hospital to see my oncologist to find out if my multiple myeloma is on the march again, I pass by the area where the people go to get treatment for their missing limbs. Usually the elevator has one or two of these folks aboard. It makes for a sobering ride. That could have been me. Easy to imagine. Then I feel lucky just to have this fatal disease. Puts things into perspective for me. Since I read this poem, I now imagine that it is Larry in that elevator with me.
Fred Rosenblum served in the Marines in Vietnam, 1967-68. His poem “Festive Skies” deals with some of the same issues as the first poem in this article by John Wilson, but Rosenblum ratchets up the images. This is from his book, Hollow Tin Jingles.
I haven’t visited that wall
nor visited the structure
lest I be reminded
but thanks for the slap in the face
the shun me shame me
thanks for the perpetual zombie silence
those families and friends
Rosenblum’s poem about The Wall in Washington is one of many by veteran poets, but he gets at things that all of us felt when we came home, but many of us never dared voice for fear of being considered bitter or maladjusted whiners.
I’ll end with a poem from Jon Forrest Glade’s fine volume of poetry, Photographs of the Jungle, which should be on every Vietnam veteran’s shelf of the best books of our war. Glade served with the 101st Airborne in 1969 in the A Shau Valley as a pointman. His poem, “Walking Wounded,” exemplifies how all of us should support other veterans, no matter how different our tours of duty were. Because if we don’t help each other, who will we turn to?
“This is Colfax,” the bus driver said,
He got off without any help.
Glade’s poem made me laugh and cry. That is the measure of true genius for a poet. Thank you, Jon Glade, and thanks to all of the other fine poets who have allowed us into their souls in the course of our reading their poetry. Poetry is the ultimate healing force for all of us, if we allow it to be. We have to open our hearts to it, and let it in. Then it informs us, and perhaps it heals us.
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