Sunday, September 1, 2013

Fred Marchant: Common Grief: Notes on "Quang Tri Elegies"

Some Background

 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 Poem

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. 


  1. I've just come back from Burma -- a country which has never recovered from "the war," and that means WWII! Mandalay was flattened entirely in 1945, not a single building left standing when 'peace' was finally restored, the fabled 'Glass Palace' within its 1 square-mile moat just rubble, rats and decomposition. And everywhere in the overgrown wasteland that surrounds Rangoon today you can still see shards of glass and pulverized walls poking up through the weeds, because nothing has grown there for 60 years but poverty.

    And who's to blame, that's the question, the invaders or those brave men who drove the invaders out? Always such a delicate, agonizing question when it comes to after a war, like the specter of Dresden which still hangs over post-Armistice Europe. Indeed, the irony is that Burma's 'invaders' have brought more aid to the stricken country than anybody else in the world since then, and the victorious 'liberators' are the ones who have imposed the crippling sanctions. One could even argue that it has been the British and Americans who saddled the whole country with its present poverty, and that it has been the Japanese who have struggled against everybody else in the world to reach out a hand and save it.

    I'm not sure I would want to argue that myself, but I could.


    Dear Fred Marchant,
    Thanks for your noble work with the organizations you serve and for the consciousness you raise with your poetry. But the real threat to humanity, it seems to me, is the heroic urge to Do Something Good from the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli, and with God on our side to boot. I suspect your traumatized veterans aren't ready to make that step yet, for who's to tell them that their values were wrong from the start, and I don't mean their anti-communnism or even their patriotism. What I want is somebody to help them to understand that true heroism can never be taught by a proud mother who sends her boy off to war what is more by the Staff Sergeant who trains him. Who's to say that it's the pursuit of Honor itself that does the most damage. Glory some call it.

    Forgive me if that comes out wrong.


  2. Hello Christopher:

    No forgiveness needed, and nothing you said came out in any manner that could be construed as "wrong." As I read your comment, we both sense that deep down in the collective consciousness there is this truly harmful impulse to celebrate war itself, even in the most ostensibly "anti-war" expressions.

    This is an issue I've always struggled with: how to engage in an examination of warfare and its consequences without making anyone or anything about it sound heroic or otherwise desirable. Some examples of the pitfalls: that war is the great instructor in reality and morality. That going to war takes away our innocence. Well in a certain way a young person might very well see that enduring kind of reality-instruction as heroic and the innocence-losing as truly desirable.

    Now to speak about the poem itself, whether it avoids those pitfalls or not is of course something anyone might have his or her own opinion about. But I can say that my own sense of elegy is that it charts a process of mourning, and what I hoped for in the poem was to gauge various fragments of that mourning. Not to glorify the suffering, but to measure the loss, both as a felt experience, and as a set of hard to name feelings about the way that warfare stays with us long beyond its ostensible endings. I hoped in the poem to suggest that just because we say a war is over, it is not over.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. And for the glimpse of the ways in which the past is present in Burma. Truly appreciated. --Fred Marchant

  3. Right or wrong... Beyond politics and rights and wrongs (a man may find them anywhere): I love rivers, and I love the last line of your poem. And the whole poem building towards it; after the bombing and the violence, the loss of the lives of these wonderful young men (on both sides, like those buried in the graveyards near Ypres, Flanders, WW I (the german graves so neglected), or in Normandy, France, WW II (the german graves so ...) and so on and so on), the last line of the poem, like the Berlin Gedächtnis-Kirche remaining elegantly erect.)
    And that's more than enough, isn't it?
    You are right, it's all about people. Individuals. Those who were there. those who came back, and those who didn't. Bowen Kevin. You.
    The rest, as they say, is history. Or politics. Or tourism. And far easier.
    So thank you for the all too generous intro, and the wonderful work.

    1. Thank you Johan for your generous-hearted response. Yes, I too felt the poem building toward that river and last line or two. I am not sure why or how that was happening as each stage of the poem unfolded, but that the poem ended in the imagined and recalled river seemed only right.

      I know there is in the ending an echo of re-baptism and restoration to a compact with the living. But what I hoped for too was an embodied and acute sense of the ephemeral, to see the flesh of one's own hand as something borrowed, on-loan, and thus all the more precious in itself, and thus all the more consequential in its actions.

      Thank you too for your associations to the graveyards from the World Wars, the endless heaviness of heart that comes with taking those into mind. That feeling is at the heart of this poem. --Fred

  4. There is a fascinating twist in what you say here, Johan, indeed very similar to the irony in Burma's recent history. Just as post-war Japan has had the courage in Burma to focus on a humanitarian goal higher even than international justice, post-war Germany's foreign policy has been a beacon of national selflessness for the whole world. For example, the French had huge investments which complicated their motives when they opposed the Iraq invasion at the U.N., whereas Germany had nothing but principles to live up to.

    Maybe we have to have the bejesus bombed out of us to learn to be selfless, or suffer a terrible personal handicap, or be put away for decades like Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi,

    I live not too far from Vietnam and most of the films that have brought the war so vividly to American homes were shot in my backyard. Yet still the majority of Americans that come here are not prepared for the phrase "defeated in 1975" in a conversation about the Hmong refugees in my neighborhood, for example, or the gargantuan size of the Chiang Mai airport, a city of just 100,000 at the time, and not a single high-rise.

    Losing a war is just a matter of semantics when your village hasn't been bombed with your uncles and brothers all dead and most of your mothers and children in tatters.

    I'm very struck by the poise, dignity, and creative intelligence of the young Vietnamese-Americans who find their way here to study alternative medicine with my wife. And the total absence of vindictiveness among them, that's extraordinary, a trait which also characterizes the Hmong wherever they go as Clint Eastwood so poignantly portrays in 'Gran Turismo.'

    What you do in your poem, Fred Marchant, is bring the grief right into the countryside down on your knees in the mud. And I find it very striking that through great good fortune you were spared the trauma of being there in your actual person. Nevertheless you have managed to recreate the scene so realistically that no one would know that if you hadn't told us. Like doing the Stations of the Cross down on your knees with the faithful, that's what you do.

    The art of grief, I think, is always to imagine beyond the actual event, and that's what art can do. Just as we might even imagine a mother who could truly strive not to bring up a glory-bound son even if none of us could do it ourselves without crippling that son as a man. Or at least none of us who hadn’t lost a lover or husband and everything else before.


    1. Dear Christopher:

      I am tremendously moved by your thought that the poem had some resonance with the Stations of the Cross. It was not a conscious effort on my part, but I do believe in the unconscious dimensions of artistic practice, and sure enough, I was indeed brought up Catholic, have often thought about each of those vignettes in stone or glass or painting where one stops and prays and, in the best sense of the word, tries to bear "witness."

      And I am also tremendously moved by your sense that the poem brings the grief into the countryside and the mud and has the feel of being on bended knees. Yes, "to imagine beyond the actual event."

      I want to add to yours my own sense of the way in which American consumer culture creates artifacts of and about war, especially the most recent ones, that even as they ostensibly bring the "real" war to the screen for instance, they simultaneously evade and camouflage and otherwise bury the sense of loss, of waste, of meaninglessness that hovers around them. By failing to surface these things, worse actions are made more possible. Thus, I am very taken by your phrase "the art of grief." and what that implies about the responsibilities of the artist.

      I so profoundly appreciate and am grateful for your point of view, from Southeast Asia, from among people who have survived great hardships. I'd like to share a couple of literary connections to what we are talking about. The poet William STafford, a life-long pacifist and conscientious objector in World War II composed any number of aphorisms in his notebooks. Here's one: "Every war has two losers." There is a collection of such in a book titled by the same phrase.

      Another association: I have recently taught Philip Levine's poem called "The Horse." You can find it online at the Poetry Foundation. It is about a visit to the US by some survivors of Hiroshima.

      For now then, thank you again for your response to this poem, these questions, our ongoing predicament.--Fred

  5. Fred,

    What I asked myself, and now want to ask you: is it possible for a CO not to go?
    The choice (clear as it may be) to me seems haunting. Obviously the war has stayed with you.
    It's a mal inflicted on your whole generation. And no escape. As you say, a predicament.
    Perhaps a river may help cleanse human suffering too. I hope so. The image has that effect, but it's almost like washing your eyes after having seen something terrible.

    A coincidence: I have just re-read the Bhagavad Gita (it has sadly lost much of its appeal to me though), and the impasse and the torment of Arjuna, may be the first (there is Ulysses too) CO ever (I like to think that he walked away from the sad and terrible affair in stead of taking part); and this is intelligence; autonomy of thought, to differ; a sudden, lonely, and uncomfortable waking-up. From, as well as in, the nightmares of the real.
    Heroic: to detach oneself from the group or the crowd (french: la fou-le), or the expectations or folly of parents, think for oneself and then do what one thinks is right.
    And this may also be, I think, to fight.

    So your poem (which you read beautifully, by the way) and intro made me think (great!), as did Christopher's comments (the twist is there; unconsciously but there, vindictiveness? Or indignation, still, thundering on through the next generation? The people without it that you mention, I too stand in awe before them. It's not heroic, it's nearly divine. Is it the religion that makes the difference? Wisdom over obedience and faith? Over a thousand years of practice in letting-go and less-is-more? Or were/are the people humbled so thoroughly that they are now free of all narcissism? You know more, if not, ask them!)

    And the art of grief... it must lie somewhere even beyond the art of losing. It's so well said, and rings absolutely true. Thanks for that too.


  6. The transition from the art of losing to the art of grief -- isn't that what happens in the last few words of Elizabeth Bishop's poem? Nothing's a real disaster until you get to the grief, that's what the poem says to me, and by then it's too late just to say something flippant or even to say something wise. In a sense it's too late even to reach for your Bhagavad Gita at that point because you ARE Arjuna already, just as the Vietnam Vet is right there at the foot of the cross in the red earth that is Fred Marchant's green mound (mix it all up if you're a poet -- that's how you reach out a hand!).

    And don't get me wrong, either, I'm not trying to say such a moment is 'spiritual' or even 'philosophical,' it's just where we are as human beings when we've suffered confusion enough. Indeed, neither education nor religion can get us there, and it's only when we do arrive that the old cultural images suddenly become fresh, transparent and new.


  7. Such a moment would be: trauma, shock. Acute distress. Nothing nice about it. And fast. Like Vesuvio erupting. Disaster. Loss and grief the aftermath along the borders of the river Time, but there already like the shadow of Damocles' sword falling.
    How can a man when everything and everyone is rushing and sped up so, remain standing and find his own thoughts and will and then sustain them? Withstand all this sense of false urgency, without Krishna to help him out?
    The role of the father (of the nation, of the boy) seems crucial to me here.
    I had to think of the french prime minister who declared that "we" could well solve the Syria-problem "on our own", without the help of the UN, VS, UK... "We" meaning of course not "he", but the sons (and daughters) of his people... That is not even politics, but ethics.
    But I am moving to far away from the poem here.


  8. An erratum: not the prime minister, the president.

    Back to rivers and WWI: Somme, Yzer.
    A river seems (or seemed) to be a natural wedge or refuge against human rage and violence. This ancient benign flowing thing.
    And after our human passages through 'the wild', our own river of words, that - in the best case -
    flows and flows.


  9. Just to give thanks for the bare subjects and verbs in the poem which create a safe space for the imagination to move through the stations of this cross in Vietnam, of all paces, alone in this chapel of art. Uncomplicated, undisguised, unambiguous. First person present tense followed by present perfect conditional: "I am sure I would have died here."

    And just to be sure there's no whiff of pretension, qualify that: I'm just "pretty sure" as I wasn't there in person, alas. And to be sure you get what I mean, I'm saying that as hard as I may try to participate in this grief I'm still pretty sure I would have killed there anyway, had I been able, or certainly I would have tried to -- "with no god, and few others, to forgive me."


    I think it would be impossible for any poet writing in English to write of a young person's grief in any Asian countryside without the help of our own river merchant's wife. But with what a difference!

    Quang Tri River
    Next day coming down from Lao Bao, you tell me would sometimes swim here, the snipers asleep,
    old farmers and women working the fields, river children
    ....eager to bathe with you, your body given to this cold
    mountain stream, sweat falling away, pure flesh left,
    ....your open hands, your fingers, your mother’s own.

    Many, many thanks, Fred Marchant. What a gift if we take the time to receive it.


  10. Thank you Johan and Christopher for the profound resonances in your earlier notes. I've been having computer trouble, and so apologize for the delay.

    Johan, thank you for the association to the Gita. It has been many years since I read the Gita, but your remark calls back to mind Arjuna's torment of soul. I should say also that I keep my eyes and ears ready for those moments of doubt and hesitation, especially in the decision not to kill.

    Early on, while I was on Okinawa, deciding to become a conscientious objector, I read Saul Bellow's Herzog. Bellow was no pacifist. But at a key moment in the novel the main character decides not to shoot the Valentine Gersbach the man who has cuckolded Herzog and stolen his life. That small incident in that large novel had a profound impact on me.

    And Christopher let me thank you for going back to the beginning of the poem and its leap-frogging thoughts about died vs killed. Truly the issue in miniature, as I said in the essay, to move from the danger posed by the situation to a sense that one is the danger in it.

    Let me also say that I sort of keep my eyes peeled for moments of such recognition, moments of hesitation and reflection in literature. IN this I am guided by Simone Weil's luminous remark about the Iliad, where she notes how much certitude there is among the warring parties. Few moments when one pauses or hesitates and is thereby allowed the chance to recognize, as she says, all one's brothers in humanity.

    At one terrible moment of carnage, it is the pair of horses of Achilles who weep, as if they, standing off to the side and witnessing the killing, can act more human than the humans who are tearing at each other's flesh.

    Thanks to you both for your thoughts.--Fred

  11. You do wind things up, Fred Marchant -- what a gift!

    Simone Weil on "force," yes indeed, and the "victor" as vulnerable as the "victim," if indeed anyone could distinguish between the two of them in Vietnam or at Troy. Why, even the ideals of both those warring civilizations were equally valid and noble. Ho Chi Minh v. Robert McNamara in Vietnam – in the long run both of them equally intelligent and pig-headed and, on the human level, vindicated.

    And would anyone dare to suggest that self-chastisement might indeed have its season -- the extreme fasting of Simone Weil, the self-flagellation of T.E.Lawrence, the self-incarceration of the radical, Dorothy Day, or the silence of the pacifist and communist Thomas Merton?

    To move away from the danger posed by the human condition one must recognize that one is oneself the danger within it -- to paraphrase what you say just above, Fred Marchant, not to speak of the thrust and the risk of your wonderfully naked poem.

    In fact, I'd say it’s always better to do one’s extreme self-pruning in poetry than in real life – because we human beings also have the responsibility to look after our own bodies out of love and respect for our families, friends, and even the stranger crossing the road. But in poetry, yes – let’s roar and shout to the heavens on that battle-ground, mixing vatic outrage with compassion!


  12. And so the horse returns, as a witness of the condition humaine, and makes the link to Mario Chard’s poems. ‘Caballero’ (he who rides the horse, or: he who rides humanity), as well as ‘Round’...

    Another association: a man refusing the act of violence that lies before him (but is then stuck with it): 'The Shot', the short story by Pushkin. It must have been so strange and new at the time: the possibility and the ability not to (re)act violently.

    Christopher already marked the main line in your last comment which is indeed striking (again, this ring of truth). I had never thought of the human individual in a war in this way, from this ethical point of view.

    Back to the poem... with a detour: Ferré: ‘La poésie sert à illustrer le mot.’.
    This is: not the feeling, nor the thing (and I can follow him here).
    In your poem, one (at least one, maybe more) word is being omitted, or fell out, then finds its way back in via your intro. It’s the word that is being illustrated, and it is: b a t t e r y .
    The batteries dying are the batteries dying. The batteries dying also implies the inability to shoot (pictures).
    Herein lies the poem’s main force, I think, beyond its obvious musicality and other subtle qualities you already mentioned in your intro: the omission of this one word (what vanishes, returns, ‘between the lines’) which is crux.
    ‘Battery’ is dense, as a signifier, and yet you replaced it (this le mot juste), by ‘AA’.
    This act (was it done consciously?) marks you as a true poet (and thus not a soldier; I don’t think one can be both at the same time).


  13. And why b a t t e r y ?
    Because it refers to the human subject (that can not be replaced) as well as to the object (that can be replaced). One word.
    Initially you hold it back like one trying to hold a rampant horse, and then later on you (have to) let it go.


  14. Dear Johan,

    I do my best to follow you, and even when I don't I always admire your energy and commitment. That helps me find my balance again when I stumble over something you say, like the Leo Ferré quote, or the b a t t e r i e s, or "the missing word" which is also, you insist, “le mot juste.” And above all I like the way you put War in general in a specifically European context, which is where it belongs in our times, I agree, even more so than in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, all of which were childs-play by comparison. And of course the two World Wars also resulted in the European Union, a truly courageous, earth-shaking surrender to conscience if there ever was one. Indeed, just imagine what it would take in the way of suffering and destruction for us Americans to agree to give up our beloved dollar, what is more for us to join in a common currency with Venezuela and Mexico?

    But there is one thing you say that I disagree with very strongly, and which I feel does Fred Marchant a disservice. "This act (was it done consciously?) marks you as a true poet," you say, and then go on to add, parenthetically, that a soldier cannot be a poet at the same time. Because my reading of the “Quang Tri Elegies” says just the opposite, and indeed I’d say that that is one of its most original and effective contributions to our understanding both of war and of whatever it takes to put an end to war. Fred Marchant was, and in many ways still is, a proud soldier, and I'd say he is right to be proud of it too. And of course that's one of the main reasons why he must be so effective working with damaged veterans, the fact that he still understands what it means to carry arms professionally, and how he participates fully in all the resulting dilemmas -- as have done, and still do, countless numbers of poet-soldiers.

    Go back to "Museum Pieces," for example, and see if there isn't a part of even you that still "love[s] the web belt" etc, etc. etc. -- and in so doing admit, as I do, that even you are complicit in what it means to be a soldier. That's what's so daring about the poem for me, not to be spiritual-nik or anti-war-nik but to force me to explore intimately the cause of war in my own person, including the way the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air still raise my blood pressure and make me stand tall.

    Christopher Woodman

  15. Dear Christopher,

    Of course. This wasn't at all what I intended to say; there are numerous examples of proud soldiers who write or wrote poetry (or prose) ; Ivor Gurney to begin with, AA Milne... Countless. What I meant is this: one cannot at the same time shoot (or engage in immediate battle) and observe from a distance as the poet must, as the instant with the dying batteries, the visor opening as it were, illustrates so well in the poem. The Gita begins with Arjuna dropping the bow Gandiva. That's what I meant. But that Fred Marchant is one of them, a proud soldier, as you justly say (all be it an atypical one (or may be not!), an Arjuna) goes without saying.
    It's easy (through being too fast and may be unprecise) to say things that can be misunderstood here, so thanks for the chance you are giving me to make myself more clear.
    And wars... I guess (I guess, it takes a soldier to know) they are all different, but all horrible, and Hell. In Ypres, every night, at eight (I believe) sharp, five men blow 'The Last Post' in honor of the men who died here. Since '24 (the Germans forbid it during 4 years in WWII). Ten minutes, and daily up to 1000 people come over and listen. It's a salute. One can hear a hairpin fall. One can't help crying.
    Needless to say, without these men all of Europe would have succumbed to the terrors of malignant lunacy.
    My most profound respect for them. And I cannot think of a worthier cause than working with and caring for war-veterans who waded through hell, and take half of it home, and then have to keep on carrying it along in their heads and their hearts, and who are in this dire predicament often alone.


    1. Wonderful, Johan -- indeed, anything I can say in response is not going to disagree but try to pass it on.

      How about the Elizabethan period for soldier-poets, for example -- indeed were there any that weren't, or would have refused had they had the chance? Shakespeare, you say, and I can't refute that nor can you prove it. But I'm sure no one will disagree, Shakespeare can write soldier better than anybody, soldier or not!

      And as to not being able to shoot and write poetry at the same time -- hey, is there anything one can do while writing about it except perhaps poetry itself? And even that, do you ever believe it?

      And what poet worth his or her salt is not "atypical?" "Take half of it home," that's what they do, the poets I mean. And those are the ones who make us carry it too, in our heads, as you say, dire in this predicament alone.

      To quote you, Johan.


  16. In other words: if Fred hadn't been a true soldier, he would never have been able to write this poem, that touches us so, and has helped me to begin to grasp may be a first inkling of what it must be like, being one.


  17. Thanks for all that, Johan, profoundly. It's 5.15pm and the sun is bright because a huge monsoon storm is just ploughing into Vietnam and will be here soon in Chiang Mai. I shall take my bicycle way out in the rice and perhaps before I'm back the deluge will arrive.

    I have nothing more to add but these thanks -- goodness knows between us we've stirred up the waters enough.

    Your testament to Fred Marchant is the high point of this thread, and how he deserves it. We are all so much in his debt!

    I always take the risk of using my own URL but this time it's more personal than usual as you are more personal too, Johan -- The Ypres.

    How much these ancient but so local green landscapes torn by wars, conflicting cultures and deluges teach us, how much they make sense out of what we do to ourselves to be Right and seek Justice and Truth everyday. And die for it!

    Read Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace right to the end and you’ll see. What we did to ourselves and do, and what matters.

    And dear BPJ editors, please forgive us -- and dear Fred Marchant please accept our most grateful thanks and praise.