H. Palmer Hall: Review by Jeffrey C. Alfier


Foreign and Domestic by H. Palmer Hall (Turning Point Books)


Foreign and Domestic by H. Palmer Hall



               Then comes the shape

               Of a silence made of an army.

               …your brother of parallel fire.

                                      —James Dickey


H. Palmer Hall is the author of nine previous books and chapbooks. He is a Vietnam veteran who served in country from 1967 to 1968, and spoke Vietnamese. He holds a PhD and currently serves as a library director at St. Mary’s University, in San Antonio, Texas. The title of his new compilation comes from the American military oath whereby service men and women swear to defend the country against all enemies, "foreign and domestic."  These two terms, "foreign and domestic," form the two sections of the book. The cover art, Reach by Brian St. John, fits perfectly the tone of the work, recalling as it does Paul Nash’s landscape painting of war-devastated Europe, sardonically entitled, We Are Making a New World (1918). 

     Foreign and Domestic is a work focused primarily on those dispossessed by wars—civilian and uniformed combatants alike—and their countries at large that are affected by the wars. In speaking to this wide realm, Hall and his publisher incisively placed certain poems on facing pages, such as two addressing his father lost at sea, two on Christmas in Pleiku, Vietnam, and two on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. Such an arrangement provides a hauntingly progressive juxtaposition as Hall, like British Great War poet Edmund Blunden, found it requisite to look back on wartime experiences and “go over the ground again.” [1] Like Blunden’s, Hall’s are no inarticulate diatribes or antiwar rants; rather, Foreign and Domestic is highly-skilled verse from a remarkably keen observer, one admirably direct. As such, his tactile effects are stunning throughout. He often achieves his sharpest effects through a technique of inscribing in his lines interrogative dialogues by ordinary American citizens as they ask tough questions of a nation at war.

     The opening Haiku proem of the book’s first poem, "To Wake Again" (11), is striking. Its austerity forms a compelling image that sets the stage for the entire book. In the poem that follows, Hall tells of dreaming in Vietnamese as he listens slowly and, in a tone nearly somnambulant, “Still remembers the words.” But as these are words of “death, old wounds,” the subtlety emerges in stark pictures beyond the bare essentials of recalled grammar. Such are the voices that plead with his inner sense, “You must come back again,” for “History is…a slow walk through flames” (12). As the volume unfolds, we see that this history is not only national but sharply personal as well.

     "The Marine Sulfur Queen" (13-14) is the book’s most grippingly poignant work, foretold in the dedication: "For my father: lost at sea, February, 1963." Hall’s lines expand in a quiet reminiscence of calm waters that buoyed a routine working voyage, “…no operation of divine love, / …no trip to find and kill a mythic whale.” It is here, in the deceptively placid waters of the Gulf of Mexico, his father and the vessel he was ship’s company with, incredibly vanished in waters undisturbed by man or nature. Years later, his son Palmer is left to gaze at the sea and ponder the quiet terror of its sublime vastness. "The Voyage" (17) continues this story, and again, Hall folds poignant epigraphs into his verse as he ponders the disappearance of the ship, an incident unaccountable in an idyllic setting that February day of 1963, where the authorities could never explain the ship’s total vanishing, “no place on the map to mark the X.”

     Before such profound losses, Hall remains a stunned witness. And it’s that tone of a stunned witness that pervades this volume of poetry. In “From the Periphery" (18), he is back in Vietnam to offer us the heightened exigency of his sensory perceptions, seeing “In that dark men I have not really / come to know wait quietly….” And yet, throughout, he knows verbal testimony is not enough, for “words can not always be enough, words can not / translate what eyes have seen” (and note the doubling emphasis of splitting "cannot" into "can not"). Still, there endures an intimacy undiminished by the passing of time, an intimacy with the dispossessed and the dead. We see this exemplified throughout; consider "Looking North" (71), which shows once more Hall’s vision ranging across a wide historical field. In this poem he summons another realm of domestic death: Mexicans who illegally cross into the US, walking so many miles “to some north they’ve never seen.” In the harsh conditions of the American Southwest deserts, they “fall, posed between / two dwarf trees, hear the rattle / of a snake, of a last breath of air…” (72).

     "Russian Roulette" (15) is a stark prelude to the book’s several Vietnam poems. Here, the US’s conscription lottery is juxtaposed with sports and money lotteries. Hall shows the chasm between the sports lottery, where an NBA draftee can “grin and walk upon the stage,” or the Texas lottery where numbers are read by a “big-bosomed woman,” and an all-too deadly conscription lottery of the Vietnam war era, with lives divided into “birth dates professionally printed, falling into numbered slots.” For many fellow Vietnam veterans, the “turning barrel, wire mesh” that holds lottery numbers may imagistically echo with gunships and firebases, a redoubling effect of lotteries in the their slow, inexorable sorting.

     In "Languor," Hall keenly evokes nature’s sublime, presented in the incongruous image of “flowers drooping over the dead of Khe Sanh,” and in the amplified battlefield devastation where the moon leans down to find “nothing to reflect” (23). He knows quite well how war distorts the pastoral where rockets, like birds, break the silence as “the music that accompanies death plays on and on” ("Something," 36). Meanwhile, "Suburban Blues” (67-68) shows how violence distorts what should otherwise be a peaceful postwar life back in the US, as a mugger assails the poem’s speaker, disaffecting forever “quiet walks on moonlit streets, sitting silent / on front lawn chairs on calm purple nights…”. Again, the pastoral is bloodied as it is in a subtly powerful way in "Mortars with Crow," where we’re shown a world beaten to minimalist elements, war found not to be about reasons, but only about some reflection in starkly simple metaphors, such as a crow (24 - 25). Moreover, in "Christmas, 1967," set in the central highlands town of Pleiku, we witness “children pick through the garbage,” a poem that recalls Walt McDonald’s "The Food Picker’s of Saigon." [2] In "For my Students in Pleiku" (27), Hall remembers the incongruity of his English students singing foreign Christmas carols in broken English even as an “old man on a water buffalo watches,” surely wise in his agedness to doubt the persistency and relevancy of this foreign holiday music, and by extension, a foreign God.

     As stated earlier, Hall’s perception of suffering encompasses the breadth of all touched by war. In "Father Buddha" (28), he knows that citizens and former enemies in Vietnam, like him, “also had no choice” to be in the war. But whereas he would leave in a year, those who remained behind to live on in the aftermath serve a lifetime tour, their post-war lives embedded with mental and physical scars—on the land as well as on the body. In "A Sonnet for Napalm," a poem recalling Bruce Weigl’s "Song of Napalm" [3], we once again witness the distortion of the pastoral through an incendiary’s mocking colors of “Some strange beauty” in “riots of deep embers glowing” (38). Such imagistic countervailing forces the reader to look and listen: “the smell / of the morning changed to nothing anyone could love.” The persistence of such horrific visions, witnessed by the American soldier, resonates down the decades. We see this starkly in "The Collector" (65), where war hits quite close to home for Hall. Here, a quiet, unassuming Vietnam vet friend murdered his wife as “he fell from love one day,” just as Jeff apparently did in "Elegy for Jeff" (69), another friend who met a sad and perhaps self-inflicted end.

     Such stark contrasts echo in the evocative poem, "New Names" (30). Here, the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall is first introduced to the reader through a subtle pastoral setting that hearkens back to "A Shropshire Lad," Alfred Housman’s poem cycle of war deaths amid a summer idyll.[4] Hall’s line, “Cherry blossoms blow along the ground,” stands astride Housman’s "Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now" just before he comes to remind us that the black granite wings of the Memorial are inscribed with those “men / and women who will not grow old” (30), an eloquent telling of memory’s deep inscription. On the facing page of "New Names" is "Not All the Names Are There," a second poem on the Wall. As a Vietnam veteran, Hall knows it’s an asserted conclusion that “the Wall brings healing, peace, understanding,” for “they never mention rage” (31). He also reminds us that the Wall will never be complete because the names of the wider war’s dead will never be included. As such, he hauntingly points out how “A boy named Bao lay dying on a hill, / his body burned with napalm, his death my call” (31). Such non-inclusiveness is amplified with a hint of wryness in the rhyme of “Wall” with “all” the last two lines.

     In "TRO" (20), Hall shows us that despite what we may perceive as the ignominy of one failing out of basic training, in wartime that may have proved to have saved sometime from death in a meaningless war. In "Push Ups" (21), the poem on the facing page of "TRO," we meet a man who could coolly surpass 200 pushups, one who did them without pride, and would afterward simply stand up and walk away. Yet in those last two words, "walk away," we are left to ponder the man’s open-ended fate as he will surely face more challenges than a pushup record.

     As we know from his other books, the Big Thicket region of Texas is landscape Hall has long laid emotional claim.[5]  This is an expansive area where the world goes right, and where it can go terribly wrong, as in "Big Thicket Requiem" (55 - 60), an elegy in six parts for James Byrd, Jr., an African-American murdered when tied to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to his death. This blatantly atavistic expression of hate deeply haunts Hall, tainting forever the idyllic flora and fauna around him. Where the sun is “a hint of fire edging the leaves” and a family of beavers builds it home, there hauntingly comes “a steady rain of leaves, the drop of dead limbs.” Here, Hall finds Byrd’s death reigns among wider extinctions in the area: the Witness Tree, red wolves, passenger pigeons. Amid the place where “sunlight brightens wild orchids,” human detritus blossoms, “a pickup dragging terror / in the dark” (58). In this region of nature in its richest outlay, Hall’s senses are heightened as if he were on alert for every sound, color, smell; again, the stunned witness.

     "Of War: Pictures and Words" (32) speaks again to war’s deeper resonance in human history, “Andersonville foreshadowing / Auschwitz,” the war-wrought failures of humankind reminding us that the tally of their vulgar numbers would teach us much if we kept the memory of them alive. It is in those annals we are starkly reminded of “A Vietnam-sized loss in days / at Chancellorsville.” Much becomes obfuscated over time when Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs’ “Flat black and white / lose animation” as “horses blur into sleek silver / and fly over rivers of black.” In "An Old Story," Hall reminds us why Dante made hell circular, the cycle of man’s culpability cycling back on him where we see how “Eve reaches once more for the fruit…” (37). There are many refractions in this cycle as we see in "From My Student in London" (41-43), a poem of war shadowing the travels of one of Hall’s modern students that ends  with a brilliant tour de force. Here, a love-struck young woman, traveling the classically romantic cities of Paris and Rome, cannot but think “of all the dead of those old wars,” parsing through her mind as she “attempts / to answer love in a halting tongue” (42).

     In "Children of a Lesser God" (33-34), 1991 post-Gulf War parades through American cities summon Siegfried Sassoon’s derogation of gleeful patriotic crowds parading in London during the First World War, saying, “You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye / Who cheer when soldier lads march by...”[6]. Hall and Sassoon hold the same message to hometown crowds: in the end, martial sentiment offers no respite. Drawing the message closer to home, Hall attentively watches his son viewing the Gulf war parades on television, their haunting “...myriad of images / flickers in his eye.”

     In "In VFW Halls," the joking air of a VFW gathering is starkly contrasted with war’s horrid subjugation of all desire and beauty, “fair skin” and “amber glow” (29). This is something with which Hall is all-too familiar, for in "Ghost Lights" (22) he reminds us, through a reinscribed memory of his time in Dak To, that the outcome of war is like an elusive, deceptive, or even specious light “at the dark ends of ancient tunnels.” "Monument" (35) is a kind of explication of this poem as it cites America’s often false lionization of military men and women, seeing them with “faults painted out, all-American men / and women: none had affairs, none cheated on taxes…” Hall knows the picture is much more sere, for when maimed in body and mind these military men and women are reduced to “symbols of some adventure.” Furthermore, censoring the horrors of war these men and women become intrinsic to never succeeds in the long run. Hall expresses this pointedly in "The Latest News" (46), a poem that scorns the government’s attempt to prevent the public release of photos of flag-draped coffins of US service men and women  as they arrive at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. Hall speaks to the bald stupidity of it, for after all, “Are we to suppose there are no coffins, / no transshipment to Dover, no remains?” The poem ends in the present tense, warning us that the dying goes on even as we read the all-too familiar place names that refuse to leave us. Two of the perhaps more familiar names are in "The Road" (39), as we see again the highway “from Baghdad to Fallujah” “filled / with history, that no one wants to ride.” Amid such a pandemic of war, Hall fears that “…war will come in place of art” ("A Paper Bird," 40). As such, in "The News Hour" (47), he points to the presumption and sheer futility of President George W. Bush landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln in May, 2003, to declare that major combat operations had ended. For as Hall points out, “…the dead pile up even though / the major battles have ended.” After all, what good is celebrating the end of a maneuver warfare campaign when Americans would continue to die in droves from a relentless insurgency military experts had warned the US about? Moreover, in "The Streets of Kandahar" (44) we see the failure of religious underpinnings to give credence to war with some nebulous “deep-seated desire to spread some other person’s truth.” Stark images may “fade out to a voice telling us that / we are winning,” but truth is salient: “We are killing people.” And still the war goes on, our daily lives filled with the elements of its upkeep. “It is like any afternoon in Texas, / any day in Baghdad” (50).

     In the "Domestic" section of the book, Hall turns to themes woven in imagistically vivid landscapes. Here, readers find “The fields dwarfed the old man / and I thought, the land, too, / has tides, has slow-moving waves” ("Cornfields and Thickets," 53). But here is no stand-alone world free of violence. Hall does not let us off easy, as in "We Had a History" (63), where Hall takes an abrupt turn back to the bloody years of Vietnam. In stark associations, he reminds the French that through our respective countries’ Vietnam legacies, we share in that ill-fated history where “memories swirl / just out of sight, in the corners of their eyes spots gather / and dance” (63-64).

     Beyond landscape and regionalism, Hall rounds-out his compilation with poems suffused with sensual wonders that still bless our lives amid the horrors of the world around us: “Head in lap, tongue touching thigh, / is poem enough” ("Cornfields and Thickets," 53). Perhaps the most sensual poem is "Two Virgins in Moonlight" (54), where the innocence of youth’s burgeoning sexual appetites is alluring: “When we walked under wet trees that night, / you just 14, me 12,…/ You turned and kissed me, awkward, shy, / pulled my hand to what were just the buds / of breasts.” In kindred lines, "Camping Out at Fifty" (61) is a romantic work dedicated to his wife. As poets know, writing a good romantic poem is difficult, but Hall succeeds artfully, writing of his wife’s “hair mussed, wild, the arch of your back,” as “discomfort vanished / and all I knew was you and the night.” "Aubade" (62) is another poem with an evocative image of love as resurrection in life. And alas, let it be noted that Hall is not without brief respites of humor. Consider these lines from "Last Night" (73-74): “The smoke keeps / the mosquitoes, my wife and / all other beasts away.”

     Finally, there is a certain significance to "On the road: Southern style" (75-76) being the last poem of the book. In these lines Hall returns to his formative teen years, the early 1960s, a time again of incipient sexual awareness set within pre-war innocence where “young, pretty bayou-bred girls” bore “southern fried French accents and breasts / you could lose yourself in.” But such sensuality would fall behind other schedules in new cities and experiences; and, “after all that, Vietnam.” And thus Foreign and Domestic begins and ends with the Vietnam War.

     It was Hall’s poetic forerunner Wilfred Owen who said that “all a poet can do today is warn” [7]. In Hall himself, we meet the sharp confluence of memory and warning, not only from a war veteran but a highly-skilled poet too, one whose voice is all too-likely a harbinger of continuing losses for America. Yet, these poems are not simply laments for war and its devastation of lives and landscapes, but celebrations of hope where it is needed most. This significant new collection is thus an accomplished work that comes with my highest recommendation.

[1] Blunden quoted from the Foreword to his autobiography, Undertones of War (1928).

[2] Walt McDonald, After the Noise of Saigon, University of Massachusetts Press, 5 (1988).

[3] Bruce Weigl, "Song of Napalm," in Song of Napalm, Atlantic Monthly Press, 33-35 (1988)

[4] Alfred Housman, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co. Ltd A Shropshire Lad, (1896). Housman’s obsession with death amid a pastoral, rural England is well-known.

[5] This reviewer considers Hall among the best of regional/landscape poets, in company with Richard Hugo, Larry D. Thomas, Walt McDonald, John Raines, and David Wagoner, among others.

[6] Siegfried Sassoon, "Suicide in the Trenches."  Counterattack and Other Poems. New York: EP Dutton & C, 17 (1918).

[7] Owen’s statement is found in the several places, originally in the preface to his 1919 unpublished poetry manuscript.


Jeffrey C. Alfier's work has appeared in various literary journals, most recently Crab Orchard Review, Kestrel, and The Saint Ann’s Review. He is author of two chapbooks, Strangers Within the Gate (2005), and Offloading the Wounded (2010), and serves as co-editor of San Pedro River Review.