Veterans Day

posted in: Poetry | 0

Post-war poems by Vietnam War veterans Eric Forsbergh and Wayne Karlin.
6 minutes


Veterans Day is coming up. That’s the day we recognize those people that have served in the American military. On this edition of Burning Bright, two poems, both by Vietnam War veterans, from Passager’s latest issue, the 2023 Poetry Contest issue.

Eric Forsbergh said, “Having served on an aircraft carrier under rocket fire from the Viet Cong, I have great empathy for my wife’s nephew, a sniper in Afghanistan for three tours. In my poem dream, I was lost with him on patrol, realizing I was at war in a past era, not his. Does every generation have to go to war? Having this awful dream lying next to my wife, I find reassurance and comfort by holding her as she sleeps peacefully.

“Midnight and the Veteran.”

About midnight,
coming to bed,
I cradle my forehead
between your shoulder blades,
gradually, quietly,
since you are so at peace, adrift.

Shooting stars begin to fall,
then hiss like illumination flares,
swelling into tracer bullets
pocking up the dirt all around.
I dream your nephew Adam and I
are lost on patrol in Afghanistan.
But it can’t be.
I’m still under rocket fire in Vietnam.
Where is the sapper who
can detonate these obstacles?

Then, to identify my body,
I hold myself against you
for an hour
while you sleep.

Eric Forsbergh’s poem “Midnight and the Veteran.”

Wayne Karlin said, “I’ve made several trips back to Vietnam since I served there in the war, and I’ve met many veterans from the other side. A number of them, when they found I’d flown as a helicopter gunner, told me how terrified they were of the helicopters, and how they hated them. The poem is based on a Christmas Eve I sat drinking with men who thankfully are no longer my enemies.” Wayne’s poem “Drinking with the Enemy” begins with this epigraph from Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”

I was the only American at the table. We were all veterans.
Christmas evening in Hong Gai. In the war, one of the men said,
you bombed the church here. He laughed uproariously.
It still doesn’t have a roof, he said. A red plastic Santa Claus

and a green plastic Christmas tree stood in the lobby. We played a
drinking game with glasses of beer. At the count of three everyone
had to drain his glass. If he couldn’t he had to drink another glass.
We drank to empty ourselves, a film run in reverse. The man sitting

to my right smiled at me, gently, tentatively. Like many
who had been in the war his teeth were bad, brown-stained and broken.
His skin was pitted and lined with the years we shared and didn’t share
and he walked slightly hunched over, like a farmer looking down at his earth,

or like a man in a rice field crouching under the sound of my helicopter rotors.
ở đâu? he asked me. Then: Where? It was his only English word. He tapped
his chest with the carapaced fingers of his farmer’s hand, trying to dislodge
the two questions we all asked each other and the two questions we didn’t.

When? Where? Did you try to kill me there? Did I try to kill you then?
I took his hand and pushed it against my chest. Quảng Nam, Thừa Thiên Huế,
Quảng Trị,
I said. He grabbed my other hand and pushed it against his chest.
I could feel his heart beating hard through the skin of my palm.

Quảng Trị, Quảng Trị, Quảng Trị, he said. One of the other veterans yelled một,
hai, ba, yo!
We drained our glasses ten times. Nine of them for the nine years
the man to my right was there longer than I. His eyes grew desperate. His farmer’s
hand was trembling. He pointed at his filled glass, pointed to his mouth, tapped his

forehead hard with his blunt, callused finger. Quảng Trị, Quảng Trị, Quảng Trị, he said,
tapping violently to dislodge the seepage flowing with the beer into his brain, pushing
heavily into the cavities of his heart. I took the glass of the man to my right from him
and I drank it for him, into myself, all of it, for him. It nested in my chest, an icy stone.

“Drinking with the Enemy,” Wayne Karlin. Both poems on this edition of Burning Bright were from Issue 75, Passager’s 2023 Poetry Contest issue.

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For Kendra, Mary, Christine, Rosanne, and the rest of the Passager staff, I’m Jon Shorr.