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 photographed for 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. Unfortunately we can never have a full accounting of how many of these were lost to us forever.
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.
Who might these men have become, had they survived, had their verse found their ways to more sympathetic ears? Might we have regarded each other as peers, mentors, friends, fellow artists in a world that needs less war, and more words?