First printed in 1994 by the University of Massachusetts Press, Poems From Captured Documents was written by Thanh T. Nguyen and edited by Bruce Weigl. I first ran across it in 1996.
This isn't a review but a reflection on the book, which I rarely seem to find extended mention of except in rareified circles.
There was an anecdote I ran across once about a young American serviceman, who, after a particularly heated battle with the North Vietnamese found a notebook among the possessions of a dead soldier. Excited that he might have found a code-book, secret battle plans or the location of secret bases, he ran to his squad leader to show him.
His squad leader took a look at the notebook, flipping through the pages, and then hurled the bloody document back into the long grass.
"It's just poetry," the officer explained. "They all write that shit."
That story always lingered with me, and Poems From Captured Documents represents something that, as a writer from Laos, is difficult for me to approach the way others might approach it.
The poems collected in this slim volume were drawn from the poetry seized from the personal journals, letters and documents recovered from the bodies of dead or captured Vietnamese soldiers by US servicemen.
Many of the originals were destroyed after being placed on microfilm. Little effort was made to preserve the last poetic work of these men, as the search was, understandably enough during war, for information of more strategic value, not preserving culture.
Thanh T. Nguyen and Bruce Weigl worked rapidly to save and translate many of the poems that they found but for many others it is too late, and they will not be recovered.
It's true many of these would be classified as ca dao, folk poems, or crudely sentimental doggerel and wistful pining under most circumstances, but they take on a a particular poignancy when recognized as the total sum of many of these soldiers lives and creative output.
There's a line in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven: 'It's a hell of a thing to kill a man. You take away all he has, all he's ever going to have,' while the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his poem People wrote: "Whom we knew as faulty, the earth's creatures. / Of whom, essentially, what did we know? "
This all weighs deeply on my mind as a Laotian American writer viewing the work of those, who, nominally my deceased enemies, might have easily been my peers, mentors or teachers today, had they survived.
When so many of us fought and died during the conflict, I wonder how much everyone understood about the other as they met in battle. So much was destroyed on both sides. How many great minds, great dreams died in those jungles, senselessly.
It worries me even more that so many of todays children are growing up with even less of a sense of what was lost in all of this.
And how little we understood of our former enemies. How little we understand.