Forty-five years ago on a day as blue-skied as today, I flew into Washington’s National Airport, and from there caught a bus to Quantico, VA, to begin Marine Corps Officer Candidate School. I had graduated from college a few months before and had spent the summer catching day jobs from Teamster’s Local 251 in East Providence, RI. My father, himself a longtime Teamster, had made some kind of arrangement that allowed me to wait every morning with a small group of guys outside the back door of the union hall. The door would open, a business agent would point to one of us and call that person over, give him a slip with a company’s name and address on it. The best jobs would last a week or more, the worst were short-term, usually unloading meat or produce at the railroad and trailer-truck docks. The worst of the worst was unloading watermelons from the South, as each crate would always have a rotten one, slimy, stinking, and fly-blown. The most difficult was handling sides of beef, the hinds and forelegs hanging in refrigerator cars. The job was to hook, lift, and transport the frozen meat to the dock, where an overhead rail with hooks let you slide the beef to the right lockers. But getting out to that rail was dangerous, as floors grew slippery with grease. If you slipped you were likely to end up under a heavy piece of a steer.
I thought all this physical labor, especially for a recent Brown graduate, was good real-life preparation for boot camp. Real life. That was also part of the appeal of enlisting in the military as the Vietnam War went into its fourth year. I am not sure how to describe how and why my mind was caught up in the romance of going to war. As I said to myself back then, I knew the war was wrong, but it was the war of my time, and it was my writer’s duty to bear witness to the moral emptiness of this enterprise. I can see now how many facets of that sentiment were just plain wrong, but it was an appealing enough thought to my twenty-one-year-old mind. A more adult and responsible version of that thought would have shunted me toward journalism, but it was “real-life” I craved, and I wanted to experience it as a soldier. Thus I would become an infantry officer and go straight to Vietnam.
Two years later, in September 1970, I left the Marine Corps as a conscientious objector. I did not go straight to Vietnam, not at all. I was probably the first Marine officer to be discharged honorably as a CO; I was certainly one of the first. In those two years that had passed I had done my training, became commissioned as a lieutenant, and received orders to the Third Battalion of the Ninth Marines in the Third Marine Division. The unit’s tactical area was the northernmost part of what was then South Vietnam, from the DMZ down to Quang Tri, and from that coastal city westward to the Laotian border. Route 9 stretches from Quang Tri City to Lao Bao at the border and passes the remnants of a number of American combat bases, most notably Khe Sanh, high up in the jungle mountains.
By sheer luck and perhaps with a little gift from Richard Nixon, I never did hook up with my unit in Vietnam. As I was boarding an airplane from Okinawa to the combat zone, I was informed that my unit was at that moment getting on boats in Vietnam and heading back to its Okinawan home base. I was summarily ordered to wait for the unit, which would arrive in two or three days. As it turned out, the Ninth Marine Regiment was the first to leave Vietnam as a unit, and it did so as a function of Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy. To compound what I saw as a delay in my getting to the war zone, I was soon re-assigned altogether, and woke up one morning to find myself the Deputy Provost Marshal (deputy chief of military police) for the Marines on Okinawa.
This job meant I would be on the island for at least six months. I remember being “reassured” by superior officers that I would still be able to get my time in Vietnam, that my “career” would not be harmed, but that I’d have to wait awhile more before I could go “down South.” Working in the Provost Marshal’s office, meanwhile, turned out to be a rather privileged and interesting job. Among many things, I reported directly to the base commander, and so I was a known commodity at headquarters. Our office also had subscriptions to stateside news magazines, something that became crucially important to me in early December 1969, when I opened one of those magazines and saw photos of what we know now as the My Lai massacre. Those photos were the beginning of my own conscientious objection, though that phrase was not in my mind, as I really did not know anything about the long tradition of conscientious objection. What I remember feeling was disgust at seeing corpses of women, children, old men. In particular I remember the bare bottom of a dead infant lying next to the corpse of his mother. I also remember looking up at the ceiling and declaring to no one but myself, “I am not a Nazi!”
What I meant was that such atrocities were not what I had signed up for. It was perhaps “real-life” in the Vietnam war, but I was not going to participate or lend myself to that version of reality. A slow, subtle growth in conscience was underway. Instead of being willing to countenance danger, etc., in order to convey the war in words, I began to realize that my participation enabled the very thing I deplored. I started to think also that I had been willing to harm or allow others to be harmed for the sake of some inchoate literary ambition. The disgust I felt also turned inward and became directed at myself.
The months that followed are another story for another time, but suffice it to say I learned very quickly about conscientious objection. I studied the Navy regulations governing it, and went through months of bureaucratic procedures, oral and written statements, testimonies. By 1970 the United States military leadership had itself lost faith in the war, and as a result I experienced very few real difficulties as my petition for CO status worked its way up the chain of command. In September 1970 I stepped out of a Marine Corps barracks for the last time. I had never made it to the war I thought I had needed to go to. It would be another twenty-five years before I first set foot in Vietnam.
The Joiner Center
Tipping Point, my first book of poetry, was published in 1994. My first reading from the book was at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at UMass-Boston. Ever since that reading, in addition to my full time teaching position at Suffolk University in Boston, I have been a teaching and research affiliate of the Joiner Center (recently renamed as the Joiner Institute). I’ve taught in the Center’s summer writers’ conference and been involved in its larger effort at cross-cultural exchange with writers from various conflict zones, especially Vietnam. Thus I first met writers from Vietnam, and first engaged in a project of co-translation of Vietnamese poetry. It was for literary reasons that I first visited the country, and I have made four more visits in the past dozen years, the most recent being in the spring of 2012. In that visit I was part of a delegation of writers sponsored by the Joiner Center and sent to a conference in Hue, a city in central Vietnam with a great educational and cultural tradition. Our delegation included Kevin Bowen, poet and translator and the director of the Joiner Center, as well as Nguyen Ba Chung, poet and the Joiner Center’s primary translator and liaison to Vietnamese writers. The delegation also included the poet and translator Bruce Weigl and the novelist Larry Heinemann, combat veterans of the Vietnam War who have been central presences throughout the history of the Joiner Center. Carolyn Forche and Sam Hamill, both renowned poet/translators, rounded out the delegation.
In Hue, we spent a day giving conference papers, followed by a reading that night from a bilingual book consisting of our poems and those of other American poets translated into Vietnamese. The next morning we were up bright and early to begin a two-day road trip with Vietnamese writers north to Quang Tri City and then west along Route 9. The trip was organized by Hu’u Thinh, the director of the Vietnam Writers’ Association, and Nguyen Quang Thieu, a poet, journalist, and publisher. Our goal was to visit the national cemeteries along our route and stop at the remnants of the American combat base at Khe Sanh. We were to spend the night at Lao Bao at the Laotian border and return the next day.
The higher Route 9 climbed into the mountains, the colder wind and rain became, and the more it sank in that this was the place where my original orders way back when had been sending me. It was sobering to think of all the dying that had happened along this road. I also started to think the road itself knew what had happened here; in a factual, ecological way there was some truth to the thought. There were, for instance, many long rows of rubber tree plantings—all leafless and not yet mature. The very deliberate planting of them told us something about Agent Orange defoliation, and later efforts to restore the land. Route 9 also passes The Truong Son National Cemetery, a set of forest glens populated by row upon row of gravestones, some ten thousand of them.
And so it was that “Quang Tri Elegies,” when I was came to write it, began with a reflection on mortal danger and killing. As with the other stanzas, the first is intended to sound a relatively formal note. The verse is irregular, but the lines are consistently longish, five and six beats per. The indents provide a kind of formal regularity as well. And as with each section/stanza that follows, “Route 9” consists of one sentence with a relatively complicated syntactical arrangement. What I hoped for in sound and feeling was slow formality; I did not want to rush through this poem. Halfway through the stanza “Route 9” shifts from “I could have died here” to “I might have killed here.” In the most compressed way I could think of, that shift marks the shift in my own mind from when I joined to when I left the Marine Corps. The stanza is burdened, underneath it all, by the sense that there was so much to mourn here on this road. The stanzas that follow try to sort out some of those far reaches of that mourning.
For example, in the next stanza let us pause, for a minute, at the national cemetery, where each of us placed joss sticks in a sandy-bottomed holder and bowed three times before the grave of the Vietnamese soldiers buried there. “Joss”: the word is pidgin English. It developed in perhaps the 18th century via the Asian encounter with Portuguese sailors and other colonialists. The Portuguese word for God, deos, sounded more or less like joss, which by metonymic association became the name of the incense stick and the smoke that rises from it. In the section titled “Joss,” I tried to create a grammar of smoke curling and the body bending over to suggest both ephemerality and physicality in the act of praying with a joss stick
In each of the stanzas that follow the two opening ones I hoped to move beyond travelogue and little by little arrive at a sense of intimacy and privacy, a place where the dead and the living might meet. It only now occurs to me that Odysseus’ effort to talk to the dead via a hole dug on a sandy beach is a cousin to what I was striving for in this poem—not so much a literal conversation with the dead as something else I find hard to name yet know is there. From my camera batteries dying to my wondering about nights where so many had died to my mulling over the items under glass in the Khe Sanh museum, the poem tries to create spaces in which both the dead and the living can signal each other.
The Quang Tri River
In the last section of the poem, we are returning to Hue via Route 9, and for a while running parallel to the river. Initially a narration in the third person, this stanza contained one anomalous use of a second person pronoun, which eventually pointed me in the direction of revising it as a direct address to an unnamed “you.” The direct address here casts a backward glance at what came before, and I hoped it would make the reader sense that any or all of these sections could easily have been addressed to that “you.” I also felt there was some rightness in the sudden appearance of another person to whom I speak. The shift reminded me a bit of the way the last section of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” surprisingly indicates he has been speaking to his sister, perhaps from the beginning of the poem. In “Quang Tri Elegies,” though, I really don’t know if there is a single person whom I address. I think perhaps I am speaking to an aggregate of several people, each of them present in an overlay of feeling, a set of figures and faces all simultaneously present.
The first “you” that came to mind was my friend Kevin Bowen, who as I said earlier was an American combat veteran of the war. I should add now that during his time in Vietnam he traveled on Route 9, then a rutted dirt road where everything that moved over it kicked up dust. I imagined Kevin swimming in the nearby river, cleaning his body of the dust and fear-sweat. I imagined him seeing his own flesh, and knowing the gift that was his own life. I thought too of our mutual friend Nguyen Ba Chung, my co-translator, who was born in the North, whose family fled to the South in the mid-fifties. I thought of him coming to study at Brandeis while the American war was ongoing, and of his extraordinary translation effort on behalf of the Joiner Center, some thirty years of his life’s work bringing Vietnamese poetry into English and vice-versa. I imagined him swimming in that river of poetry, renewed and restored by it. I thought of my friend the poet and singer Vo Que. I remembered the time we were on a boat heading up to a temple along the Perfume River in Hue, when Vo Que reached down into the water, cupped a handful brought it to his mouth, and drank. “This, my mother,” he said. I knew what he meant. I knew that in the ancient folk traditions of Vietnam, the country was referred to simply as “the mountains and rivers.” It was a way of imagining that bowed corner of Southeast Asia as the existential source of the nation and its people. I thought too of Tran Dang Khoa, a poetic child prodigy of the war years, whose work Chung and I had translated. I thought of the village where Khoa grew up, adjacent to the Kinh Tay river, and the nearby crossing that was bombed regularly during the years of the American war. I thought too of other veteran friends, Vietnamese and American, and of veterans of the peace movement as well, and the many ways a war inevitably harms us. Most of all, I thought of the many war deaths along this road, where those bodies went, where those spirits went, and how each flowed into that river in one way or another.
My friend and colleague, the poet Jenny Barber, suggested that the title of this poem be in the plural. Perhaps she was thinking of the various discrete units that comprise it, but perhaps too she had intuited that that this was an elegy for the many different people I have mentioned. The poet Tess Gallagher calls the elegy a reservoir of language that can hold the inchoate, inarticulate dimensions of grief. I don’t know if this poem does that, but it was written in the attempt to find words for a grief that has always been there and stays with me. It is not the grief of a combat veteran, nor is it the grief of someone who lost a family member in the war. I think of it now—perhaps as a result of writing this poem—as something we might call a “common grief.”
I borrow the idea of “common grief” from my friend Kaethe Weingarten, a therapist whose several books include one titled Common Shock. In it she explores the experience of trauma in our everyday life, especially the kind of trauma we experience in being witness to violence. Common grief, as I imagine it, is similar to the “shock” that Weingarten writes about. One lives with it, most often without being fully aware of its dimensions or implications. But to face into it, to embrace it, and to know it for what it is—this can be deeply restorative. The grief I am thinking of is common not only in the sense of being familiar, but also in the sense of being shared. It is a grief we might hold and keep in common with one another. It was that sort of common grief I arrived at in “Quang Tri Elegies.” It was a grief shared with my fellow travelers, both Vietnamese and American, as we made our way down Route 9 and back. It had been a pilgrimage of sorts, at whose end I could imagine each of us in that living stream the river conjured in my mind.