Introduction by William Blackley
Thanks to John Amen for the opportunity to read many of the 3000 or so poems submitted for this special edition of war poetry. Thanks as well to John and Stefan Lovasik for what was an exciting and fruitful editorial process. The poems were extremely powerful and evocative. Choosing to add or omit any poem was difficult, knowing that each poet had individual memories and closely held opinions about war. When choosing poems I weighed craft, theme, and whether the poem hit the target on a deeper level.
My high school senior annual says that my career goal was to be a Captain in the US Navy. I realize now that no one exposed to war, much less an 18 year old, can fathom the range of war’s cruelty. Even those who are exposed struggle to express its enormity. My uncle served in a rifle company in WWII in the Africa Campaign and landed at Anzio. His stories were brief and frequently about funny events he recalled. He never talked about anyone he killed or the thousands of dead soldiers, who had been parents and children. It was only after being drafted, going gung ho to basic training, being awarded the American Spirit Award, going through Advanced Infantry Training and Artillery Officer Candidate School, and spending two tours in Vietnam that I came to grips with the horror of war.
I served as an aerial observer, shell report team leader, fire direction controller, and executive officer of a 155-mm SP Battery, and was the leader of a Civil Affair Platoon living in a Vietnamese Village. I was awarded four Bronze Stars, four Army Commendation medals, and two V Devices for valor but never considered myself anything other than a person determined that my friends and I would survive. I had served when called, but I also came home to years of profound sadness, nightmares, sleeping with a pistol under my pillow, sweeping my home perimeter at the slightest sound, and until the last ten years avoiding everything military, including Memorial and Veterans Days. I am constantly vigilant for threats to family and self.
Writing poetry about my experiences helped me get a handle on my feelings. I currently serve as a Trustee in VFW Post 7794 and am a partner with others in helping support returning veterans as they attempt to reintegrate into society. I’ll never forget that in war even the best trained and brightest die from just plain bad luck. I pray for a commander who leads with caution and wisdom and for one who is always searching for a safe return and peace.
—William Blackley, author of Lingering Fire
Delicate roses, do not dip
your tips, dancers don’t point
your fine toes, artists don’t slip
slender tendons, poets, fingers,
pens, deep into war’s steel jaws.
The rangy battle hound will gnaw
gristle off bone, its jaws will grab
your gullet and squeeze until
your eyes bulge, veins pop
North Vietnamese sappers
could have studied Zen, painted
silk screens, arranged bouquets
for girlfriends before we blew
them to gray smithereens, crawling
as they were through our razor wire
loaded with satchel charges, our clay-
more mines, 50-caliber fire baked
them till they burst, overheated
fragile pieces, shards in a kiln.
Let’s dig blue clay for lily tubers,
shovel black raspberry roots
into a brown wheelbarrow, heel
bee balm into loamy dirt where
they’ll get plenty of sun, water
tomatoes, peppers, and zinnias,
plant where we can gather, cut,
blow the last few gutter leaves.
Honey, let’s not go inside,
flip on the boob tube where
three more marines die in Iraq,
let’s do anything to stop me
from lapsing back, running,
gasping through gun smoke,
over laterite, in Vietnam,
where an artillery lanyard pulled,
triggered the death of perfectly
good people ripped free of body,
mind and earth, forever planted
in the dustbin of lost time.