American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
A Revolution With a Heart
Erin Miller is a member of Peacework's Program Committee, and has attended the Joiner Center's Writing Workshop.
On June 11, 2002, Nicolas Kristof, in an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, declared that the post-9/11 enthusiasm for ROTC on college campuses signaled the "end of an uncivil war." He declared that the Vietnam-era disdain for American military personnel was on the wane, and the wave of patriotic support for the US military indicates that "soon the Vietnam War will be over."
No one understands better than veterans when and if the Vietnam War will ever end. Curbstone Press, a nonprofit press which operates by the motto "Poetry, like bread, is for everyone," recently issued 6 Vietnamese Poets, edited by Nguyen Ba Chung and Kevin Bowen of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. The poems, which explore the experiences of Vietnamese veterans, were translated by a group of writers and poets associated with the Joiner Center's Writing Workshop.
The Joiner Center, named after an African American veteran and the university's first Director of Veterans Affairs, was founded in 1982 to respond to the needs and concerns of the University's significant veteran population. The annual Writing Workshop, which is now celebrating its 15th anniversary, has been a significant part of the Joiner Center's mission. For some more vested in community organizing and grassroots activism, understanding the Joiner Center's support of poetry and writing may require leap of faith. When there are issues of survival at hand, why is poetry important?
In Vietnam, the poet is revered as a translator of universal experience, a guardian of culture. 6 Vietnamese Poets reminds us why writing, and especially poetry, is crucial to political action, and to the survival of the human spirit. In the introduction, Nguyen Ba Chung writes: "Nguyen Khoa Diem wrote that three factors make for the quality of literature: Word-Action-Heart. Without an upright, compassionate heart, beautiful words [Word] and fiery dedication [Action] cannot themselves produce great literature. This is, perhaps, as true with writing as with politics, with revolution. A revolution without a heart is, in the end, an antirevolution."
The six poets represented in this collection are from North and South Vietnam and each presents a revolution with a heart, showing us what they learned from the war and how to write when the bombs are falling. The war is present in all of these poems, sometimes even more present in poems that appear to be about other things. In 1984, Y Nhi, in her poem, "Preface," writes: "I dread boisterous parties./ Sometimes I cry about the very things that bring people around me happiness./ Sometimes I want to scream when everyone around me is silent."
The war is hiding in her scream, in the silence around her, the mud she has walked through, the betrayal and the trust she has experienced. Other poets are more direct about their experiences during the war. In "Bomb-Crater Sky," Lam Thi My Da tells the story of a woman who sacrificed herself: "They say that you, a road-builder,/ Had such love for our country/ You rushed out and waved your torch/ To call the bombs down on yourself/ And save the road for the troops./...Now you lie down deep in the earth/ As the sky lay down in that earthen crater./ At night your soul sheds light/ Like the dazzling stars./...Is it the sun, or your heart/ Lighting my way/ As I walk down the long road?"
"Untitled," by Nguyen Duc Mau, is reminiscent of the work of William Stafford, poet and war resister: "The thin piece of paper. The long night./ A lamp pulsing with feeling./ Joy and Sorrow, fleeting. Stillness./ Fill the paper with ink. Wipe it clean again." Like Stafford, Nguyen Duc Mau brings us into the present moment of the written word, the struggle to bring his heart to the page.
In "At Number 59 Ba Trieu," Pham Tien Duat writes of longing, and of loss:
"I ate away the minutes over coffee waiting for you./ But you never came/ Killing time opened old wounds / The first to stop was a beggar, large and muscular/ The second was a locksmith./ I have nothing to lock. / ...Why should he bother me? / What an existence! Lives so tightly shut./ So many locks. Not one key that fits."
6 Vietnamese Poets is a key that unlocks the experience of Vietnamese poets, veterans and survivors of the war. As the US marches headlong into its new war, it is ever more important to reflect upon the unlearned lessons of Vietnam, and the experience of veterans on both sides of the line in the sand.