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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.

Disclosure: I purchased my copy of Playing Basketball With the Viet Cong. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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