When writing about the pivotal event in his life and the nation’s, R.L (Bob) Barth sticks to the dry facts, like a rewrite man assembling a story for his newspaper in the old days. His poems are orderly, attentive to detail and rooted in his experience. You’ll find no self-congratulatory rhetorical flourishes or reaching after melodrama. Barth served as a Marine in Vietnam. Here is “The Patrol”:
“We slipped through NVA patrols around
Supplies dug into mountains and a class
Outside a Quonset hut, where cadres scribbled
Tactics on a blackboard, all this beneath
The triple canopy deep in the mountains.
“At times patrols passed barely three feet off,
While we knelt motionless and camouflaged.
I wanted a surprise assault right there,
But that was not our mission: ours to watch,
Call in intelligence and then di-di
“As quietly as possible; and yet,
As we withdrew, someone stepped on a twig.
Time stopped . . . The NVA began to gabble
And beat the bush, and I got on the horn
To call in air support to cover us.
“As the two Phantoms dropped five hundred pounders,
The shrapnel spinning near and secondary
Explosions rocking the landscape, we moved
Through the thick undergrowth until, at last,
Emerging from the jungle, we set up
“On a bare hilltop where we could observe
NVA sallies from the jungle, and
Laid out our fields of fire while radioing
For an emergency extraction mau len.
No choppers flew that evening. We dug in . . .”
Barth helps with the Vietnamese: di-di is “to leave, to go (pronounced dee-dee)”; mau len: “fast, quick.” Not a word in excess. No heroics or virtue-signaling. It’s not a “war story” in the civilian sense. The poem remains strictly within the consciousness of a single Marine describing a single engagement from more than half a century ago. The final phrase resonates. In 2003, the University of New Mexico Press published a collection of Barth’s Vietnam poems, Deeply Dug In. He is working on a new collection, tentatively scheduled for publication next year. In it he plans to move beyond his reliance on epigrams, his customary form in the past – “if only temporarily,” he adds. Here is the second new poem he sent me, “Six and a Wakeup”:
“Of bush-time memories, this lingers:
A mountain outpost with two fingers
Like a crab’s pincers that hooked down,
South to a valley; an ash mound
And scorched earth starkly documented
The rage some grunt platoon once vented;
And just beyond, at the far edge
A long berm formed a kind of ledge
Below which ran a dirt-packed road
Equipped to handle any load.
Between the pincers, tangled brush
Grew to eight feet; and in it, lush
Green vines, heat, and humidity
Were dense as the South China Sea.”
According to the U.S. Marine Corps History Division: “The Vietnam War was costly to the U.S. Marine Corps. From 1965 to 1975, nearly 500,000 Marines served in Southeast Asia. Of these, more than 13,000 were killed and 88,000 wounded, nearly a third of all American causalities sustained during the war.”