V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics





I began to think about a number of writers who have focused 
closely and not repetitively, but often on that "splendid little war" 
that so many of us share in some way.  I wondered how 
they could possibly stop writing about it, 
not why they should continue to do so.

I can sometimes move forward without writing about Vietnam in my journal and then something brings it back to me: the way the water looks in the Laguna Madre, a cool breeze on campus, catching the silhouette of a telephone pole above the woods in my backyard late at night and mistaking it for a giant bird with a huge beak, the smell of peanut butter cookies in the oven, almost anything if it hits at just the right moment.  Almost it is as if someone turned a switch to the ON position and words begin to flow.  Not always good words, not always the right words, but words tumble out.
     That happened the other day when a friend asked about Bruce Weigl and thought maybe he should start writing about other things and leave the war behind him, that perhaps focusing so much on Vietnam was limiting in some way, and I began to think about a number of writers who have focused closely and not repetitively, but often on that "splendid little war" that so many of us share in some way.  I wondered how they could possibly stop writing about it, not why they should continue to do so. 
     When I walk through the hill country here in Texas, or hike into the Organ Mountains outside of Las Cruces, or stroll down a trail in the Big Thicket, paddle a canoe through the bays of the Texas coast or down the Guadalupe River when there is no drought, I feel more alive than I do at almost any other time, even when, no, especially when, I am alone. 
     But when I see these things, find myself away from other people, way out on the still waters of Espiritu Santo Bay or between lines of hills where I cannot hear cars on the highway or on a path hiking up to Dripping Springs outside Las Cruces, I find myself not exactly flashing back, with all the unpleasant connotations that accompany that phrase, but seeing once again the hills and low mountains of the Central Highlands in Vietnam, hearing the waters of the South China Sea at Chu Lai, looking again into a schoolyard in Pleiku and seeing a giant Buddha smashed apart.  That particular memory led to a poem:

          Father Buddha 

                   ÷for the Children of Pleiku 

          I walked two klicks down Le Loi Street
          to a schoolyard, a Buddha broken in the dust 
          shattered by a rocket meant for us, 
          and saw you sitting in his hand 
          tossing carved pieces of the statue's feet, 
          not even caring where they'd land. 

          What mattered was that I did not want to be 
          where and what I was and saw 
          that you had also had no choice. Some law, 
          legal in my case, chance in yours, 
          with no way out that you or I could see, 
          gave me a twelve month, you a lifetime, tour. 

          We shared a cigarette and watched the smoke 
          rise into the red dust Pleiku air. 
          You laughed, blew smoke rings with the flair 
          that comes only when you're very young. 
          You told me I was on the Buddha's throat 
          and should beware the Buddha's tongue. 

          I remember that once, when the war was calm, 
          we laughed and played with shattered stones, 
          and know there can be no way to atone 
          for all the death, the wounds, the pain. 
          If you still live, rest quietly in father Buddha's palm; 
          if not, sleep peacefully with all the slain.
     The other day, I had to replace two tires on my Ranger and went to NTB, a subsidiary of Sears.  The salesman's name was Jesse something and, as he looked out at the rains beating down on the parking lot, he said that whenever it rained it reminded him of the monsoons in Vietnam.  I told him I had been there in 1967-68 and he said, "No shit, man.  Me, too.  I was with the first of the 46th, Americal Division.  I laughed and told him I'd gone over on the USNS Gordon with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade.  He'd been on the same ship.  We talked about it for a while, all the time looking out at the rain.  He's not a writer and he doesn't suffer from a bad case of PTSD, but his war is always with him, too.
     I do not know how anyone who was there, whether in combat or not, could avoid those moments or why they would ever want to do so.  Another friend was talking about Christmas in Vietnam the other night and that day for me remains hazier than most days.  I didn't get drunk often when I was stationed in Pleiku, but I did on December 25, 1967.  Just something about the holidays. 
     I had bought a fifth of Ruffino's Chianti, the only portable drink other than beer the Club had on that day, and wandered down to the berm. The 555th Engineers had bulldozed the thing and the bunker line was right in front of it and down the hill before you got to the Air Force Base and the city lay a scrub thicket and, if I remember correctly, a small village walled in with bamboo.  I sat on top of the berm looking down at the lights of the AFB and the comparative darkness of Pleiku and drank until I drained the bottle. 
     The truce had held fairly well that Christmas, probably in preparation for the truce that would mark the Tet Offensive of 1968, only a little more than a month away, but occasionally, I saw a flare go off and heard what had to be some artillery unit blasting away just to make noise to celebrate Christmas.  That Christmas produced its own poem:

          for My Students in Pleiku

          The English class at Lake Bien Ho
          laughs, shouts, sings Christmas carols
          in broken English, sing-songy, tonal
          inflections, music that does not, somehow,
          fit in this warm, green land.  A small boy
          talks about the Buddha.  Not long ago
          a bonze kindled himself in Saigon, burned
          with intensity, no screams, a desperate
          song, silence fell on a noisey city.

          At Lake Bien Ho, the teachers
          have brought a Christmas tree, presents
          for their students:  books, candles,
          cakes and candy.  They sit on the bank
          and sing of shepherds and their flocks.
          An old man on a water buffalo watches.
After I finished the bottle, I lay back on the red dirt of the berm, saw the same stars I can still see here in Texas and fell asleep. 
     Not a big story.  Nothing happened.  No one dropped any mortars in the compound.  No one that I know of got hurt. When I woke up in the morning, I had a hangover, but no one got angry at my not being where I was supposed to be in "the appropriate uniform at the appropriate time" that morning after Christmas.  It's a hell of a moment to have memories about ÷ a drunken night when absolutely nothing out of the ordinary happened. 
     But it's part of the reason, not just the anger, not just the violence and death, that I think writers like Weigl and Ehrhart and Komunyakaa and so many others can't not write about Vietnam or, at least, must come back to it frequently.  It's always there, sitting in the landscapes of our minds, even for those of us who didn't wander into danger very often.

© by H. Palmer Hall


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