Monday, March 8, 2010

Review: Playing Basketball With the Viet Cong by Kevin Bowen

Playing Basketball With the Viet Cong is a collection of poems by Kevin Bowen, director of the University of Massachusetts-Boston's William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, who was drafted and sent to Vietnam with the 1st Air Cavalry Division from 1968 to 1969.  When Serena and I were studying at Suffolk University in Boston, Bowen visited our class on Vietnam War literature to read some of these poems.  The Vietnam War Reading Challege that Serena and I are hosting this year at War Through the Generations provided the best opportunity to re-read this collection, and I am very glad I did.

Many books about the Vietnam War focus on the fact that the veterans often are haunted by their experiences in combat.  My father, for instance, had nightmares about the war, and once my mother woke up with his hands on her neck as if he planned to strangle her.  (Fortunately, nothing bad happened, but that's not always the case.)  In Bowen's poems, the horror of his experiences is played out in the form of ghosts.
But all that winter
and into spring
I swear he followed us,
his soul, a surplice
trailing the jungle floor.  (from "First Casualty, page 13)
Still, as I sit here sipping whiskey
late at night
I see you dance
in trails of smoke above my head.  (from "Willie, Dancing," page 27)
Standing below the mountain,
I see you here again
after twenty years.
Red hair gleaming in the sun,
faded brown fatigues
stuffed with letters to Miriam
back in Georgia.  (from "Núi Bà Đen: Black Virgin Mountain, page 33)
You woke many times, finally
to see him laying across my bed,
a soldier,  you said, a figure in black,
arm draped across my shoulder
as if to protect me.  (from "Pictures from Quảng Nam," page 48)
Bowen expresses the pain and truth of war, but unlike other books and poetry collections I've read that deal with the Vietnam War, his poems are somewhat gentle.  He has made several trips to Vietnam since 1987, and his understanding of Vietnamese people, his compassion for them and their experiences, shines through.  A number of his poems deal with myth; he writes about the Vietnamese creation myth in "Nhất Dạ Trạch: One Night Swamp," and in "Núi Bà Đen: Black Virgin Mountain," he focuses on the myth of a woman who jumped off a mountain after her husband was called away from their wedding ceremony to go to war and never returned.  But what touched me the most as I read Playing Basketball With the Viet Cong was Bowen's ability to see the war and its long-term impact through the eyes of the Vietnamese people.
From the corner of an eye
she stares.
She must wish our deaths.
Beneath the white silk band
breasts ache for a husband.
She passes in mourning,
counting each step.
Her prayers rain down like rockets. (from "Temple at Quan Loi, 1969," page 24)
Peace has come.  The land has changed.
But bombs still explode,
rip arms and eyes from farmers.
Fish never returned.
Each year more topsoil washes off.
Spring, the forests lose more cover.
But still the full moon on the hill
restores belief, and nights the young go dancing.  (from "Graves at Quảng Trị," page 31)
Playing Basketball With the Viet Cong isn't an easy book to read, given the subject matter, but the poems are written in the narrative style that I find easy to understand, which makes this a good collection for readers who normally shy away from poetry because they think it's too complicated.  The fact that the book was written by a veteran of the Vietnam War who saw the country during wartime and after made reading it a more meaningful experience.  Like many books about the Vietnam War, it presents the gritty truth and the raw emotion of war.  However, given that its imagery is not as harsh as other books I've read that were written by veterans, Playing Basketball With the Viet Cong may be a good starting point for readers interested in learning more about the Vietnam War.

Playing Basketball With the Viet Cong is the first book I've completed for the Vietnam Reading Challenge at War Through the Generations.

Disclosure: I purchased my copy of Playing Basketball With the Viet Cong.


Serena said...

You made me want to revisit this collection. Great review...and now you are ahead of me in our joint challenge!

bermudaonion said...

I can see Serena's influenced you in your reading selection! I struggle with poetry and remember having a lot of trouble with it in Lit class in college.

Suko said...

Thank you for presenting this collection of poetry about the War in Vietnam. I feel as if I am lacking an understanding of this war, and poetry may well be the key to a greater understanding.

Staci said...

This sounds like a powerful collection of poetry. I'm very interested in reading it because I struggle with poetry that has hidden meanings!! Beautiful post!

christina said...

Anna -

Thank you for this lovely review. I'm really enjoying the War Thru The Ages challenge this year. I'm not too familiar with Vietnam so it's been an experience thus far.

I recently finished Fatal Light and will (hopefully) be reviewing it this weekend. :)

Marie Cloutier said...

Sounds like a really powerful book of poems. thanks for telling us about it.

Dana said...

I'm a somewhat reluctant poetry lover (when I find something I like I love it, but a lot of the time I end up confused :/ ), but this collection sounds really great. I think I might consider it as one of my reads for the War Through the Generations Challenge, might be a nice change of pace...

Anna said...

Serena: I've only read 1, so it's not like I'm really ahead. LOL

bermudaonion: Lit classes were my favorite, but I was an English major after all. LOL I used to read a lot more poetry back in the day, but that's more Serena's thing now.

Suko: I think the poetry, especially written by vets, can provide much insight into their experiences.

Staci: Me, too. I can't say I completely understood every single poem in the collection, but most you don't have to think too hard about to understand, thankfully.

christina: I'm so glad you decided to join the challenge for another year. I hope it proves worthwhile in the end.

Marie: Thanks for taking the time to read my review! ;)

Dana: I'm easily confused when it comes to poetry, so when I find a collection like this, I get excited.

Anna and Serena said...

we've linked up to this on the review page at War Through the Generations and the review will post on April 27.

Anna said...

Thanks, Serena!