Wednesday, April 06, 2016

`If One Was in That Hell'

R.L. Barth has sent me copy of his just-published No Turning Back: The Battle of Dien Bien Phu (Scienter Press, Louisville, Ky.), a sequence of poems about the French defeat in the concluding battle of the First Indochina War. Bob writes in his foreword:

“I became interested in French Indochina after starting to write poems based on my own experiences in Vietnam, wanting to establish for myself the historical background of my own tour. When I decided to write about French Indochina, the battle of Dien Bien Phu seemed the perfect subject. It had the inevitability of Greek tragedy, exhibited the heroism and cowardice of the battlefield, and marked the end of the French colonies in Indochina, leading to deepening American involvement in the area.”

No Turning Back contains forty-three poems, some as short as two lines, none longer than twenty-four. Bob’s verse is strictly metrical and mostly rhymed, and is sometimes spoken by participants in the battle. In their craftsmanship and impersonality, the poems recall what the narrator of Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold says of that novel's title character: “He regarded his books as objects which he had made, things quite external to himself to be used and judged by others.” I want to spend more time with Bob’s poems before writing more about them, but here are two he puts on the dedication page. The first is titled “For the Memory of Col. Charles Piroth,” dedicated to the officer who commanded the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu and committed suicide in his bunker:

“I place this line above his metaphoric bones:
The tragic hero sees his hubris and atones.”

Here is the second, untitled:

“The passing decades goad
Shadow armies to tap out code:
Truth’s here where terror thrives,
Measured on the sharp edge by lives.”

Americans will read Bob's poems about Dien Bien Phu with a purgatorial sense of foreboding, déjà vu in reverse. Most of them, if the names sounded less French, might be devoted to Bob's war as a U.S. Marine. Here is "An Interrogator":

"Mostly, I'm met with mute fear, ignorance,
Or a submissive, sad attempt to please:
Interrogation as a pointless dance.
And if I get, through luck, Vietnamese
Cadres, I parse their lies, disinformation,
And attitudes, only to rediscover
What everybody knows: our situation?
Hopeless. Save for the date, the battle's over."

Another veteran, Ford Madox Ford, writes of the Great War in his fictionalized memoir It Was the Nightingale (1915): “In the end, if one is a writer, and if one was in that hell, it was a major motive that one should be able to write of it.”

[I can recommend three books about Dien Bien Phu: Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu that Led America into the Vietnam War (2010) by Ted Morgan; The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam (2004) by Martin Windrow; Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (1967) by Bernard Fall.] 

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