Vietnam, or the Vietnam War
My friend Palmer Hall recently died of lung cancer. He was a poet friend I only met face to face twice, but we carried on a correspondence, and I read his blog post memories of his years in Vietnam, and his poems about Vietnam.
Palmer Hall in the late 1960's
Palmer in recent years
I love this piece by Palmer about poetry as a companion to him while he was in Vietnam:
Some nights in Viet Nam, when I stood alone on the top of
a bunker staring out into a night that contained armies at war,
armies made up of small groups of men searching for each
other, lying in wait, trip wires and claymores, M-16s and AK-47s,
I would see a red cluster of flares shoot into the sky followed,
frequently, by slowly parachuting amber flares that lit the dark...
soft light reflected on piles of hand grenades, belts of fifty caliber
ammunition for the big machine gun, smaller belts for the M-60,
huge cartridges for the M-79 grenade launcher, lighting me wearing
Army greens, flak jacket, camouflage boots, helmet.
During those times, letting the two other men, asleep in the
bunker, rest, thinking that an attack might be imminent, my eyes would
drift over the perimeter, looking for any trace of movement out of the
ordinary. What came to my mind then, what I whispered into the dark,
was poetry that I had memorized long before; mostly, I confess,
poetry about leaving such places. As the sky lit up at night, I would
whisper from Yeats, "I will arise and go now and go to Inisfree..." or
from Eliot, "Let us go then, you and I / when the evening is spread
out against the sky / like a patient etherized upon a table."
Somewhere off in the distance, I might hear a fire fight near
where I had seen the red cluster flare; and Hardy's "Convergence of the
Twain" would breathe out from me. There was great consolation in poetry,
Innisfree almost becoming a mantra.
In those days, not writing, I lived poetry, sucking it in and
blowing it out. In Dak To, when I listened to my radio, heard a boy
named Bao report on American convoys leaving the camp for Pleiku and
heard the jets strafe and napalm his position, the poetry that is Yeats
and the poetry that is Stevens (O blessed rage for order,
pale Ramon!) mingled with red dust and death.
I can remember still, through something of a red haze, getting
absurdly drunk on a fifth of ruffino's chianti (the club was out of scotch
and all other drinks) and wandering down to the perimeter. I climbed up
on the berm and looked out at the valley and the hills, Eben Flood had
nothing on me that evening; and I held the remains of the bottle in my
hand, seeing only one moon, and out Heroded Herod in declaiming
the opening lines from Shakespeare's Henry V, snarling the words,
"And at his heels leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword and
fire crouch for employment!" and moving on to "Once more onto the
breach, dear friends, once more / or close up the wall with our English
And then moving to Hamlet and the first great soliloquy, "Oh
that this too too solid flesh / would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a
dew / or that the Almighty had not fixed his canon gainst self-slaughter."
I remember all the details of the Shakespearean soliloquys and the
poems I sang into a drunk night during the Tet Offensive of 1968,
but I remember none of the generalities.
( Orig. Pub.: Texas Writers Newsletter. Fall, 1995)
Here are two of his poems:
"From the Periphery"
Spotlights shine out a hundred feet
or more, show tufts of green where grass
plowed under, struggles, shoots up.
I whisper to Claymores, 50 calibers,
M-60s, hold the dead weight of an M-79,
listen to the sounds of water buffalo and
of a distant firefight.
In that dark, men I have not really
come to know wait quietly, barely breathe
in fear that someone else will hear their breath,
hunker down, eyes barely open, listen
to their hearts beat, to night sounds
grown suddenly quiet.
The singsong cries of hootchmaids
bring me back from a place I will never go
and only, so far down inside, almost
convince myself to regret never having been.
One morning in Dak To, I saw five men
who had been six, LRRPs, kicking dirt
into the sky, eyes focused straight ahead,
silent, wrung dry in the hot sun.
Sometimes commerce can not exist. Language
can not always be enough, words can not
translate what eyes have seen.
Thoughts lie fallow, spears of grass
that can not push up or out.
This, then, is what war must be: a walk
in the night, heart held in the hands of those
who walk beside you, breath held in each
other's mouths, smell shared in such a way
that all scents are one, touch only
a light pressure, hand on shoulder,
eyes searching for movement in the dark.
(Orig. In From the Periphery: poems and essays
Chili Verde Press, 1995)
--For the survivors
I give her a puppet--an armadillo,
fuzzy and warm, to slip over her hand
in the dark when there is no one near
only time to think and a dark marble of fear
that awakens, pulses deep down in a silent
spot that no one knows but she. Tom,
her husband, died somehow in Viet Nam
and she has kept the pain in that same place
for all these years, has hardly talked
of those deep jungles where his body lay.
The doctor comes and speaks of this and that,
cool and calm, detached: of the mastectomy
to be deferred for chemo, the bone scan positive,
biopsy positive, mestastasis into the bone. Sterile words,
remote from the throbbing space that whispers in her blood.
"Yes, it's raining." I say.
"Yes, your sons are here."
She feels the lump in her breast, a pressure, a weight.
She says "I don't need it anyway. My sons are grown."
She says, "My husband died so long ago. I don't need
to talk about the war." She strokes the puppet. "I want
quiet, rest and peace." A steady stream of visitors troops
into her room, brings sweet flowers with perfume
that palls and mingles somehow with the silent
drip of an IV in her hand. A slow anointing,
laying on of hands: fingers trace a cross with water,
touch her head, but it is not the sacrament of the dead,
only a rite for healing, something to contend with that
central core where dark shapes gather. How hard
it is to be polite, to kiss, to hug, to shake each hand.
"I'm fine," she says. "I only need a little sleep."
She smiles. I take her hand, slip the puppet on.
These poems are reproduced from an anthology of poems and essays
dealing with Viet Nam, (Hall, H. Palmer. From the Periphery: Essays and Poems.
San Antonio: Chili Verde Press, 1994.).
These were posted on the website