A poet's war: muck, virtue in the forest primeval

A Soldier's Time, Vietnam War Poems, by R.L. Barth. Santa Barbara, Calif.: John Daniel, publisher. 73 pp. $8.95, paper. Twenty years ago R.L. Barth was in the United States Marines, serving as a patrol leader in the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion in Vietnam. He served one year - 1968-69. From that year he drew the substance of ``A Soldier's Time.'' His book puts most collections of lyrics to shame and gives a moving image of virtue to boot. No mere miscellany, this is a study of tragic history.

The first part focuses on the surrender of the French fortress at Dien Bien Phu on May 8, 1954. The voices are those of professional - and for the most part cynical - soldiers, the last vestiges of French chivalry. The historical irony is not lost on Barth: The French soldiers, for centuries the embodiment of fortitude and fidelity, were reduced to nervous breakdowns in the blood-soaked muck of Vietnam!

An instructor of English at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Barth is an inventive and resourceful poet. In dramatic monologue and song of varying meter, he presents the near-dissolution of the professional, stubborn pride of the French legionnaire. These poems alone are a great accomplishment, but such is the scale of achievement that they must be seen as past and prologue.

To move from the French to the Americans is to move from experience to innocence, yes, but an innocence about to be tested by harrowing events. The poems are suddenly small, intimate, more lyrical than dramatic. Barth sustains his metrical inventiveness; ``A Soldier's Time'' constitutes a virtual anthology of forms. The constantly shifting forms challenge the reader to find the theme in the welter of experience, just as the soldier is challenged to not lose his identity (or his life) in all the temptations of his tour of duty.

The title refers to a phrase of Samuel Johnson's (quoted as epigraph): ``A soldier's time is passed in distress and danger, or in idleness and corruption.'' Each succeeding poem gives way to a closer and closer view of the irreducible awareness of self and other. The nearness of death provides the ultimate test: What emerges can only be called character.

Prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude: All the cardinal virtues, the features of human character at its best, are called on. They are not always forthcoming. Prudence in battle foiled by one's own backup, justice foiled by selfishness, temperance foiled by nihilism, fortitude foiled by terror: The onward flow of the poems reflects the ascetic process of a year's contemplation of the self in extremis. What's left? Some irreducible human virtue? Does anything survive this? Can it?

The second part, ``American Indochina,'' opens with ``A Letter to the Dead'' - not dead soldiers, but the dead poets of World War I - Owen, Blunden, and Sassoon - whose verses fortified Barth on his tour. Poet or not, Barth was in charge of an elite fighting group that stayed out longer than other units and often saw hand-to-hand combat. Many died; some die in this book, including a friend of Barth's memorialized in ``Elegy for a Dead Friend,'' one of the best war poems in English (which means one of the best poems, too).

Barth gives voice to the weak as well as the tough, to the lifer collecting mementos as well as the trembling conscript. Zippo lighters used to torch villages (``scattered ashes, scattered guilt''), Agent Orange, adrenalin-fed terror, homemade movies made in contempt of John Wayne's ``gung-ho ways,'' the crumbling self-respect of the Roman Catholic chaplain confronted by ``dull eyes'' in chapel, the body count....

In a fine little poem called ``Longinus in Vietnam,'' Barth reduces the ``apocalypse now'' theme that has dominated fictional Vietnams to the ``truth of a kind'' revealed by looking through the scope of a rifle. There ``men who scurry to loss,/ hung on my spiderweb cross.'' Virtue may mean thinking before pulling the trigger - not hesitating, but confronting one's action.

And then pulling the trigger? Maybe.

The last poem is ``Fieldcraft.'' (See box.) Barth was wise to put it last: It's a kind of seal on the collection, a final image of soldierly virtue. The rhyming couplets and repetitious phrasing bring artificial order to the random sounds of battle. Barth is a very discreet poet; his lines are built out of images balanced by concepts, each giving weight to the other. ``Fieldcraft'' takes one into the forest primeval at the back of the mind. The Vietnam-specific image - ``mud sucking at bare feet ... between the rice shoots'' - fixes the moment in history. The last word, ``knowing,'' expands the vernacular into symbol, and the enemy becomes a contem-porary version of Baudelaire's ``my likeness, my brother'' - not to mention Pogo (``We have met the enemy, and he is us'').

Good poetry has a way of escaping the attention of one's contemporaries. It would be a pity if ``A Soldier's Time'' were read only by posterity. Barth's book certainly helps right now in a political season in which character has been the byword, though little in evidence. He has given us a moving picture of virtue as revealed in the crucible of the Vietnam war.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

Fieldcraft At last, the senses sharpen. All around, I listen closely. Under the dull sound Of distant artillery, and the shrieking planes Diving with napalm; under the dry crack Of automatic rifles; at the back Of consciousness, almost, one sound remains: Mud sucking at bare feet as they are going Between the rice shoots. Nearly silent. Knowing.

- R.L. Barth

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