Thursday, January 29, 2009
Thái Bình: Great Peace by Kevin Bowen, Pressed Wafer, 2009, $12.00,
Review by Bert Stern PhD.
Kevin Bowen’s new, full collection, his fourth, asks less to be reviewed than to be celebrated. It gathers together the best of Bowen’s Vietnam poems, old and new, into a single volume that becomes a single, flowing poem. The individual poems are extraordinary in several ways. For one, Bowen makes us see hear, feel, and above all, see – which, as Joseph Conrad said, is “everything.” Examples of Bowen’s evocative precision are everywhere. In “Sailing to Thai Binh,” for example:
Who would have thought so much cold
this far south? Early morning we drive
Route Five, the great wide mouth
of the Red River opening before us.
Miles of wet fields stretch to the vanishing point.
The farmers who tend them have bent
their bodies already for hours to earth.
They wear red bandannas around their necks,
bundle for warmth in the rhythm of flood
and mud and rain, planting the last winter rice.
Inside Thai Binh, a war-crippled husband
. . . curls up under the blanket on the wooden bed,
the knots of his legs tuck up toward his knees.
His wife sits besides him. She rocks back and forth.
(“Postcards From Thai Binh”)
The book is full of such images of patient toil and and of suffering endured. The perspective is of a land slowly healing from war, as in “Road to Xa Ma”: “By a spring near a clearing, a tree split in half by a bomb, / quietly growing back.” But what it grows back out of is powerfully present in the many glimpses we get of the poisons in the earth and of physical and psychic war wounds still carried by Vietnamese people. Included with what Bowen sees are the gazes of mothers looking back at him through their dead sons.
We experience these scenes as Bowen experienced them on his many visits to Vietnam, and in the heart-to-heart contact he made with writers and non-writers alike. Some of these scenes are shadowed with old fears and angers, and in some cases officials stand in the way of human exchange and understanding. But the thrust of the book is overwhelming compassionate interest in the country and people he once fought to destroy.
Bowen, who served in Vietnam with the 1st Air Cavalry Division during 1968-69, has worked tirelessly at peace-making on a human scale, through his work as director of the William Joiner Center, which he co-founded; in the translation projects the Center has made possible; and in his own writing. His compassion is all the keener because he carries in himself the same wounds he observes in others. A poem from an earlier collection – Not on the Map, 1996 –seems to bear directly on Bowen’s personal experience. After describing what it’s like to be in the vicinity of an incoming mortar round, Bowen concludes:
. . .it takes a life time to recover,
let out the last breath
you took as you dove.
That is why you’ll see them sometimes
in malls, men and women off in corners:
the ways they stare through windows in silence.
Thái Bình probes the wound down to the depths where it resides and sometimes celebrates a moment of healing. In “Fish Bladder Soup,” for example, as Americans and Vietnamese gather over a meal, “Something dark / inside us swims away.” But in other poems, like “The Le Thai Gardens,” the darkness remains:
History went through here on a black horse
& cut down everything in sight:
the women at the well, the dog in the yard,
it had no mercy.
All day the men feel like rain
from the sky & the women wept
as the guns lifted the lids from their eyes. . . .
The women grieve, but for the men it is different:
. . . they turned their backs
like helmets to the walls
& shut out their terrible screaming.
At night now the men’s hands
become great baskets of fish
laughing up at them
& the coma
they have yet to fall out of.
In “Dioxin Song,” the speaker wonders how many there are of these
children born into those twisted forms,
children with fins where arms ought to be, toes and legs
sprouting like flowers from their chests.”
“Somewhere,” he concludes that
. . . they too float in the sky above us.
Somewhere what doesn’t die
lives on in silent rage.
Even a moment of ordinary tranquility – a boat ride down the river at nightfall – can startlingly open to terror:
Darkness crawls up,
Lamps lit to draw fish.
Starred nets dropping.
Let us in, let us in, the dead call.
Their hands reach up, reach up.”
(“Bend in the River,” p. 14)
In several poems, women are the carriers of darkness defeated, if only for a moment:
A young girl sings in the green light:
songs of leaves on the river,
(“Songs in a Green Light”)
A line of female road workers
. . .keep eyes always steady
intent on the road before them,
only now and then a glance darting back,
a word, a joke passed up and down the line
and then the soft laughter
which floats off after.
(“Female Road Workers)
We catch glimpses of pastoral, nearly timeless village life, as in “Road to Son Tay,” where
. . .A woman runs gracefully across a field,
the bottoms of her pants skirting mud and dust,
a young girl follows, her pants rolled up like a temple
In her arms, she carries a bouquet of sugar canes. . . .
Nearly everything sparkles in this poem of people laboring: red and purple umbrellas,” “green stalks, yellow stalks, “patches of Eucalyptus, banana, pepper trees,” ducks moving
in file like lines of monks in procession,” “a lone water buffalo [that] stretches / forward toward the last afternoon sunlight. . . .” All this, delicately shaded in the last lines, where
the tired buffalo [lays] itself down,
head looking west to hills, stacked sheaves,
These poems can open to the mythic, as in the opening poem, “The Snail Gatherers of Co Loa Thanh,” where shadowy figures gathering snails outside Bowen’s hotel window suggest renewal (“The snails of Loa Thanh back again”) and they echo the legendary construction of the city, “carved / from carcasses of shells,” made possible by a golden tortoise’s gift of arms that drive out obstructing spirits. Yet Bowen’s poem, while echoing to the myth, ends with a kind of resigned nod to the enormity of the spirits: “And we without our bows.”
Yet to this reader, these poems, pellucid and existential, are bows. In a recent newsletter from the Joiner Center, Bowen wrote:
we need to remind ourselves of the good done each day by those who work to educate against hatred, create environments for free and open inquiry, and promote peace, justice, and reconciliation.
Thái Bình reminds us how much we owe to such workers. Seventy years ago W. H. Auden famously announced that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Perhaps he’s right. But few readers of Thai Binh will think so.
* Bert Stern was born in Buffalo, New York in 1930. He was educated at the University of Buffalo, Columbia,and at Indiana University, where he earned his Ph.D. in English.
Stern taught for forty years at Wabash College, where he is now Milligan Professor of English, Emeritus. He also taught from 1965-67 at the University of Thessaloniki and from 1984-85 at Peking University. He presently teaches in the Changing Lives Through Literature program.
His poems have been published in New Letters, The American Poetry Review, Indiana Review, Poetry, Spoon River Poetry Review, among others, and in a number of anthologies. His chapbook, Silk/The Ragpicker's Grandson, was published by Red Dust in 1998. His essays and reviews have appeared in Sewanee Review, Southern Review, Modern Language Review, The New Republic, Southern Review, Columbia Teachers’ College Record, Adirondack Life, and in a number of anthologies. His critical study, Wallace Stevens: Art of Uncertainty, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 1965.