Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Arise! A Latter-Day Poet of the Vietnam War

The war in Vietnam has long been over, but from time to time new writing still appears illuminating the period in a fresh light. So it is with John Buquoi’s just published book of poetry, Snapshots from the Edge of a War.* Although the eloquently and vividly written poems were written one by one, the collection can be read as a single long narrative poem about a large part of America’s war in Vietnam.

The perspective is John’s – as a Vietnam GI, later as a civilian contractor, he bore witness from the fateful year of ‘63 until the end of his extended time in Vietnam in ’70. From the distance of time and much reflection, the poet looks back nearly half a century; his poems have a retrospective antiwar tilt with a hint of the bittersweet.

John was ASA – the Army Security Agency – a semi-clandestine communications outfit, the military arm of the NSA, or National Security Agency, in Washington DC. After a year of intensive study of Vietnamese at a military language school on the California coast, he was shipped out to Vietnam. It was fall of ’63 as a simmering coup in Saigon was coming to a boil.

South Vietnamese generals were plotting against President Diem with sub rosa support from the Kennedy White House. To be on the safe side though, Washington sent in a small team of Vietnamese linguists (lingys) to secretly monitor the generals’ communications to learn what they were up to outside the earshot of the US Embassy. Jeff Sharlet, my brother, was part of the lead group stationed at a remote listening post outside Saigon, the capital, in August. John Buquoi arrived as a replacement in October.

Early in the narrative poem, the poet is out on the town in Saigon with Jeff and other lingys. They were walking toward the Imperial, a French-Vietnamese café when old waiters at l’Imperial/sprint out from the open air café/racing a pursuing billow/of hot shrapnel steel, smoke and fire/from Mr. Charlie’s tossed grenade. 1 For John it was a violent welcome to the Paris of the Orient from the Viet Cong (VC).

Saigon Street Scene, 1960s

Then came the coup a few weeks later on November 1st as the lingys tapped into conversations/between the general staff/we listened to the chaos/of the bloody coup d’etat. 2 Overnight Diem and his brother, the secret police chief, were out, assassinated, and the generals were in.

The coup over, the linguists returned to their other assignments, but sometimes even those might be interrupted by the more mundane. One day he was on guard duty atop the American school for children of soldiers’ trailing families in Vietnam. Very hot, very bored, John passed the time watching two little Vietnamese ragamuffins spend the afternoon laboriously draining a pond across the road – an arduous job.

The pond finally drained, the kids gathered up a mess/ of tiny gasping fish and crabs/trapped dying on the bottom mud/maybe to take home for dinner/or perhaps to sell at market. Admiring their industry and perseverance, the poet mused, I can’t help myself but wonder/about which side will have the will/to stick it out all the way until/that far off final ‘win’…and why.3

As ’63 came to an end, John again bore witness on Christmas Eve to the ever-present VC. Standing in a bar, he and a friend felt the tremor of a blast. Running out they saw that a massive bomb had devastated a small hotel mainly housing American military advisors. First on the scene before help arrived, the two GIs sprinted toward the destruction.

We made it through the fence/into the Stygian courtyard scene/of burning cars, twisted steel/blasted brick and glass/into a silence beyond death/soundless but for the crackle/of the scattered fires/and the occasional explosion.4

A wounded Vietnamese man stumbled from the wreckage, pointing back where his friends were still trapped. John plunged into the choking smoke, found the two bloodied, deafened guys, and just hoping for no second bomb/we crawled out along the floor.4 Merry Christmas from Victor Charlie.

Sent up to an outpost near the border with North Vietnam in early ’64, John got a call that two of his good buddies back at Saigon base had been killed – while watching a softball game. The VC had planted a bomb under their section of the bleachers – they told me it was all over in a flash of fire/… they told me all they thought there was to tell, except/they didn’t tell me that 50 years on as I remembered them/I would see them so then time young ….5

John was at Phu Bai, ASA’s northernmost listening post where the linguists liaised by radio with South Vietnamese commandos infiltrated across the border. Often as not, the commandos were soon killed or captured by the Communist border troops while watchers just as young as they/listen here, close by, listening/listening, listening, waiting/until their faint transmissions end.6

To unwind the stresses of the latest failed black mission, the guys went off to the base club – a hole in the wall with cheap drinks – where they're greeted by Bill, a great gruff, bluff, comic walrus/philosopher, storyteller/our mustached brother holding court with a bottle of whiskey. Jeff, distracted, tired, slouches down/and Bill, in greeting sloshes out/a double Cutty Sark his way/Jeff downs the shot but craves a beer6

Already deeply disillusioned with the war, Jeff raged:

this place stinks and this war’s bullshit/
we’re not fucking helping ‘em here/
just makin’ some fat white guys rich/
from people dyin’ on all sides/
’just war’, my ass, there’s no such thing/
not here anyway, least of all.6

Hearing the last call for drinks, the gang loaded up and headed out to the base perimeter to continue partying. Peyton joins them, a beat poet/philosopher, weaver of spells/young Kerouac still on the road/the sandbag bunker full of drunks/… until the first dim wash of dawn mists up/pale pinked orange and gold pastels from/over east’s South China Sea, and/beyond those places once called home.6 So went many a night at Phu Bai.

In the midst of the nightmare that would soon engulf their daily lives, the poet showed his affection for the Vietnamese. Sitting in a bar with Jeff down the coast in Danang, they encounter a Tom Sawyer kid called ‘Joe’, all/Vietnamese with a huge smile/and sparkling eyes that made you think/you could probably trust this one/even as you checked your wallet.7

A bus in Danang

Little Joe, maybe all of eight years old, beaming mischievously among the bar girls, made his pitch:

Hey, G.I. guys! I watch your jeep
 make sure it not get stolen here? …
guys, guys, for sure I watch it cheap
only maybe 10-20 p[iastres]
I guarantee you satisfied
nobody else watch jeep like Joe
and I can tell you about these girls.7

John and Jeff laughed, gave him some coins, you couldn’t help but love the kid.7

It’s ’65, the war would soon be in full throat, John was back in Saigon. Tracing favorite images from Graham Greene’s famous novel of Vietnam in the ‘50s, the poet found himself on the street where the author’s heroine lived, perhaps even in the same building. Within this perfect corner/at the razor intersection/ of the fiction and the real/ … we relax … with a magical twilight meal/as we try to ignore the war/thunders across the river.8

Drawing from his memories of the lively Saigon night scene, the poet records snapshots from the past. A GI in from the field celebrating his first firefight, just seventeen, already killed a man/

          No shit, I stood up and he looked at me
          motherfuckin’ zip maybe ‘bout my age
          and right then, man, it was like Dodge City
          I beat him on the draw Matt Dillon style9

But as the Dodge City kid keeps retelling the story, he dissolves to tears, calling his ‘momma’/screaming for Jesus to come take him home.9

At another bar was a lovely girl whose name meant ‘Teardrop’ She day- dreamed of childhood days back in her village, swimming in the cool canals/nights listening to the soft rain/by the light of yellow candles/near to comforting kitchen fires/safe from the thunderstorms of war. All dead now except her mother/she works here just to care for her/in this old taxi dancing club/a hostess to Americans.10

Early spring and the Marines were about to hit the beaches. Like an impending war game, the US was moving its pieces into place. John and a radio operator were dropped on a peak eagle high above the coastal plain/just eastward from bloody Route 1911 – their mission to listen for the enemy’s counter moves to challenge the arrival of the first US combat units.

Exploring their turf, the two GIs found trenches hacked from bedrock/granite defenses all around the hill/hand hewn so deep so long ago.11
From which of Vietnam’s wars from over the decades and even the centuries, they didn’t know. But the silent stone’s message was clear to them,

                   those who hand cut trench terraces
                   from black bedrock had never quit
                   and we knew their heirs, our ‘enemies’,
                   would never give up their father’s land
                   not even to us…Marines or no 11

Just a few days off the hilltop post, the poet finds himself in the cramped cool cocoon/ of a World Airways flight/homeward bound/trying to shake/cold turkey/the adrenaline high/of life and death/in a war zone.12

John’s war was over – or was it? As the next post will show, he would soon be back in Nam, but in a different role, one that afforded him even broader vistas of a society being torn asunder by war.

The book is available in e-book, Kindle, and hard copy.

“frag racing,” J Buquoi, snapshots from the edge of a war (2015), 10. Quotes from the poems in the text are indicated in bold blue type.

2  “oversight,” Ibid, 8.

3 “hangin’ in,” Ibid, 14.

4 “hangin’ in,” Ibid, 45.

5 “what they told,” Ibid, 16.

6 “phu bai nights,” Ibid, 18.

7 “joe,” Ibid, 34.

8 “maybe,” Ibid, 36.

9 “dodge city kid,”Ibid, 40.

10 “two girls called kieu,” Ibid, 42.

11 “ground truth,”Ibid, 51.

12 “homecoming,” Ibid,53.