I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of the word “important.” I have been thinking about how when others think about it, it affects reading habits of engaged consumers of the written word. This, of course, includes the Rumpus community and the important noise it is making about this perilous moment in world history. There is an italicized urgency about important right now because the world is at a critical point in its history, and poetry helps us understand our world and take positive action.
There is also an acute sense of privilege in discussing an important book like Inheriting the War: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees. The writers in this volume, edited by Laren McClung, have a perspective that is essential for all Americans to ingest. It helps that everything in its pages, from the foreword by Yusef Komunyakaa, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Vietnam veteran, to the final lines by Gold Star Daughter Karen Spears Zacharias, displays unflinching eloquence: “It’s hard to explain what losing a father does to a family.”
Zacharias writes this in a prose piece called, “The Man in the Jeep,” then gracefully segues to a report in the Portland Oregonian about the body of a young man found in the Columbia River. The young man was headless and police hoped the t-shirt he wore would help identify him.
“I think that’s what losing Daddy did to us. With him gone we were headless. It was as if somebody came into our home with a machete and in one swift slice decapitated our entire family.”
She speaks for millions here who have lost family members to war, in a work of prose that, like so much in these pages, could effectively be staged and performed.
Hieu Minh Nguyen is the queer son of Vietnamese refugees. His second collection of poetry, Not Here, was published this year by Coffee House Press. “Buffet Etiquette” is a vivid example of what dislocation can do to language:
Sometimes when I watch home movies,
I don’t even understand myself. My childhood is a foreign film. All of my memories
have been dubbed in English.
My mother’s favorite television shows are all 90’s sitcoms.
The ones with laugh tracks. The pre recorded emotion
that cues her when to smile.
Toward the end of this kinetic, visual display he declares:
My house is a silent film.
My house is infested with subtitles.
This is as devastating as the work of Charles Simic, a former US Poet Laureate who, thanks to Hitler and Stalin, became stateless young, and whose early grappling with English gave a spiky edge to his verse. Note Nguyen’s use of “infested”—a term that strongly suggests rodents or insects. It’s also, thanks to the 2016 election, a word associated with immigrants and queer men and women. Language, Nguyen knows, is never static, and sometimes metastasizes when the public square is exceptionally rancorous. The houses we live in and the memories housed in our hearts and minds have been infested by an ugliness Nguyen beautifully confronts and helps to overcome.
Mong-Lan is an award winning poet and former Stegner fellow at Stanford. In the second section of “A New Vietnam,” she, too, examines what the Vietnam War has done to language.
Hue—what do you make of chance
__________________life’s but a dollar a day
______________what should you say when a person
dies each day in the Demilitarized Zone ___scrounging for scrap metal
___________________bullets & bombs on trays like shrimp
the hills __now there __now disappearing
________white claws stream down __from dumped chemicals
______________________________a fun house of horror
still after decades the Khe Sanh Combat Base
__________is nearly flat; the Ho Chi Minh trail winds
thirty minutes to Laos & National Highway 1
_______________threading the country in one
is it chance that the Hue dialect is a giddy
____________________________________fish never to be hooked?
the language is imagined by the land’s vapors
_________________________the mirage of white sand
by dreams of the brood
_____________of cows walking through white mountains
________a woman fries her smoky meal
_________________________________next to a moon crater.
The horror of what has transpired on this landscape, in “the land’s vapors,” must not be forgotten, because the shape of the land and so many of its people have become very different, yet invisible, without these essential words. One can never adequately address such large-scale violation. Lan understands the scope of the tragedy and the necessity of coming as close as possible to giving that tragedy an accessible shape.
In this poem, everything moves and moves toward the conclusion, in which Lan brilliantly juxtaposes the Nuclear Research Center with a convent, beyond which is a cemetery with “a mountain of crosses which doesn’t stop rising.” The dead in a war-scarred land should never leave us. One way to keep them present is to honor them with language like this.
Adam Karlin is the son of a Vietnam veteran and a journalist who brings to mind what a crusty newspaper editor said to me when the Vietnam War was raging: “Reporting and poetry have a lot in common. They’re both trying to say as much as possible in as few words as possible.” “How I Didn’t Find My Father’s War in Vietnam” is concise, direct, and poetic at the same time.
The cynicism—mine or the marketers or both—wore me down. I went from the DMZ to the Mekong Delta to the Central Highlands, a litany of ‘War Tours.’ Asking: what am I looking for in Vietnam? More specifically: when was I looking for? Nha Trang, Part A: a beach town overwhelmed by Russian tourists who tossed endless reserves of insults at locals. Part B: The hometown of Mr. Nguyen, family friend who fled as a boat person to the Philippines and smuggled himself to America to become a NASA engineer. Was Da Nang pocked with dust and Chinese construction equipment and foremen? Or was it the port where dad first landed in Vietnam? Were the Cu Chi tunnels a network of underground passages used by the Vietnam Cong to attack American infrastructure, or a theme park where tourists could empty AK-47 clips into paper targets? Pencil in : C) All of the above.
Earlier in the piece, Karlin says he had gone to find his father’s war, not to go sightseeing. But as he makes clear, with a crisp diction, not being a tourist is impossible. He’s just another surprised pilgrim, taking into himself, and giving his readers the connections and disconnections that greet him. “Loud Irish tourists interrupted my solitude” on Marble Mountain, near the airbase where his father served. He carries a joss stick insistently thrust at him by a Vietnamese woman with black teeth whose rules he respects and follows.
The moment wasn’t perfect. But it was real, I thought, and so is Vietnam, which I am maybe seeing for the first time, through its own joss stick smoke and rituals and land and sea and sky.
Here, Karlin recognizes the gift of finding something he was not looking for. Sharing the lesson without being self-righteous or smug helps make what he says so authoritatively affecting.
Again and again the poetry in this book makes us see more acutely by connecting the mundane present to the past. Deborah Paredez is the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran and widely published feminist essayist who teaches at Columbia University. This is her poem, “A History of Bamboo:”
The bamboo out back
is taking over—infantry
from the neighboring city lot.
Each week another advance
nearer to the bedroom window
the view now only
green reed and yearning
stalk. There is no stopping
the free-running roots
the garden guide instructs
unless a trench is dug
to uproot the system.
In Laos, a farmer digs
for bamboo shoots
and his spade strikes
a cluster bomb
startled from its mud cradle.
At night the hollow poles rise
and answer to the wind.
Who knows how many
more will surface by morning.
It was easy to see from the beginning where this poem was headed, but that does not diminish the value of its stark violence: invasion; a cluster bomb in a cradle of mud. The juxtaposition is perfect. Children in cradles died and were buried in cradles of mud after invasions. When the hollow spokes of the bamboo answer to the wind at night, the question at the end of the poem becomes a statement. Paredez knows what invasions can leave behind and her note at the bottom of the page informs us that between 1964 and 1973, the United States military dropped two million tons of explosives on Laos alone.
There is no escape from the cradle of this shame. There is no doubt of the importance of Inheriting the War.