VIETNAM WAR POETRY

  White Phosphorus

                        You called him Willie Peter.
                        He was so close he had to have a name.
                        Willie became who you were, more than a brother,
                        a part of blood and bone burrowing those tiny
                        flecks of fire into a body and leaving
                        freckle-sized holes for the soul to leak out.

                        When the shells screamed
                        into the heavy jungle no one cared about the animals,
                        toucans and tigers, monkeys and vipers, scrawny ducks
                        and water buffalo. You watched as they flailed, flapped,
                        pecked, and peeled charred meat apart digging
                        at the fiery embers one white speck at a time.

                        You unleashed this monster
                        with a radio, coordinates on a map, a call sign.
                        Some of your fellow soldiers laughed out loud
                        when wounded creatures fled the treeline.
                        You were all too young then to understand action
                        is character and cruelty is bred as Host for fear.

                        You found four Viet Cong
                        in a flowered meadow where they died pock-marked,
                        scarred like lepers, all twisted and reaching
                        like roots of a Joshua tree for life that wasn’t there.
                        Willie never asked for thanks. He knew his reward
                        would come later when you began another war.

by Contributing Poet:     Jim McGarrah   Copyright © 2014
      ( First published in   VietnamWarPoetry.com   2015 )


  Absence

                        I funneled them into single
                        lines at the roadblock on Highway One, patted
                        them down for rusty pistols, fuses
                        and trip wire that made this Tet
                        deadly for us milk-faced Marines who stepped
                        off the wrong trail at the right time; but all they owned
                        they carried
                        inside them, spitting out fragments
                        with chipped and broken slang. Beaucoup
                        mal. Dien cai dao. Beaucoup mal.

                        A brown and stunning girl
                        appeared in my hands, as if pulled from a hat
                        or sculpted from clay and light. She shook once
                        with fear and the taut spark
                        of her body jolted my cold circuits.
                        Then she was gone, running
                        south with a wave of refugees
                        toward the corrupt and declining China Sea.
                        The most beautiful girl I ever touched
                        ran from me.

                        She rushed past Buddhist monks,
                        past temple doorways curling with carved circles,
                        red dragons and snakes, past saffron
                        robes swirling in the wind that swallowed
                        the blanched light of dawn and lifted
                        the scent of nuoc mam,
                        urine and burned earth like incense
                        while Hue rose from the smoked horizon.

                        Tonight, as the wetness from a one-time lover
                        dries indifferently beneath
                        a fan overhead and I'm bored by the murmur
                        of her sleep, I drift back
                        to that roadblock and that strange girl's voice,
                        to her almond cheeks,
                        her thin lips, the slight white scar
                        beneath her left eyebrow,
                        to her hollow gaze and boyish breasts.
                        I feel her fingers, frail
                        yet resolute as a spider's web.
                        They wrap around my wrist, push
                        my whole being away.
                        I want to taste the red wonder
                        of her tongue, draw
                        those onyx eyes across ten thousand miles
                        of death and into me. Instead,
                        I reach for my pants, curse when my car keys rattle,
                        slip from this motel, and dream
                        of making love to her
                        with what's left of love inside me.

by Contributing Poet:     Jim McGarrah   Copyright © 2014
      ( First published in   VietnamWarPoetry.com   2015 )


  The Memorial Wall

                                            - Of what benefit to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
                                            says Jehovah. I have had enough of whole burnt offerings and the fat of
                                            well-fed animals; and in the blood of young bulls and male lambs and he goats
                                            I have taken no delight. - Isaiah 1:11

                                    1 - ARRIVAL

                        You said Quang Tri was quiet when compared to Detroit
                        on Saturday night. I, being corn fed, believed you.
                        "Quiet as an old whore’s bedroom," you said,
                        until the first whistle exploded and spilled
                        a mouthful of Tiger beer down my chin,
                        spraying the bolt on my new M-16. You grinned.

                        That smirk calmed all my fears
                        born in a place where ten seconds was a lifetime.
                        We lunged into a bunker when the next shell hit,
                        puppy clumsy. Like kids playing football,
                        chasing a fumble, we laughed, tumbling into darkness.

                                    2 - HALFWAY HOME

                        Rice wine burned us both, but opium seared the marrow
                        from your boyish conscience.
                        Disappointed, you asked why I'd fired too far left.
                        The kid was pulling up his pants, an easy target
                        in the twilight. He reminded me of a robin I'd shot
                        with my BB gun, squatting, pecking the wet ground
                        unaware of my existence, or its own thin mortality.
                        I was ten then and crying.

                        Your smile froze after six months in that country,
                        hiding a heart hardened by a dozen firefights
                        and memories sewn into body bags.
                        Those eyes, glistening with assurance,
                        connecting us as brothers, barely flickered
                        through Thai stick smoke and a Dexedrine haze.
                        Reeking of white phosphorus and cordite,
                        you swore that only housecats killed for pleasure.

                                    3 - SHORT TIME

                        It seems Monsoons came each day those last weeks
                        just to wash the blood away.
                        When our mortars hit the marketplace,
                        the barber's child died. Some stains
                        don't wash, like the memory of a sobbing man
                        whose only crime was cutting hair.

                        That's when I knew you were going home early.
                        The child's charred flesh made you unholy,
                        and the shortest distance from Vietnam to Detroit
                        was through blood atonement - your life for our sins.
                        When the shot popped, like a pricked balloon,
                        I realized you had fired it.
                        But, I screamed SNIPER to the corpsman,
                        so your parents could be telegrammed – HERO - stop.
                        Prying the rifle from your suicidal fingers, I thought,
                        you should have squeezed the trigger, not jerked it.
                        A clean headshot, instead of my right palm,
                        could have closed your eyes.

                                    4 - AFTERMATH

                        We both flew home as casualties,
                        you in your coffin, me with my guilt.
                        You still deny me absolution
                        because you took the easy way back, Rick.
                        The dirt that covers your body now
                        fills my mind.
                        Each time I reach for some liturgy
                        to chant, some Eucharist to swallow
                        to understand your sacrifice, to bring sanity
                        inside the empty sound of a spring rain, I gag.

                        Here, in my kitchen, drinking cheap whiskey
                        like my mom sent us years ago in shoe boxes,
                        I grasp for some boundary.
                        If only I could leave you there in Washington, D.C.
                        on a black stone scarred with carved letters
                        and the tears of your children, unborn and unnamed.

by Contributing Poet:     Jim McGarrah   Copyright © 2014
      ( First published in   VietnamWarPoetry.com   2015 )


  EATING WITH CHOPSTICKS IN VIETNAM

                                            "L'homme est ne' libre." – Rousseau
                                            "L'homme est ne' poltron" – Conrad

                        Eating with chopsticks was art not easily mastered,
                        or so I learned when the village elders led my squad
                        beneath the tiled roof of the old French schoolhouse
                        and fed us cahn cho in wooden bowls.
                        We rinsed it down with red rice wine in the noon
                        heat of the Lunar New Year
                        and I mastered the art before the meal ended.
                        Laughing, I balanced one grain
                        between those two sticks of wood while the air filled
                        with sweat and ginger, while the sniper steadied
                        his rifle in the fork of a rubber tree.
                        Marty pointed at my success, and babbled like a child
                        who saw the wonder in a rose petal for the first time
                        before he dropped face first into the scalding duck soup,
                        as if the sniper's bullet had pried open a small door
                        above his eyes, crawled in, and flicked the switch off.
                        In that split second I could have painted substance
                        within a shadow, written a book that breathed, sculpted
                        a living form from marble, or composed a score in silence.
                        I was supernatural, a Jeremiah in jungle boots who saw
                        the world's future between the rice on the wood and Marty's
                        blood and bone on my face like wet sand. Then I ran
                        for cover and hid behind a chipped stone wall.

by Contributing Poet:     Jim McGarrah   Copyright © 2014
      ( First published in   VietnamWarPoetry.com   2015 )


Bio:   Jim McGarrah's  poems, essays and stories appear frequently in literary journals such as Bayou Magazine, Breakwater, Cincinnati Review, Chamber Four, Connecticut Review and North American Review, among others. He is the author of three award-winning books of poetry, Running the Voodoo Down ( Elixir Press, 2003), When the Stars Go Dark (Main Street Rag Select Poetry Series, 2009) and a new collection of poems, Breakfast at Denny’s (Ink Brush Press, 2013). His memoir of war entitled A Temporary Sort of Peace (Indiana Historical Society Press, 2007) won the national Eric Hoffer Legacy Non-Fiction Award, and the sequel, The End of an Era, was published in 2011. His newest nonfiction book, Off Track, is under contract and due to be published in October, 2015.
Jim-McGarrah.squarespace.com/


              Contributing Poets
              Submissions
              About Us
              Home

Except where otherwise attributed,  all pages & content herein
Copyright © 2014-15  
PAUL HELLWEG   VietnamWarPoetry.com   All rights reserved
Frazier Park, California, USA