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Memories of War Do Not Go Away
By Ed White (reviewer)
by Dale Ritterbusch
(Viet Nam Generation, Inc & Burning Cities Press, 1995)
In his collection of 73 poems, Dale Ritterbusch does not let you escape the experience and trauma of the Vietnam War and other conflicts. This short 121 pages of poems are divided into three parts, that can be loosely called before Vietnam, being there, and coming home. He doesn't call them that, in fact, they are designated I, II, and III.
Ritterbusch served in Vietnam as an Army Lieutenant from 1966 to 1969 as a liaison officer. That does not describe all his activities, as his poems detail. His second collection of poems is called Far From The Temple of Heaven . After Vietnam, he received a BA, MA, and MFA., and has taught at the university level since.
Part I, When It's Late, combines a restlessness at home after the war while holding a memory of someone who died:
…turning a spadeful of war
over and over, and always,
in the vigilant spin of this earth
digging it up before morning.
In the collection, the poet continues going into the war, and this is only the second poem, in Geography Lessons, which describes a common coming home reaction: "Not once does the family ask questions" In The Somme, he asks:
You kind of wonder if they ever change
the numbers in any recorded history of the war
and add one more to the list of the dead.
There is a relentless going backward and forward in his poems, even in the title The Right Thing To Do: Mizocz, Ukraine, 1942—back to World War II. In this poem, it is the execution of a young and beautiful woman.
In Part II, the poems are focused on events in the war, enemy interrogation, night ambush, children begging, bombing by B-52s, sex in brothels, etc. The poem which gives the collection its title: Lessons Learned describes military classes stateside on booby traps particularly, with a 105 round:
All these years, lessons learned
and unlearned, this one still stays
this lesson of one false step,
the wrong move, that's always made
no matter the training, no matter
how much care is taken.
In Part III, the poem: Back In The World, one of the few prose poems reflects on common thoughts after you have been through it all and returned from Vietnam in the lines:
…I'd left as much or more
behind as I'd come home to.
…I would now,
But then I thought I could take care of myself-
I'd been there – I didn't need any help…
Ritterbusch has a great talent for combining so much in a poem. In the poem, Shoulders, he talks and drinks with a friend in the Officer's Club in 1969. They talked tactics, mistakes made, and then women. The conversation turned to a woman's shoulder, its smoothness.
…Then two weeks later
You were dead – a letter said it all
I've hated mail the long years since.
He ends the poem reflecting on his wife's shoulders. He is a poet who takes you down a road and then you step on a mine.
I'd wish I had known of Ritterbusch's poetry before I taught my Vietnam History course. The collection fills in so much:
We share the dark and the silence,
the silence of the world
in response to inarticulate horrors.
Ed White is a Marine Vietnam combat vet with memberships in VVAW, VFP, and VVA. He has taught courses on the Vietnam War at Triton College in Illinois.