|Download PDF of this full issue: v34n1.pdf (11.3 MB)|
What's the Point of Poetry?
By W.D. Ehrhart (Reviewer)
Earth Songs: New & Selected Poems
By Jan Barry
(iUniverse, Inc., 2003)
"I joined the army and went to Vietnam to become a soldier," Jan Barry writes in the preface to "Earth Songs." "Vietnam turned me into a poet and peace activist." In his poem "Peace Time," he adds, "It was all so / easy to go off to war ... . What's been hardest / in life has been to risk / my neck for peace."
Yet risking his neck for peace is exactly what Barry has been doing for forty years now. A Republican farm boy from upstate New York who'd grown up idolizing his dead uncle killed in the Pacific in 1944, he dropped out of college and joined the army with grand visions of one day becoming "a battle general," as he says in "The Struggle."
Sent to Vietnam in 1962, when the war was still a small and almost casual affair, Barry soon began to understand that Vietnam "was no great crusade, which the generals think they lead" ("Duty"), but rather a heartbreakingly "green land" rapidly being "reduced to smoke" ("Long Before") by American arrogance and stupidity.
Awarded a coveted appointment from the ranks to West Point, Barry could not dismiss what he'd seen and learned in Vietnam. In "Duty, Honor, Country," he writes of the irony of "impeccable cadets [who] will assault villages, / turn rice fields into killing zones / and farmers into corpses," and concludes: "Time to stop soldiering, / turn from weapons / to words—"
Barry resigned his appointment, got out of the army, and set off in search of a different future, one that has included founding Vietnam Veterans Against the War, editing "Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans" (one of the most influential and remarkable poetry anthologies ever published), becoming a major force in the 1980s nuclear freeze movement, and authoring books on grassroots organizing, all while simultaneously maintaining a life as a working journalist, husband and father.
But at the heart of his life lies poetry. As he writes in his preface, "I've never made a living from poetry, but poetry is what has gotten me through life. ... Earth Songs is a tribute to the world I discovered beyond battlefields ... a true tale — the hardest there is to tell — of a teenage soldier growing into a world citizen." Though he is far too self-effacing to say so, it is also a tribute to Barry himself, and to the remarkable and admirable life he has lived.
Fans and aficionados of Vietnam War poetry will find many familiar poems of Barry's in "Earth Songs," poems first appearing in "Winning Hearts and Minds" and its companion anthology "Demilitarized Zones: Veterans After Vietnam": "In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan," "Nights in Nha Trang," "Floating Petals," "Thap Ba," "Memorial for Man in Black Pajamas," "The Colonel's Daughter," "Harvest Moon," "The Struggle," and others. But along with these older and more familiar poems are scores of other poems previously available only in very limited-circulation anthologies and limited-edition chapbooks, or published here for the first time. Poems like "Sparrow" and "A Childhood Tale," "Young Soldiers, Old War" and "Saturday Night" add depth and breadth to Barry's experiences as a young soldier in Vietnam. But the war is only the book's starting point, from which Barry journeys forward and backward, weaving a life in poems: his West Point experience, the death of his Uncle Ted in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, discovering New York City, falling in love with the woman who would be his wife for more than thirty years, reading the names of the Vietnam War dead at Riverside Church and marching with VVAW comrades to Valley Forge, a whole section of poems about a trip Barry took to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War Reagan years.
Barry's experiences as a journalist are reflected directly in poems such as "Choosing the News," in which he writes, "Inside the editors' eyrie, / eyes that never saw a body fall / decide how many words a life was worth / or not worth mentioning at all," and indirectly in poems such as "Bitter Fruit" and "March Madness," poems dealing with AIDS and urban violence respectively. An assortment of elegies for the famous (Allen Ginsberg), the beloved (old VVAWer Sheldon Ramsdell), and the all-but-anonymous (Cindy Villalba) is complemented by Barry's irrepressible optimism in poems like "Down Town" and "Magnolia Morning."
Most moving of all, I think, are Barry's poems to his wife, Paula Kay Pierce, from the early love poem "Paula Kay" to "Us," in which he writes, "After so many battles / we are a pair of ruffled swans / who have survived / a great many storms / together[,]" to "Death in America," where he writes of Paula's losing battle with cancer, "There are no words to express what it's like to watch / your lover and best friend die," to her return to him in dreams: "'Time to get up!' she snaps / in an impatient mood, / rousting me from the dead."
So Barry rousts himself from the dead, from his sorrow and grief, and goes on with his life, acknowledging in "Listen, Death" that "Death will catch me / in due time," but insisting that "until then / the time is mine." "Earth Songs," dedicated "To Paula — for love and life," is proof of that insistence.
And over the years, few voices have been as insistent, as cogent, as compelling, or as thoughtful as Barry's. In "In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan," Barry writes of American soldiers "unencumbered by history in a foreign land." In "Lessons," to his son's question, "What's a patriot, Dad?" Barry replies, "Well, I guess a person / who loves the land. / Although some people act as though / a patriot's a man / who hates another land." In "The Peace Monument," Barry asks, "Where are the statues to those brave souls / Who kept the peace[?]"
Such questions and observations are surely as relevant today — as vital — as when they were written ten, twenty, and thirty years ago. Likewise for one of Barry's newest poems, "What's the Point": "What's the point of poetry? / Might's well ask what's the point of spring, / what's the point of a flower opening."
If you don't already own this book, do something about it now. Order Jan Barry's "Earth Songs: New & Selected Poems" online from: www.janbarry.net, www.iuniverse.com, or www.amazon.com.
W. D. Ehrhart is an author, poet and teacher and a member of VVAW.