Friday, October 16, 2020

'Of Bush-Time Memories, This Lingers'

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.”

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