Saturday, March 22, 2008

Poems on/about the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial

My father just returned from a trip to Vietnam, some forty years after his initial service to our country, as a Naval Advisor on a South Vietnamese patrol gunboat. The day after his return, he was rushed to the hospital because of edema in his legs, which had swelled frighteningly during the trip. Unknown causes. Almost no one in contemporary Vietnam wanted to talk about the war, and he was both relieved and saddened by this. Where did it go? What wounds were--and are--just below the surface of languages, of faces, of skin?

Who knows how we will remember and memorialize this current war? It's difficult to imagine a memorial as moving and provocative as Maya Lin's Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington, D.C.--that black scar of mirroring granite half-sunk in the earth. If there's a limit to its representativity, it's that there are no Vietnamese names, names of the 2.5 million dead. Yet, despite this framing, it's still a testament to how art can act both as elegy and as outcry.

Here is a video rendering of Yusef Komunyakaa's famous "Facing It":

And here's George Bilgere's "At the Vietnam Memorial":
At the Vietnam Memorial

The last time I saw Paul Castle
it was printed in gold on the wall
above the showers in the boys’
locker room, next to the school
record for the mile. I don’t recall
his time, but the year was 1968
and I can look across the infield
of memory to see him on the track,
legs flashing, body bending slightly
beyond the pack of runners at his back.

He couldn’t spare a word for me,
two years younger, junior varsity,
and hardly worth the waste of breath.
He owned the hallways, a cool blonde
at his side, and aimed his interests
further down the line than we could guess.

Now, reading the name again,
I see us standing in the showers,
naked kids beneath his larger,
comprehensive force—-the ones who trail
obscurely, in the wake of the swift,
like my shadow on this gleaming wall.

I want to add "My Letter to the Wall--November 1989," by Vietnamese poet Nguyen Ngoc Xuan, when I find it in my files.

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