‘Tales from the I Corps’ is a collection of poetry written by veterans of the Vietnam War (and one by the daughter of a veteran who suffered from chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). The poems themselves speak directly to the experience of the writers, both ‘in country’ and after the war, as they tried to settle back into their old lives.
Each poet’s signature contains both his name and his division assignment, underscoring their common background and experiences. Some also include their military nicknames (‘Doc’, ‘the Greek’, and so on).
The poems are self-published, and there’s little evidence of an editing process at work. As such, they suffer technically at times. The rawness of the poetry, however, lends a directness of communication that can be missing from more polished works. The reader is constantly reminded that these are real experiences, written by those who lived through violence and trauma. The poets’ struggle with language, form and rhyme can be read as part of their struggle to fully articulate ‘the anguish of just living or trying to stay alive in the midst of combat and the pitiful conditions of life in a war torn country that was thousands of miles away from home’ to those who remained in their home countries.
Each poet brings a distinctive voice. ‘Another Good Morning from Vietnam’, by Paul Cameron (1st Inf. Div.) is full of wry humour, marrying the banalities of a DJ’s patter with the almost offhand observation that ‘It’s been raining rockets all week up in Lai Khe’. In ‘We Regret to Inform You’, that same flippant tone is dramatically undercut in the last stanza, where the poet speaks directly and bitterly to those veterans who survived:
‘Dear combat comrades of these dear fallen men
We regret to inform you that your memories never end
The sights and sounds of their death keep pounding away
Their names carved on a wall as you kneel down to pray’.
Ken Hornbeck (D/1/501)’s ‘Black Panther in Ambush’ tells the chilling story, delivered in a matter-of-fact tone, of a veteran so haunted by the war that he turns his own backyard into a battlefield. The short poems of Mark Regan (B/1/501) serve as snapshots that place the reader firmly in the physical reality of Vietnam – narrowly avoiding being bitten by a green bamboo snake (‘Reprieve’), looking up at a single cloud in the sky and wondering if it portends anything (‘Omen’), and lying alone in a foxhole remembering a loved one (‘End of July’). Each short sketch has a restrained quality to it, often featuring objects in the natural world; these evoke echoes of Asian poetry, especially Japanese haiku and Classical Chinese ‘Beyond the Borders’ verse.
The raw power of these poems is perhaps best illustrated in ‘After Nam’ by Pete ‘Doc’ Fraser (3/187):
it took me a long time to realise
that every time it thundered
someone did not have to die’.
Confessional poetry of any kind walks a fine line; it’s all too easy to tip over into dramatically overblown descriptions of pain, alienating the reader. Conversely, a reader can be left without empathy for the poem if it is too restrained. Many of these poems manage that balance beautifully, adding only enough detail to fully ‘place’ the reader, and trusting that fewer words can convey more than a whole stanza dedicated entirely to ‘feelings’. Often the poems lack a visible narrator; this absence, far from undermining the impact, actually heightens the emotional tension.
The collator of ‘Tales from the I Corps’, Mark Regan, urges the reader: ‘Don't read this stuff fast... it needs to be thunk about’ (sic). He’s right, of course – but one of the beauties of this collection is that we can’t help but think about it. The poems stay with us long after we navigate away from the web page, giving us both perspective and empathy for those who lived through the Vietnam War, and who still carry it with them.
Rating: 4 stars