Saturday, August 10, 2019

'As Ghastly in the 2nd Century As in the 20th'

“All wars are different, and yet the same.”

Truism or timeless profundity? I’m in no position to say, having never taken part in a war. Abstractly, safely at home, way beyond draft age, I can acknowledge war’s inevitability and occasional necessity. But its reality is something I can experience only second- or third-hand, on the printed page, in films or conversation. The observation above is Max Hastings’ in his introduction to Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 (2018). A persistent theme in the poetry of R.L. Barth, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, has been the continuity of war, the kinship warriors share across centuries. In “Reading The Iliad at the front of his collected poems, Deeply Dug In (2003, University of New Mexico Press), a reader is “held in Homer’s mind.”

Bob sent me the manuscript of his latest work, “Snowfall in Vietnam: Poems/Maxims,” made up of twenty-seven one-line, five-syllable poems and accompanying titles, some of which are longer than the poems. Their Beckett-like concision extends the logic of Bob’s earlier poems, which are tight and spare, and follow in the tradition of Martial, Winters and Cunningham. Bob describes the new poems as “an epigrammatist’s reduction ad absurdum.” Some are grimly funny; others, horrifying. Here is To an FNG (I): “Shitcan your skivvies.” And To an FNG (II): “Save your last grenade.” FNG means “Fucking New Guy.”

Here is Socked in: “Crachin on the prowl.” Crachin is the French word for “drizzle,” though I’m reminded of “kraken.” The French colonial past and Dien Bien Phu haunt these poems, as in A Chateau in the Foothills: “Are these stains French blood?” And another: Maneuver: Through NVA Patrols: “I, disembodied.” NVA is North Vietnamese Army. This one, Land Mine, is horrifying: “Mud spouts through pink mist.” Here are the sentences that follow the one by Hastings quoted at the top:

“A myth has grown up, in the US at least, that Vietnam inflicted unique horrors on its participants, attested in countless veterans’ anguished gropings into poetry. Yet anyone who lived through Rome’s Carthaginian struggles, the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, Napoléon’s campaign in Russia, or the 1916 Somme battles would mock the notion that Indochina offered qualitatively worse experiences. The violence that men inflicted with spears and swords and unleashed on innocents in the path of armies was as ghastly in the second century as in the twentieth.”

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