Poetry in History: Engaging the Legacy of the Vietnam War
In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’ll be running a special Poetry in History series once a week in lieu of our Friday prompts. For each post, we’ll highlight an important period in Asian American history and conclude with a few ideas that we hope will provoke you to respond. This is the final post in the series, and will feature the legacy of the Vietnam War.
A girl runs screaming down the highway, thick clouds of smoke billowing on the horizon. Burned flesh, bare feet, a haze of napalm: though Nick Ut’s (Associated Press, 1972) iconic image of Phan Thi Kim Phuc running from the smoldering remains of her village was shot almost forty years ago, it remains firmly lodged in the American visual and cultural memory.
The Vietnam War — or, as it is known in Vietnam, the “American War” — began in 1955 and “ended” in 1975 with the fall of Saigon, though its legacy has continued to enact violence of numerous forms on the bodies and minds of individuals and communities into the twenty-first century. War veterans marked by post-traumatic stress, victims of unexploded bombs living on the agrarian hillsides of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, urban communities of Southeast Asian refugees settled in the United States post-1975 — the list goes on. We’ve all seen the photos, but how much do we really know about the United States’ involvement in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia? A Cold War conflict which led to the displacement of millions, over the course of its twenty-year duration, millions of Lao and Vietnamese lives were lost, in addition to those of approximately 60,000 US military personnel.
Quan Barry’s nine-part poem “child of the enemy,” published in Asylum (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001, winner of the 2000 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize), takes up this period of rupture in history with a series of reflections — some oblique, some direct — on the far-reaching effects of the Vietnam War. She writes:
Later when the black
and white photos came in the rice
sinking in its makeshift grave at the right
of the picture three children wound
about their mother like meat on a spit one eye
rolling loose amazed in the dead
silence of the frame the freshly dead
posed hastily each wound
breaking open like a smile
What Barry points to in this excerpt is the way in which a historical moment, transmitted to us through film and mediated by time and distance, can be equally as real in the “present” as it was forty years ago. The “black / and white photos” are a physical reality whose presence is made just as immediate as that which they portray: “three children wound / about their mother like meat on a spit.” This visceral, gripping description rips the warp of history from normative chronological progression and exposes the way in which the realities of war and violence never quite “pass” into history. They remain with us, preserved in memory, culture, and image — both “real” (ie. photographic) and constructed (ie. through language). As if reversing the work that historic records, photographs, and normative notions of “time” do to mediate the reality of war, Barry’s language makes real and present what would otherwise remain historic and distant.
What are the legacies of war that mark your subjectivity(ies), and how can these legacies function as subject matter for your poetry? In what way do your “freshly dead” remain with you, no matter how much time and space have obscured and distanced their presence? In what ways are they always already “freshly” deceased?
For this week’s prompt, here are a few ways you might consider engaging the legacy of the Vietnam War.
1. Research a community impacted in some way by the after-effects of the Vietnam War (Hmong refugees to the United States, US military veterans, bomb victims injured and/or killed by unexploded ordnances or UXOs left by the US military in Southeast Asia, other Southeast Asian refugee communities) and explore the varying ways in which these individuals and collectives have been marked by what continues to be a present reality.
2. Write a persona poem (a follow-up of Item #1) in which you take up the issues of haunting, memory, war, and/or trauma. Refer to specific “historic” moments, but not as history. Resurrect them into the present through description, image, and detail. Play with the past and the present, warping temporalities and blurring the boundaries between “history” and contemporary life.
3. Respond to a physical artifact of war, something marked by the residue of a different time and place (a photograph, for example, or a war memorial or physical location — like a fort, or bunker), engaging both its physical properties through detail and description, and its metaphorical or symbolic attributes. Make it “real” to the contemporary moment, or graft the contemporary moment onto the larger historical reality of your artifact’s origin.
As always, consider posting your thoughts and/or responses here.