Song: “The Sum Of A Body” by Ray Koefoed»
Great historical trauma has always produced great literature. World War I produced a Lost Generation, robbed of their comforting societal myths by the harsh realities of trench warfare. World War II, with its Holocausts and Atomic Weapons, produced a generation of Beat poets — exhausted with what James Joyce dubbed “the nightmare of history.” Many of these poets grew from 1950s dropouts into poetic activists. They wrote against a human rights nightmare, what our country called The Vietnam War. Out of that war came poets like Bruce Weigl — a vet writer who confronts his own flashbacks in fragmented narrative verse. It’s an historical constant: trauma shatters. Poets pick up the pieces.
And no poet alive in America today has escaped this reality. September 11, 2001 ripped away our national illusions as violently as the trenches of World War I dislocated the poetic mind of Wilfred Owen. Our economic collapse may eventually be as shocking to the planet as World War II once was. And of course, we have our own human rights nightmares that most people try to ignore.
So if you want to be a contemporary poet in 2012-13, write about what it means to be alive at this point in human “progress.” Write about how this world feels to you. Create your own poetic emotional archive of this mess, this wreckage, these United States of the American Waste Land.
Do you remember what we used to do in the yard? We used to dig holes. Um. We did more than just dig holes, kid. Ok, sure, we obsessively, compulsively dug up our entire back yard. Just that one summer. Just that once. Yeah, July and August. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Ok, but do you remember it? Dad was furious. Always. Yeah, he was screaming about the moon or something, wasn’t he? Yeah, he was drunk and stoned. He said something about our yard being the set for America’s next moon landing. Fuck, that’s right, dad was one of those nuts. Haha. Yes! I can’t believe you forgot that. He was a moon landing denier. That’s right. Ahem: Dad argued that the moon landing was fake because: oh…but you must wait for it… because the American flag was waving in the breeze on the moon. Hahaha! And there’s no breeze in space! Hahaha! Right! Remember that? Hahaha. Wait, didn’t they just rig the flag with wire—you know—to make it appear to be waving? A coat hanger, or something like that, and there is a slight breeze on the surface of the moon, but the point is… Yes, what is the point, finally, my geeky brother. The point is, my wordly B.Grimm, do you remember why we dug up our yard that summer? Because I don’t.
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I don’t remember specifics from my life with my father. My memories are fragmented. As the oldest son, I took the brunt of my father’s traumatized paranoia. I protected my younger brother and sister; they were both so small. I saved my mother’s life on several occasions. The memories spurt in my mind—flashes of violence in a white noise darkness.
By college, sophomore year, the signs of my first major depression were showing. I was twenty-two-years old—around the same age my father had been in Vietnam. I was empty. I was angry. I felt abandoned, and I had nowhere to focus any of this. I started drinking, a lot.
When I finally found my father—after twelve years of silence—I verbally attacked him. This was my demon father, the man who had almost killed my mother, the man who had repeatedly threatened to kidnap me—
…and what if I don’t take you back to your mother? What then, Charlie?
You fucking asshole! I was screaming and sobbing. I grabbed him by the shoulders. How could you do this to me? You’re my father!
And he just took it. He just sat there, limp in my hands, staring at the floor. He accepted my hatred, he said, because he agreed with it.
I was shocked. He sighed.
You should kill me. Killing me will make you feel better, son.
He shook his head, but his eyes remained focused, dead-straight ahead of him. His wide eyes were always watching.
I’d understand if you did. He shrugged. And I’m going to hell, anyway. He was so sure of this. I killed people, so…
I cried harder. I was lost. I decided to try.
We started meeting for lunch. We sat in diners. We drank coffee. We tried to talk. I still hated him. He still thought I had every reason to.
In the end, his self-hatred so vastly outweighed my anger that I started to lose my taste for it. Slowly, I realized my father was not a monster; he was the victim of one.
He was born on December 13, 1945. A few years prior to his arrival on Earth, the Secretary of State of the United States issued this statement:
Events are transpiring so rapidly in the Indochina situation that it is impossible to get a clear picture of the minute-to-minute developments. It seems obvious, however, that the status quo is being upset and that this is being achieved under duress. The position of the United States in disapproval and in deprecation of such procedures has repeatedly been stated.
Years before my father’s birth, a political monster was cooking up the monstrous war that would destroy his mind. Five years after his psyche was slaughtered, I was born: July 22, 1972.
I grew up in my daddy’s flashback jungle. I watched him beat a gas station attendant over a gas price, viciously attack our neighbor over a sarcastic comment, and attempt to strangle my mother to death with the bottom of his foot. Put your foot here, Charlie. Right on the artery. See?
He was laughing the entire time.
A ten-year-old boy should not have to face his mother’s mortality. Act now, or mommy dies. She’s turning blue. Get him off her now! A ten-year-old boy should not be pushed to attack his father.
I lost my father again in 2002. He called me in a paranoid rage.
I know you’ve been spying on me for the past eight years, Charlie. You and your mother and the FBI. Did you think I wouldn’t find out?!
He wouldn’t listen to reason. He threatened violence. I tried one more time. Dad, wait, talk to me. He hung up the phone.
It was April. It was raining outside. I remember thinking: it’s humid. He hates the humidity. It reminds him of being in the jungle. He tells me this often. He’ll get over it.
He hasn’t. I haven’t spoken to him since. I’ve tried. He’s lost. It’s a tragedy.
My family was lost in the Vietnam War, even though my soldier father survived it. I grieve for it, every day. I memorialize it with every day I survive it. I don’t know what else I can do.
A friend of a relative stayed close with my dad, after my parents divorced. We had stopped seeing him. He lost visitation rights due to his erratic outbursts of public violence. He vanished from my life entirely. It was shortly after my eleventh birthday.
The friend’s story was heartbreaking. After he lost his entire family, my father lived in someone’s basement for upwards of four years. It wasn’t a basement apartment; no, he lived in a basement. Someone was letting him squat there. His “front door” was a rummaged sheet of plywood.
He screwed it into the foundation wall with some rusted old hinges he found. Your father could build anything. His “door” only had one of those eye-hook locks on it, ya know?
The friend—another Vietnam Vet—said that he never locked the door. The man drifted off into a daze, stared intently into space—dead straight ahead of him, wide eyes, watching—and continued.
Your dad always said he wanted someone to break in and kill him one night—put him out of his misery.
He said he would never forget the day my father told him that, and I’ve never forgotten the chill of that story.
It’s tragic, all around. And it’s not fair.
But the past is the past, and my work isn’t really about me, or the story I have to tell. My personal struggles and reconciliations are my problems. My karma, if you will. And I long ago forgave my father for the abuse. “I was out of my mind,” he once told me. I believed him.
No, this article is about the people in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and all the other war zones on our planet. It’s dedicated to another generation of young adults forced to survive an ordeal so stressful that it shatters human minds. Some of these women and men are bound by pride and a sense of honor, dedication, and duty. That astounds me. They are motivated by a love for their family and a desire for the freedom to pursue their own happiness, or worse, by economic desperation and hardship. They are soldiers. And whether I support their fight, or not, I support them as people. I support them as people because they are also the current and future parents of children.
And since many of these battered soldiers are already speaking out against the horrors of war, and doing it far better than I can—obviously—I will speak out for the children, born and unborn. I will speak as an adult survivor—a former child of war trauma.
This new generation will be thrust into a heightened risk of domestic violence, environments of deep insecurity, an all-too-common reality of crippling fear and confusion. The family of a psychologically traumatized soldier can possibly—and often does—stunt the psychological and emotional development of a child. Some of these children may even suffer permanent damage to their personalities.
Many of these babies will struggle through adolescence, into adulthoods of anxiety, depression, and nightmares—many will wrestle with suicidal thoughts—all classic signs of post-traumatic stress, the fall-out of a childhood in a microcosmic war zone.
And it isn’t the fault of the parents/soldiers.
It is not.
The soldiers, the families, the townships, the states, the entire nation, the planet, all of us—we are all victims of the same old monster. In the service of an outmoded, misguided, and ever-growing thirst for profit and power, war is still eating our families.
 U.S., Department of State, Publication 1983, Peace and War: United States Foreign Policy, 1931-1941 (Washington, D.C.: U.S., Government Printing Office, 1943), pp. 571-72
I get to buy another frame!!!
—but not that boy
in the corner,
he’s protected from the corpse
faces—from the Vietnamese
women and their husbands,
ears strung on a wire as trophies
for his father’s necklace—
and from the Iraqi blood sifted for combustible
bones, slaughtered into a plasma rubble—
and from the two hundred thousand—
those Afghan winters—emaciated
with horrified pupils
that fully dilate, groping—
always they’re groping
to capture their fading light source;
our wars are vicious poets.
Ah, you protest too much, the therapist said, scribbling into his yellow pad. You’re filled with irrational rage over the injustices of the world.
He told me I needed to work on my people skills, then leaned back in his chair and twitched his mustache—a slight satisfied smile. I watched him closely, studying him. Sizing him up.
An hour before I met with him, I was reading poetic accounts of Vietnamese Napalm victims—skin hanging from muscle like sheets of silken cloth. Poor frightened orphaned babies sobbing. Horror.
I study The Vietnam War. I study it because it changed the course of my life before I was born, before my mother ever met my father. I study America’s Vietnam War, and the lies that started it—the volumes of lies that elite men with powerful titles conjured in backroom meetings, on fucking golf courses.
It was men like Lyndon Johnson and Robert S. McNamara, arrogant bastards, who sent my poorly educated, blue collar father to colonize rice farmers by force. I don’t believe in Hell, but I hope those two men are being cremated for all eternity.
I study this war, this American Vietnam invasion, as I watch another generation of fathers and mothers and families with little children being ravaged—still—this time by multiple wars.
Multiple Wars! I can’t even get my head around it most of the time. And I don’t believe anything Obama says about winding things down. He’s a politician; politicians are liars.
So, I sit in the mental health clinic every other week. I talk to my social worker. I get my antidepressants and sleep aides from a nurse—my “prescriber”—instead of a doctor. Only rich people get to see the psychiatrists anymore.
I go home. I study. I write. I read the news for hours. I read about poor people being beaten down by wealthy assholes, over and over and over. I read about oily disasters and resources dwindling, and Wall Street banksters, and the war, and the other war. These wars will last for generations. And I have nieces and nephews. Yes, I worry for the future. Yes, I worry for my family. And it’s appropriate.
So, when this therapist, counselor, whatever he is, called me an angry man, I leaned in close and looked into his puffy eyes.
“Let’s get one thing straight right now, my friend,” I slightly raised my voice, “I’m not an angry man. I’m outraged. There’s a difference.”
Poem: “Genius Child” by Langston Hughes
» Sang Lee is dead. »
You May Need a Mental Health Break
Please Remember To