Yesterday afternoon I was fortunate to attend a reading, "Readings and Conversations: Poetry and Prose on Writing and War"; a combined presentation of the Gloucester Writers Center, The Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, and Consequence Magazine.
Kevin Bowen, former director of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences
read poems and--in Vietnamese, follwed by English translation-- a piece from a Vietnamese poet; there is an interview with Kevin on the website for "Voices" . I've been immersing myself in novels set in WWI, so I was interested to read this from Kevin: " I think the poetry of the Vietnam War does hearken back to poetry from World War I. The themes of betrayal, of the enormity of war, of its brutality, the creation of an enormous gulf between past and present, the world before and the world after the war, they are there. "
Bowen and his fellow poets were unsparing in brutal detail; the work makes it clear that the war is very present for them, a well of horror continually yielding fresh images. In the poem "Body Count: The Dead at Tay Ninh", Bowen writes of stacking bodies beside the mess tent. "Their bodies black and crisp curled in the purple light. Dawn, we flew them out in bags,/ mopped up the mess for chow."
Marc Levy, the next reader, served as an infantry medic and Vietnam and, as he read, there was an electric intensity in the room as he made the war very real for us through his words and images. As Marc writes in his essay "Whatever You Did in War Will Always be With You", "That was thirty-seven years ago. Or was it last night?" Hearing his poems left me eager to watch a video, "The Real Deal", featuring Levy reading his works accompanied by a background of sounds and images from the Vietnam War. You can read his poem "Dead Letter Day Poem" online.
Fred Marchant, accomplished poet and educator (he is the director of Creative Writing at The Poetry Center of Suffolk University), opened with an amazing poem by William Stafford, sharing that Stafford was a conscientious objector in WWII. The poem contained a terrifying image of the atomic bomb "mushroom cloud" as an immense snake rising up from the earth; I wish I could find the poem and share it here but it's well worth looking for.
Marchant's 2009 poetry collection from Graywolf Press, "The Looking House", was named by Barnes & Noble as one of the five best poetry collections of the year. You can read two of these astonishing and hard-hitting poems here. The review of the book in the Christian Science Monitor notes that Marchant was one of the first Marine officers to become a conscientious objector. I need to share his photo here because I kept thinking, as he was reading his searing verse, that he has the face of ....maybe an angel who has passed through hell without losing his light. Stefi Rubin took this photo, which appears on The Poetry Foundation website, and I hope she will not mind me sharing it here, so you can see what I mean.
Helen Garland, wife of the late Joe Garland (author of Unknown Soldiers), shared some moving reflections
about Joe, their correspondence during WWII--a contact which Helen later discovered was redemptive for Joe--, their experiences with his post-traumatic stress disorder, and the writing of this book, a compelling mission in his life. Most of us were in tears, as was Helen, when she closed her portion of the talk with a poem.
Martin Ray, who arrived in Vietnam in 1971 as an Airborne Ranger Combat Engineer, discovered a new dimension of the war and of humanity when he enrolled in a basic photography course and began taking his camera around Saigon at every opportunity. He speaks of the images of his subjects rising up to him from the developing tray and asserting their common membership in the Family of Man. "I went there to test my manhood and came home to test my humanity". As he read poetry and prose reflecting on his war experiences, the audience circulated several of his eloquent photographs of the people of Saigon.
George Kovach (editor/publisher of Consequence), spoke about the mission of his magazine, of which Kevin Bowen and Fred Marchant are contributing editors. The Spring 2012 issue is just out; copies of the journal were available for perusal and purchase, and, with its focus on the cultural consequences of war and injustice, it's clearly a valuable addition to the selection of literary journals focused on social issues.
The final featured reader was Aldo Tambellini, a visual artist, filmmaker, poet and peace activist still vibrant and visionary at 82. He shared his experience of surviving an Allied bombing of his village when he was a teenager in Italy; and he read some powerful poems that brought the reading full-circle, as he had not been a combat veteran, but a civilian witness to and victim of the horrors of war. I'd encourage you to explore his website to learn more about his genre-stretching and boldly imaginative creative works and to experience his authentic voice through his writings.
This event made me hungry for more of what literary Gloucester has to offer, and also eager to deepen my acquaintance with the works of these artists, all of whom were new to me. What a rich afternoon; out of pain, such gifts.