Many years ago, I made the acquaintance of Howard Nemerov. I don’t want this to sound any larger than it was — acquaintance is just the right word. He lived down the street from me here, in St. Louis. Sometimes we’d talk of war, World War II for him, Vietnam for me. I remember once saying how I always felt like my service was a failure, that somehow I had failed The Manhood Test. It was one of the first times I’d ever been aggressively honest about my trauma. He admitted having the same feelings. “It’s amazing how war can make us feel like a failure, even when all we failed to do was get ourselves killed.”
And, of course, we spoke of poetry. I have for decades meditated on an off-handed comment he made. “I have no imagination.” At first, I was uncomprehending. Years later, as I walked across the campus of Washington University, years after he’d passed, I saw Nemerov’s old office window. There were the gingko trees he wrote about in his poetry. He didn’t imagine anything. He just looked out the window. That act of looking took no imagination. The art was in his craft.
This poem below records an event that happened in 1970. My first night in the 4th Infantry Division, North Vietnamese sappers blew-up twenty-one helicopters. Welcome to The Nam. The next night, we watched “Puff The Magic Dragon”, a Douglas AC-47 gunship, killed these N. V. A. maybe a half-a-mile from the camp. This gunship carried three mini-guns, Gatling guns, which fired so many rounds, 6,000 rounds a minute, that it was said that they put one bullet in every square inch of an area the size of a football field. These mini-guns don’t even sound like a rat-a-tat-tat machine gun. It’s more like wwwwhhhaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, so many bullets firing so fast that they are indistinguishable. The next morning, a patrol didn’t find any bodies, just body-sized splotches of blood.
I wanted to capture the fact that my feelings were a combination of relief and awe. It is a cliché to say that soldiers are always afraid. No doubt many are. But I wasn’t afraid. And I wasn’t brave. This untitled poem records the night in The Nam that I became dissociative.
I have struggled for decades with my own reaction formation, which is a near-pacifist stance. I hate war. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find it arousing. Hence, “it’s finally time” to tell a story that I, for decades, didn’t want to know about myself.
Years after the war, it’s finally time,
our first sergeant retired,
our outpost plowed under,
the secrets no longer the news, that we tell
the story and tell it again until we hear
what we hated to know:
that we admired the arc of the tracer,
that we admired the splotches of blood.