With the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon in late April 1975 getting near, the media reports and conversation in our own city are turning more often to that awful time in Southeast Asia. The suffering all around was immense. I was in my junior year at the then-University of Lowell, and I had been trying to write poems worth reading for about a year. But I wasn’t an English major, I was a political science major who thought he was going to law school. Still, there was something in poetry that drew me toward that form of writing. The compressed form, figurative language, tight sentences, and song-like quality of some poems spoke to me in ways that a short story or novel were not at that time. I had started writing essays and stories when I first caught the writing bug as a first-year student at Merrimack College in North Andover, encouraged by a true teacher, Catherine Murphy, but found myself going down the poetry road after a while because the shorter compositions struck me as having more compact power as written works. I carried my interest to the Lowell campus when I transferred in the summer of 1974 so that I could finish my bachelor’s degree there. (I left Merrimack for money reasons, a federal financial aid grant dried up after my second year, and I was holding a Massachusetts State Scholarship that covered full tuition at a public college or the state university.) It turned out to be a good move for me. The political-science and history faculty members were top-notch, and I stayed with the creative writing on my own. I took one English course, a poetry-writing workshop, that was a help. In the spring of 1975, I wrote this poem about the deteriorating condition of the war in Vietnam. Some of the images referred to were from Newsweek magazine. I had been spared from having to make a choice about my participation in the war when the government suspended the military draft just as I turned 18 and was holding a low lottery number in the national selective service draft. I was lucky.
The poem was published in the campus newspaper, which I think was called “The Advocate.” I didn’t reprint it in any of my poetry collections because it seemed like the poem of a young guy, maybe too shallow and assured about tragedy, too slick. At the time I was listening to a lot of pop music, rock songs and folk tunes by all the stars of the day. I wrote an anti-war poem, a protest piece. Who knew at the time that the war or wars in Southeast Asia would come home so vividly in Lowell, that the people we saw on TV news broadcasts would arrive on the streets in the Acre and the Highlands, that Buddhist monks would be a common sight in our city? There were Lowell soldiers in the Vietnam conflict, but at the time few if any people from war-ravaged Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos living in the Merrimack Valley. How much has changed in 40 years. This spring, both the Whistler House Museum of Art and UMass Lowell are presenting cultural and educational programs that offer an opportunity to reflect on the recent history of Southeast Asia. I’m sharing a young man’s poem in the spirit of that remembrance and reflection. This is how I saw it from thousands of miles away. Some of the acronyms may not be familiar–VC: Viet Cong, PRC: People’s Republic of China, ARVN: Army of the Republic of Vietnam, NVA: North Vietnamese Army, DMZ: Demilitarized Zone, an area on the border of North and South Vietnam.—PM
Did You Read the News?
Phnom Penh is bleeding from the rockets landing in the square.
A pedicab driver slumps over a red wheel. Next door,
In South Vietnam, mothers are holding dead daughters
In tired worn hands, in old sad arms.
With old sad arms peasants pack some things,
Leave their land to walk to the Saigon fort,
And all along the highway they mourn, mourn and cry,
Scream and die, every eye insanely glazed.
A bronzed-faced Cambodian boy wears a plum scarf
And green fatigues, shoulders an M-16 as tall as him;
An Asian elder sports brass medals and a steel helmet—
He’s sick of seeing soldiers in the paddies;
Bicycle riders pedal away from battle one thousand.
Now someone’s flying in rice, and someone’s asking for more bullets;
Someone’s warning we might hear a click around the world,
The click of an empty rifle that’ll set dominoes in motion:
Dominoes down, 1, 2, 3, dominoes in motion,
First the South China Sea, then the Pacific Ocean.
They say, Send the ammunition or say an act of contrition,
They say, Lookit, there goes Quang Tri, there goes Hue,
Tomorrow, it’ll be Cam Ranh Bay.
Can you forget Khe Sahn and those shells and bombs?
Want that in Saigon? Send the ammo, boys, c’mon, they say.
And another voice says, You’re crazy with that war.
You don’t understand. Napalm scorched that land.
Nobody’s singing the old song today:
“Nothin’ could be finer
Than to be in Indochina
In the mornin’.”
They’re bringing in crack paratroops
To stop attempted coups on General Thieu,
And Lon Nol wishes he could hide in a hole.
Helicopters defend refugees from sniper Victor Charlie.
Cold steel guns from Moscow or the PRC hold no special glory.
From Washington to Shanghai, when guns speak, people die.
Broken teeth and broken bones, bamboo hats and burnt-out homes,
Hey, United States, hold the phone —
Remember how it started? Remember 55,000 U.S. lives,
Not counting ARVN’s, VC, NVA, farmers, children,
Not counting broken hearts, wooden limbs,
Or the half-and-half babies in Phuoc Binh?—
Is your conscience playing tricks on you? Is it a people’s revolution?
A brush-fire war where bomb-and-gun solutions won’t work anymore?
The gale of suffering blows from the North, blows down the Ho Chi Trail,
Blows across from the east, blows in on a B-52’s tail.
We stuck our feet in the mud this time,
We’ve got the walkin’, talkin’ DMZ Blues.
This is one patriotic trip that just won’t rhyme.
Hey, did you read the news?
—Paul Marion (c) 1975, 2015