VIETNAM WAR POETRY

  For the Missing in Action

                        Hazed with harvest dust and heat the air
                        swam with flying husks
                        as men whacked rice sheaves into bins and all
                        across the sunstruck fields
                        red flags hung from bamboo poles. Beyond the
                        last treeline on the horizon beyond the coconut
                        palms and eucalyptus out in the moon zone
                        puckered by bombs the dead earth where no
                        one ventures, the boys found it, foolish boys
                        riding their buffaloes in craterlands
                        where at night bombs thump and ghosts howl. A
                        green patch on the raw earth.
                        And now they've led the farmers here, the
                        kerchiefed women in baggy pants, the men
                        with sickles and flails, children herding
                        ducks with switches--all staring from a
                        crater berm; silent:
                        In that dead place the weeds had formed a man where
                        someone died and fertilized the earth, with flesh           and
                        blood, with tears, with longing for loved ones.
                        No scrap remained; not even a buckle survived the
                        monsoons, just a green creature, a viny man, supine,
                        with posies for eyes, butterflies for buttons, a lily for
                        a tongue.
                        Now when huddled asleep together the
                        farmers hear a rustly footfall
                        as the leaf-man rises and stumbles to them.

by Contributing Poet:     John Balaban   Copyright 1997
      ( First published in   Locusts at the Edge of Summer by Copper Canyon Press   1997 )


  Words for My Daughter

                        About eight of us were nailing up forts
                        in the mulberry grove behind Reds' house when
                        his mother started screeching and all of us froze
                        except Reds--fourteen, huge
                        as a hippo--who sprang out of the tree so fast the
                        branch nearly bobbed me off. So fast,
                        he hit the ground running, hammer in hand, and
                        seconds after he got in the house
                        we heard thumps like someone beating a tire off a
                        rim               his dad's howls           the screen door
                        banging open         Saw       Reds barreling out
                        through the tall weeds towards the highway the
                        father stumbling after his fat son
                        who never looked back across the thick swale
                        of teasel and black-eyed Susans until it was safe to yell
                        fuck you at the skinny drunk
                        stamping around barefoot and holding his ribs.

                        Another time, the Connelly kid came home to find his
                        alcoholic mother getting raped by the milkman. Bobby
                        broke a milk bottle and jabbed the guy humping on his
                        mom. I think it really happened because none of us would
                        loosely mention that wraith of a woman who slippered
                        around her house and never talked to anyone, not even her
                        kids.
                        Once a girl ran past my porch
                        with a dart in her back, her open mouth
                        pumping like a guppy's, her eyes wild. Later
                        that summer, or maybe the next, the kids
                        hung her brother from an oak.
                        Before they hoisted him, yowling and heavy
                        on the clothesline, they made him claw the creekbank and eat
                        worms. I don't know why his neck didn't snap.

                        Reds had another nickname you couldn't say or he'd
                        beat you up: "Honeybun."
                        His dad called him that when Reds was little.

                        * * *

                        So, these were my playmates. I love them still for
                        their justice and valor and desperate loves twisted in
                        shapes of hammer and shard.
                        I want you to know about their pain
                        and about the pain they could loose on others. If
                        you're reading this, I hope you will think, Well, my
                        dad had it rough as a kid, so what?
                        If you're reading this, you can read the news and you
                        know that children suffer worse.
                       
                        * * *

                        Worse for me is a cloud of memories still
                        drifting off the South China Sea,
                        like the 9-year-old boy, naked and lacerated, thrashing
                        in his pee on a steel operating table and yelling "Dau.
                        Dau," while I, trying to translate
                        in the mayhem of Tet for surgeons who didn't know who this
                        boy was or what happened to him, kept asking "Where?
                        Where's the pain?" until a surgeon
                        said "Forget it. His ears are blown."
                       
                        I remember your first Hallowe'en
                        when I held you on my chest and rocked you, so
                        small your toes didn't touch my lap
                        as I smelled your fragrant peony head
                        and cried because I was so happy and because
                        I heard, in no metaphorical way, the awful chorus of
                        Soeur Anicet's orphans writhing in their cribs. Then the
                        doorbell rang and a tiny Green Beret was saying trick-or-
                        treat and I thought oh oh
                        but remembered it was Hallowe'en and where I was. I
                        smiled at the evil midget, his map-light and night paint, his
                        toy knife for slitting throats, said,
                        "How ya doin', soldier?" and, still holding you asleep in my
                        arms, gave him a Mars Bar. To his father waiting outside in
                        fatigues I hissed, "You, shit,"
                        and saw us, child, in a pose I know too well.

                        I want you to know the worst and be free from it. I
                        want you to know the worst and still find good.
                        Day by day, as you play nearby or laugh
                        with the ladies at Peoples Bank as we go around town and I find
                        myself beaming like a fool,
                        I suspect I am here less for your protection than you
                        are here for mine, as if you were sent to call me back
                        into our helpless tribe.

by Contributing Poet:     John Balaban   Copyright 1997
      ( First published in   Locusts at the Edge of Summer by Copper Canyon Press   1997 )


Bio:   John Balaban's  books of poetry have received two nominations for the National Book Award, the 1998 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America and a National Poetry Series Selection. Balaban is the editor and translator of Spring Essence:   The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong. Recently he was awarded a medal from Vietnam's Ministry of Culture for his work in the translation and digital preservation of ancient texts. He is Professor Emeritus of English at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
JohnBalaban.com


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