VIETNAM WAR POETRY

  My Band of Brothers
We few, we happy few ...

                        I meet them in the grocery store
                        parking lot or the hardware store.
                        I recognize them by a license plate,
                        a window decal, a bumper sticker,
                        the baseball caps they're wearing.

                        We stop briefly to chat, sharing
                        where we served, Quang Ngai,
                        Can Tho, Cu Chi, An Khe, Saigon.
                        We were there at different times
                        and had very different duties, but
                        we share a bond, we served our
                        country and we are brothers.

                        It was an unpopular war in which
                        those called to duty came home to be
                        spit upon, called vile names, shunned
                        in polite society, never welcomed, made
                        to suffer in silence and all alone.

                        So today when we meet, and mention
                        those days, backs straighten, eyes take on
                        a look of pride, and we remember those
                        we fought with, those who did not return.
                        A nod and on our way, but not without
                        saying, "Welcome home, Brother".

by Contributing Poet:     Art Elser   Copyright © 2016
      ( First published in   Proud to Be   2016 )


  The Sudden End of The Firefight

                        The jet races low over the fields toward the tree line
                        where a small cloud of white smoke rises
                        from a marking rocket. As the jet nears the smoke,
                        six shiny cans of napalm tumble from it,
                        two by two by two,
                        exploding into a rolling ball of fire
                        that engulfs the trees.

                        When the burning slows, troops move forward
                        to rout the enemy who has wounded
                        and killed their comrades.
                        They find only death from the fire.
                        Forty-five enemy killed.
                        There is ecstasy over the victory.

                        In the decades since, in nightmares,
                        daymares, memories, that jet races
                        again and again and again
                        to the trees and releases its napalm,
                        two by two by two.
                        But now there is no ecstasy,
                        only sadness and grief and guilt.

by Contributing Poet:     Art Elser   Copyright © 2016
      ( First published in   The Human Touch   2016 )


  Ponderosa, Lightning Scar

                        He notices bark, scattered
                        on the ground, and sees
                        that it comes from a ponderosa
                        rooted on a grassy knoll.
                        A fresh, yellow scar curves
                        from near the top
                        almost to the ground.
                        Centered in that scar
                        is an indelible brown line
                        of burnt wood, fibers
                        that will never heal.
                        Sap oozes along the exposed
                        flesh, as if the tree
                        is bleeding.

                        The tree could be his own life,
                        scarred and thunder struck.
                        His relationships, like the bark,
                        scattered by explosions
                        of impatience, anger, fear.
                        His lightning came not from a storm
                        but from a year of combat, people
                        trying to kill him, while he tried
                        to kill them.

                        After forty years the nightmares
                        and flashbacks are less frequent
                        but he still awakens in a sweat,
                        caught in a chaos of violence and fear.
                        In those dreams he is rooted,
                        unable to escape the terror.

                        As he looks at the tree, he senses
                        that it will heal in time as he
                        has healed with time. But the tree
                        will not have to remember the blast,
                        the burning, and the pain.

by Contributing Poet:     Art Elser   Copyright © 2016
      ( First published in   Art Elser's chapbook We Leave the Safety of the Sea   2016 )


  A Glacial Erratic

                        The large granite boulder has rested
                        here in the oak and pitch pine forest
                        for thousands of years. Its top is broad
                        and flat with patches of yellow lichen.

                        Twenty thousand years earlier the
                        Wisconsin Glacier pried the boulder
                        out of continental bedrock, pushing it
                        and rolling it until it sat on this hill.

                        Four children and their gray-haired
                        guide sit on it in the warm sunshine,
                        eating jelly sandwiches. They listen
                        to delightful tales the woman tells.

                        They play in the sunshine and scramble
                        on its cracked and pitted gray sides.
                        This is not their first time at the rock.
                        Their pied piper, their grandmother,

                        brings them here often, leading them
                        on the long, raucous, and joyous trek.
                        The kids don't know about the glacier
                        and it would mean nothing to them.

                        The kids also don't know that one of them
                        will be ravaged and scarred by a jungle war
                        and his memories of these sun-filled days
                        will help him recover from his despair.

                        He will remember his grandmother's laugh
                        and those walks to the ancient rock and find
                        that the gentle power of her love, like the slow
                        power of the glacier, will conquer his fears.

by Contributing Poet:     Art Elser   Copyright © 2016
      ( First published in   Emerging Voices   2014 )


  Book of Names

                        In a book of names thick as my fist, I look
                        for names of friends so I can find them etched
                        into the mirror of the polished granite wall.


                        Simmons, killed directing artillery on a VC force
                        that ambushed comrades in a snarl of green jungle.
                        I see his impish, farm boy, face smile out at me
                        from a Texas sky blue morning where we learned to fly.

                        Johnson, the Jersey speedster, 100 yard record holder.
                        We lived in facing rooms at the end of the hall in basic.
                        He was fast, but not fast enough to outrun bullets from
                        an enemy gun, shot down on a starless Laotian night.


                        I walk deeper into the wall — It's above my head now,
                        etched with more names as the war crescendos.


                        Stone, who I woke one Asian dawn to rescue
                        ambushed troops. Shot down in a rice paddy.
                        I sorted through his clothes, letters, books,
                        and sent them home to his wife and kids.

                        Meadows, shot down up north, missing, a cross etched
                        beside his name. Three years we shared a squadron.
                        Gentle friend, groomsman at my wedding, life cut short.
                        His wife so grieved she took her life.


                        I start back to the fist-sized book to look for names,
                        but tears stop me.

by Contributing Poet:     Art Elser   Copyright © 2016
      ( First published in   VietnamWarPoetry.com   2016 )


  ~


  A Villanelle of War

                        The mortal soul is shattered by a war
                        much like a body blown by bomb or shot,
                        the pain recedes but never goes away.

                        The guilt remains because he could not save
                        those men who died when he arrived too late,
                        his mortal soul was shattered by the war.

                        His terror as the bullets passed his plane,
                        and snapped at him as if the jaws of death,
                        the fear recedes but never goes away.

                        He often thinks of enemies he killed,
                        their mothers, wives, and children left to grieve,
                        their souls forever shattered by the war.

                        How can he ever clear that guilt or ask
                        forgiveness from the men whose lives he took?
                        The guilt recedes but never goes away.

                        He sees friends' bodies strewn in rice-green fields,
                        and ghosts of men he killed in burning woods.
                        His mortal soul is shattered by that war.
                        The pain recedes but never goes away.

by Contributing Poet:     Art Elser   Copyright © 2015
      ( First published in   VietnamWarPoetry.com   2015 )


  Peace in a Violent Place

                        I cruise over low hills at a thousand feet
                        in my Cessna into a mountain valley.
                        A heavy monsoon rain has just passed.
                        Wisps of gray mist rise slowly,
                        silently from the green jungle ahead.

                        I guzzle from my canteen to replace
                        the sweat that soaks my flight suit.
                        Violent scenes from the last hour
                        flood my mind: a patrol ambushed …
                        heavy casualties …
                        murderous enemy fire …
                        a burning tree line …
                        thunderous explosions …

                        My heart pounds from the adrenaline,
                        body slumped with exhaustion.
                        I slip around a mountain into the valley,
                        turn left and see a thin strip of water
                        sliding down the face of a mountain wall.
                        The valley floor rises to meet me.
                        I feel the mist, let it wash the taste
                        and stench of smoke and war from me.

                        I fly close to the waterfall, watch it arc
                        gracefully hundreds of feet to rocks below.
                        It disappears into the valley's green.
                        I turn off radios, fly lazy circles—heart slows—
                        peace quiets the chaos in my head.
                        This is my cathedral. I come here often.

by Contributing Poet:     Art Elser   Copyright © 2015
      ( First published in   VietnamWarPoetry.com   2015 )


  Remove This Cup From Me

"Oh lord, if thou be willing,
remove this cup from me."
                          Luke 22: 42

                        At the next table a man chokes,
                        cries out, seeing his own death. Friends stand
                        fearful, helpless, not knowing how
                        to save.

                        Five or six steps,
                        a brotherly hug,
                        a quick thrust
                        under the ribs,
                        a rush of breath.

                        I give this man, whose name I do not know,
                        more years, a wife her husband.
                        His thanks — eyes telling a new reverence
                        for life — fill my cup with joy.

                        But there are other men, thirty years ago,
                        whose names I also do not know,
                        whose lives I took.
                        One, before he reached the safety of a wood,
                        six, in a bunker,
                        thirty-seven, on a rock-strewn ridge,
                        forty-five, in a line of trees.

                        How many more? How many more?

                        Last night they gathered at my bed.
                        I could not see their eyes,
                        nor see a face,
                        but each held out a cup of pain to me.
                        When I awoke, I could not taste
                        the cup of joy.

by Contributing Poet:     Art Elser   Copyright © 2015
      ( First published in   VietnamWarPoetry.com   2015 )


  The Haircut

                        The young Asian woman motions me to a chair
                        and covers me with a black cloth. As she reaches
                        for her tools, I read Anh Lam on her license.
                        I ask if she's Vietnamese. "Yes", she answers.
                        But her tone allows no further discussion.
                        I watch her graceful motions and try to imagine
                        how she'd look in an Ao Dai, the traditional
                        white silk tunic—ankle length, slit to the hip—
                        over black silk slacks, a white rice-straw
                        conical hat covering her beautiful black hair.
                        I remember the graceful women of Kontum,
                        and those of Pleiku, and Quang Ngai.

                        I think abstractly about Anh's mother.
                        She probably wore the Ao Dai for celebrations,
                        perhaps even for her wedding to Anh's father.
                        Then, I feel a familiar chill in my soul as I
                        imagine her mother forty years ago, a child,
                        learning her father would never come home.
                        He had watched from a bunker in a tree line,
                        as my little Bird Dog dove to aim a smoke rocket
                        near where he hid. He didn't see the bombs,
                        only felt the fire engulf him. I imagine that
                        I had killed Anh's grandfather, widowed
                        her grandmother, deprived Anh
                        of her grandfather's love.

                        "How's that?" Anh's cheerful voice breaks
                        into my thoughts. She holds up a mirror.
                        It reflects a sad man with dark memories.
                        "How's that?" A distant voice asks.

by Contributing Poet:     Art Elser   Copyright © 2015
      ( First published in   VietnamWarPoetry.com   2015 )


  Washington, D.C., May 1995

                        Careless gusts chase clouds and tear
                        too soon the cherry blossoms
                        from their boughs.
                        Petals, whirled in the maelstrom,
                        are spilled free to sink and form
                        a pale pink pool
                        along the black wall.

                        The granite, scarred with names,
                        mirrors the pink in its ebony shine,
                        a reminder of blossoming lives—
                        vulnerable, fragile, young —
                        blown by the careless maelstrom
                        of their spring.

by Contributing Poet:     Art Elser   Copyright © 2015
      ( First published in   VietnamWarPoetry.com   2015 )


Bio:   Art Elser   saw combat in Vietnam as a Forward Air Controller. He retired after 20 years as an Air Force officer and after 30 years as a technical writer. He has been published in Owen Wister Review, High Plains Register, Emerging Voices, Science Poetry, The Avocet and Open Window Review. His chapbook, We Leave the Safety of the Sea, received the Colorado Authors' League Poetry award for 2014


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