Friday, July 13, 2018

'Thirsty, Betrayed, and Terrified'

“We fight for no
Slant domino,
Ragged-ass flag,
Or body-bag;
Say, rather, for
Buddies—but more,
Even, for grief
And lost belief.”

Let's thank Adam Gilbert, author of A Shadow on Our Hearts: Soldier-Poetry, Morality, and the American War in Vietnam (University of Massachusetts Press, 2018), for including a handful of poems by R.L. Barth in his study. Barth’s work is too little known. He is a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War from Kentucky, and the war is nearly his exclusive subject, as his titles suggest: Deeply Dug In, Forced-Marching to the Styx: Vietnam War Poems, Small Arms Fire, Looking for Peace. The poem quoted above, “Why We Fight,” is from Simonides in Vietnam: And Other Epigrams, which hints at Barth’s classicism. His lines are metrically regular and usually rhyme. As poetry, they recall not Rupert Brooke but Martial. Another collection, A Soldier’s Time, takes its title from a letter written by Dr. Johnson and quoted by Boswell in his Life: “A soldier’s time is passed in distress and danger, or in idleness and corruption.”

I wish Gilbert had devoted a discrete chapter to Barth’s work but his book is organized thematically, and Barth’s poems (and Gilbert’s comments on them) are sprinkled among those by other soldier-poets. Gilbert follows “Why We Fight” with “Epitaph,” in which Barth “situates this ‘lost belief’ among the above-mentioned burdens of physical hardships and fear”: “Tell them quite simply that we died / Thirsty, betrayed, and terrified.” Death is blunt, without romance or ennobling sentiment. Gilbert includes “One Way to Carry the Dead”:

“A huge shell thundered; he was vaporized
And, close friends breathing near, internalized.”

For years, Barth published chapbooks by some of our best poets, including Helen Pinkerton, Dick Davis, Charles Gullans and Turner Cassity. He edited editions of poems by Yvor Winters and Janet Lewis, and Winters’ letters. Barth’s most recent collection is No Turning Back (Scienter Press, 2016), a sequence of poems about the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. It takes work to find Barth’s books. He is not a “protest poet," as conventionally understood, and his formalist rigor will frighten some readers. His most readily available book is probably Deeply Dug In (University of New Mexico Press, 2003). In his introductory poem, “Reading The Iliad,” Barth juxtaposes Vietnam and another war:

“Volume and desk, coffee and cigarette
Forgotten, the reader, held in Homer’s mind,
Looks on both Greeks and Trojans fighting yet
And heroes and foot-soldiers, thin and blind,

“Forced-marching for the Styx. But suddenly
Stunned by the clamor under smoky skies,
Boastings and tauntings, he looks up to see?
Not the god-harried plain where Hector tries

“His destiny, not the room--but a mountain
Covered with jungle; on one slope, a chateau
With garden, courtyard, a rococo fountain,
And, faces down, hands tied, six bodies in a row.”

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