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A Soldier's View of the War
By Glo Wellman (reviewer)
Want: A Collection of War Poems and Stories
by rg cantalupo
The poems in Want by rg cantalupo very effectively tell the story of a soldier's view of the war, both in the jungle and in the painful aftermath once home. With a deep appreciation for the power of poetry, I willingly agreed to read and review this work. These poems were a challenging read. But the Vietnam War was not an easy war, either. These poems are honest in telling of tragedy, terrors, death, and survival. They illustrate an intense inner battle of the soldier that never eases, constantly "warring against the jungle, the heat... or against ourselves."
rg presents a poignant, gripping diary, describing his early times as a draftee in 1968, his initial trials deep in the jungles, then into the present day with his persistent questions from those days looming, especially "Why are we here?" Soldiers did what they were told, as in other times and other lands. They are also wedged between two worlds—a longing for the ordinary life of The World at home and the ever-present terrors of the jungle, with "a hand in the doorway between then and now." The relentless demands of this horrific job never eased. Slogging through the rice paddies and jungle, "sometimes the only sound I hear is my breathing, my heart beating against a cage of bone." As the weeks drone on, "the rice, the bamboo, the leaves of the rubber tree grow green on our blood, theirs, yet no one answers why?" They had little time to think during the fight for their survival, and at the same time, all they had was time. The daily struggles were and still continue to be all too real for many.
If fortunate enough to make it back home, the war continues, never really going away. In one poem, "Nicknames," rg addresses the tragic loss of life and names one of many he served with those many years ago, someone they called "Florida," saying he would have turned twenty but did not. Maybe he would have been "Jeff. Mr. Jenkins, Sir. Father. Friend." but these were not to be.
We are taken to the present day in "Stopped at a Light." rg sees a man weaving as he walks along, holding a sign, "Hungry." rg closes his eyes and can imagine this same man "wading through a rice paddy now, tracers sparking, ... a brother..." and he wants to save him, "give him another life." But the light changes, and he realizes, "I can't...There are so many streets like this, and so little I can change by going back." The message for all of us is—we must do better.
Though I am a pacifist, believing war is never the answer, I finished this book of intense, gripping poems with renewed respect for those who serve. And my longing that our country would do more to truly honor those who died and care for those who returned and are still returning. We must do better.
Glo Wellman is a retired teacher, the wife of a Vietnam Veteran, and a friend to many who had first-hand experience with war.