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Novelties of Horror
Today is either Liberation Day or Day of Deep Resentment, depending on your point of view. On April 30th, 1975, North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon. I had escaped on the evening of April 27th, just hours before the bombs fell on Tan Son Nhat Airport, rendering it inoperable. On the cover of Frank Stanford’s the battlefield where the moon says I love you, there’s a photo of children who died on the 28th at Tan Son Nhat. Thousands of poems have been written in English about the Vietnam War. I want to share two by B.D. Trail, a poet not widely known. When he died on New Year’s Day of 1992, a suicide at 51-years-old, Trail had published just one chapbook, Flesh Wounds (Richford, VT: Samisdat 1989).
dedicated to Captain Nguyen Van Te, 2nd ARVN Infantry Division; and to Dock Burke, “life-time friend”
The ARVN Major beat the boy
with the captured rifle sling
glancing proudly at us,
his American advisors.
An uninteresting event to everyone
except the boy who silently cringed
and shook from blow to blow.
In the madness of the war
today was near-to-normal.
There had been the usual dance to snipers,
the suck-up in the chest,
the dash across manioc fields,
the crack and whip of bullets
in time with running feet.
Looking at the photos now,
the sand is light like snow.
But then, the sand was griddle-hot
and hard to run across.
And there had been the usual harassment
of the villagers,
the pig killings and gold tooth grinnings
of the chicken thieves,
the stolen rice boiling in black cauldrons.
In our little corner of the war
the major beat the boy,
we Americans smoked cigarettes,
the Vietnamese village women cooked rice
for ARVNs down on the ground
spread out in casual circles.
The stick grenade was lobbed out of a bunker
with all the surety and disguised slowness
of a softball. And it seemed to move towards
a cookfire with measured, casual directness.
A village woman heavy in her pregnancy
caught the rolling blast of the grenade.
The fragments plunged into the soldiers.
For her the blast was a sonic scalpel
slicing, filleting, cutting
deep, deep into her belly.
Something clicks in time of crisis,
a switch to surreal slow motion.
We Americans froze in place
while the Vietnamese,
as if coming up for air,
floundered and fumbled.
Still half-frame, the image slowed
to show her baby,
her corded baby,
from her fish-gutted belly
and fall into the fire.
The madness was not just the fetus in the fire.
No, that was just a novelty-of-horrors.
to men who had seen minings and other mutilations.
The madness was the mother was still alive.
Split from throat to crotch,
the mother was alive and
screaming screaming screaming
I didn’t shoot her and I don’t know why.
No one shot her. And she kept on
screaming screaming screaming.
Dragged over the white-hot sand
on a red-wet poncho,
she screamed for two hours on the landing zone.
She died before a helicopter came.
I died back at the fire.
Our Lady of the Flies
Our infantry satchel-charged a bunker
And killed a VC nurse.
With hooks, they snaked her out.
Then one pimple-faced killer sliced out
That which is between the legs
of all women, dead or alive.
Impaled upon a bamboo stick
It glistened in the sun.
Our Lady of the Flies,
Forgive them not.
They knew what they were doing.
WITH MY SHIELD OR ON IT
When the Danang chopper plucked me out of Tam Ky,
Everything rolled by like a grim silent movie:
The whirring blades–a noisy khaki camera
The little people–extras for a biblical spectacle
The pock-faced land–Hollywood badlands
And it was right that I should see this final film clip,
For I had paid. Not in money,
But I had paid.
No one laughed or even talked much on the plane.
The Stewardesses seemed disappointed in us.
But, I heard one man say,
‘At least nothing will ever be as bad as what
We’ve been through,’
He was wrong, of course.
Home was still ahead.
Fat women in slacks. San Francisco whores and hippies.
The forgotten nausea caused by neon. Slept-in khakis.
Patriotic old men and wonder-struck girls.
Kids saying, ‘Did you ever shoot anybody in the face?’
When I flew out of the Inferno
I did not suspect I was entering into another one.
I missed the honest horror of Viet Nam.
Yes, there are some false moves here, and the poems’ rhythm sometimes sputters, but there’s no denying their tremendous power, especially in the first, which Trail considered his best. Trail has earned the right to subject us to these horrible and enlightening tableaux, not only because he was a witness–he served two tours in Vietnam–but because he has struggled mightily to sort out his and our complicities. There is no act that does not implicate the species as a whole.