The following poems were written by Palmer Hall.
Palmer is a Vietnam Veteran who served with the U.S. Army.
Palmer passed away in February, 2013. Hand Salute !!
Most of these poems are reproduced from an anthology of poems and essays
dealing with Viet Nam, (Hall, H. Palmer. From the Periphery: Essays and Poems.
San Antonio: Chili Verde Press, 1994.).
"Memories of Poetry and War"
Some nights in Viet Nam, when I stood alone on the top of
a bunker staring out into a night that contained armies at war,
armies made up of small groups of men searching for each
other, lying in wait, trip wires and claymores, M-16s and AK-47s,
I would see a red cluster of flares shoot into the sky followed,
frequently, by slowly parachuting amber flares that lit the dark...
soft light reflected on piles of hand grenades, belts of fifty caliber
ammunition for the big machine gun, smaller belts for the M-60,
huge cartridges for the M-79 grenade launcher, lighting me wearing
Army greens, flak jacket, camouflage boots, helmet.
During those times, letting the two other men, asleep in the
bunker, rest, thinking that an attack might be imminent, my eyes would
drift over the perimeter, looking for any trace of movement out of the
ordinary. What came to my mind then, what I whispered into the dark,
was poetry that I had memorized long before; mostly, I confess,
poetry about leaving such places. As the sky lit up at night, I would
whisper from Yeats, "I will arise and go now and go to Inisfree..." or
from Eliot, "Let us go then, you and I / when the evening is spread
out against the sky / like a patient etherized upon a table."
Somewhere off in the distance, I might hear a fire fight near
where I had seen the red cluster flare; and Hardy's "Convergence of the
Twain" would breathe out from me. There was great consolation in poetry,
Innisfree almost becoming a mantra.
In those days, not writing, I lived poetry, sucking it in and
blowing it out. In Dak To, when I listened to my radio, heard a boy
named Bao report on American convoys leaving the camp for Pleiku and
heard the jets strafe and napalm his position, the poetry that is Yeats
and the poetry that is Stevens (O blessed rage for order,
pale Ramon!) mingled with red dust and death.
I can remember still, through something of a red haze, getting
absurdly drunk on a fifth of ruffino's chianti (the club was out of scotch
and all other drinks) and wandering down to the perimeter. I climbed up
on the berm and looked out at the valley and the hills, Eben Flood had
nothing on me that evening; and I held the remains of the bottle in my
hand, seeing only one moon, and out Heroded Herod in declaiming
the opening lines from Shakespeare's Henry V, snarling the words,
"And at his heels leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword and
fire crouch for employment!" and moving on to "Once more onto the
breach, dear friends, once more / or close up the wall with our English
And then moving to Hamlet and the first great soliloquy, "Oh
that this too too solid flesh / would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a
dew / or that the Almighty had not fixed his canon gainst self-slaughter."
I remember all the details of the Shakespearean soliloquys and the
poems I sang into a drunk night during the Tet Offensive of 1968,
but I remember none of the generalities.
Orig. Pub.: Texas Writers Newsletter. Fall, 1995
"From the Periphery"
Spotlights shine out a hundred feet
or more, show tufts of green where grass
plowed under, struggles, shoots up.
I whisper to Claymores, 50 calibers,
M-60s, hold the dead weight of an M-79,
listen to the sounds of water buffalo and
of a distant firefight.
In that dark, men I have not really
come to know wait quietly, barely breathe
in fear that someone else will hear their breath,
hunker down, eyes barely open, listen
to their hearts beat, to night sounds
grown suddenly quiet.
The singsong cries of hootchmaids
bring me back from a place I will never go
and only, so far down inside, almost
convince myself to regret never having been.
One morning in Dak To, I saw five men
who had been six, LRRPs, kicking dirt
into the sky, eyes focused straight ahead,
silent, wrung dry in the hot sun.
Sometimes commerce can not exist. Language
can not always be enough, words can not
translate what eyes have seen.
Thoughts lie fallow, spears of grass
that can not push up or out.
This, then, is what war must be: a walk
in the night, heart held in the hands of those
who walk beside you, breath held in each
other's mouths, smell shared in such a way
that all scents are one, touch only
a light pressure, hand on shoulder,
eyes searching for movement in the dark.
(Orig. In From the Periphery: poems and essays
Chili Verde Press, 1995)
The sand bags look the same:
a dismal green-grey bag leaks red clay
upon the bags below. Outside the perimeter,
children pick though the garbage,
thrown out waste of a thousand men.
Christmas in Pleiku, 1967, war fills
the surrounding hills. Across the valley
we see cloud puffs of artillery and
at night red, green, amber flares dangle,
shining bright beneath white parachutes:
displays in sound and light
rivaling the staged events of a thousand
towns across the "world" on New Year's Day.
But this is Christmas: a time of truce.
"for My Students in Viet-Nam"
The English class at Lake Bien Ho
laughs, shouts, sings Christmas carols
in broken English, sing-songy, tonal
inflections, music that does not, somehow,
fit in this warm, green land. A small boy
talks about the Buddha. Not long ago
a bonze kindled himself in Saigon, burned
with intensity, no screams, a desperate
song, silence fell on a noisy city.
At Lake Bien Ho the teachers
have brought a Christmas tree, presents
for their students: books, candles,
cakes and candy. They sit on the bank
and sing of shepherds and their flocks.
An old man on a water buffalo watches.
after a line by Carolyn Forche
Note: Peonies traditionally symbolize
shame and anger, but also healing and,
especially in the Orient, feminine loveliness
The langour of peonies? A universal image:
flowers drooping over the dead of Khe Sanh
and the mass interments near the Citadel at Hue.
The red sun, like a peony, hangs in the skies
of Dak To and Ban Me Thuot lighting
endless bodies marching west
into the plaines des jarres through
fields of white ginger and jungle orchids.
Pushing through elephant grass like sharks
they cut through dry water. Grassy waves carry
the dead in their wake. The moon leans down
to kiss their rifles, finds nothing to reflect.
Young women in ao dais, prim, proper, walk
slowly down Le Loi Street, faces fixed on distant points,
eyes focused straight ahead, neither left nor right.
I do not bother them, though I smile and nod,
whisper, "Chao co. Manh gioi khong?" And when
they pass me by I mumble, "Choi oi!
Dep lam." How beautiful! But not for me,
not even for themselves, a part of the scenery,
plastic props, exotic extras to decorate the city:
Barbies in an Oriental incarnation. And I am Ken.
I stare as they pass me by, their lips just so, frozen
smiles, some fantasy of childhood dressed in silk,
but hair long and black, special extra wigs
keeping things cool in the hot, red streets.
Forthcoming in _War, Literature, and the Arts_
I saw you, dimly, when the mall closed late that night,
unfold your long, dark legs from a battered, brown Corolla,
look quickly in my direction, then as quickly glance away
from where I walked, arms full, in the uncertain light
of the almost empty lot. You seemed so tall and gray,
cut-offs, dirty t-shirt tight drawn across your chest. I thought,
"No, not me, that's just what all my neighbors say,"
coded conversations, red faces, the angry and distressed
who live along my street, fertilize, water, then mow their lawns,
plant flowers between their porches and curving walks.
"No, don't sink so low; don't react that way." I looked for others,
slowly stepped, studied, casual pace, stopped to unlock my car.
And you were there. A knife opened in your hand, blood
blossomed from my side. The blade ripped flesh, glanced off
my rib. You took my wallet, money, credit cards, so much more.
I forgot to listen to that still, quiet voice murmuring in my ears,
the firefight I can still hear when the wind is from the west, dark
hills rising from the valley of Dak To. When, late at night, you
raped a woman in an all-night store, pistol-whipped her, hanks
of her hair twisted in your hands, the police there found my wallet
in your stolen car, called me to pick from a line of drafted men,
how could I avoid pointing at you, escape saying, "He's the one"?
You wore the same dirty shirt, those faded cut-off jeans; your hand
holding the knife, white scarred right knuckle, flashed in front of me.
I got back almost everything, money, cards, all the stuff that doesn't
matter, counted, stored. Yet much can never be returned: quiet walks
down moonlit streets, sitting silent on lawn chairs on calm purple nights.
I knew a murderer, a long time ago, and eyeing for eyeing
toothing for toothing--oh, yes!--murdered, in time, by the State,
a time I kept the vigil, damned nice guy when you got to know him
went to Killeen with him and to Vietnam, all that training, yes,
he didn't kill anyone there, no, called hardly anyone a Gook, just
read quietly, all day, every day, unless working, listening to dots and
dashes, ditty-bops, in the commo hut, yes, Americal Division,
20th Infantry, Chu Lai, Vietnam, Republic of, Calley's group. He
was gentle, with a ring of scars, ridged, on his shaved smooth scalp.
Successful guy ten years later, car dealership, richer, yes, than
either you or me, married well, big car, very quiet, head still sunk
in books except when selling other cars or buying yet one more auto
dealership. A quiet dealer with poetry in his soul, he fell
from love one day, a normal, dry day, the kind of day when
all things being equal he would have read or, yes, reread books.
He'd become a collector--Victoriana--Browning, Tennyson,
A little Clough, and, yes, Swinburne for his wilder moments,
all the Rossetti circle, a small Whistler hanging by his desk
though he did not own a single peacock feather--warm day,
hot Texas sun blazing overhead, not like a wafer, no moment
of communion, the kind of day, when, when he has fallen out
of love and does not want to divide his art, his Tennysons,
wants his Brownings safe at Baylor, his Christina to move in,
long white dresses, perhaps he isn't thinking straight. He's been
trained for this, not for subtlety. He'd stopped the day before,
bought an AK-47, a magazine, gold-tipped bullets, just enough,
to do the job. It's what he's dreamed about, the scene is fresh,
and when she wanders in, he smiles. The action moves easily,
a too large pattern, he thinks, should have zeroed in. He does not
see blood spatter on the wall, hardly hears her scream. He pulls
a copy of Oenone down, fingers the dark green cloth. He thinks
he'll read a while and then go back to work. He sits in his favorite
Queen Anne chair, the Whistler near. He doesn't even know he cries.
For Mosely, wherever he might be
(Sgt. Smith: "Mosely's gonna set the fuckin' record for
the battalion. He just needs 230.")
That night down on the floor
while we counted, your arms,
so fluid, pumped, stretched,
dropped your body an inch above
the tile, then lifted you so high
that something had to give--
the floor, the tiles, the sky--something
had to break. No sweat, just
repetitions, "100," "200," " 229!"
and then you stopped. I knew
why once, the time, the atmosphere,
the need to articulate something
that could not be grunted out
to prove something to yourself
and all of us. Goddamn but you
were cool when you held yourself so still,
looked up at all of us and laughed.
You lifted one hand from the floor, brushed
a drop of sweat from your lip, stood up
and walked away.
[in From the Periphery: poems and essays]
Iteration 1: the early years
The gun shot was not loud,
did not echo back
from the thicket behind
my grandmother's house.
The bullet crashed
through the dining room
window and afterwards
I did not hear a thing,
my uncle screaming,
the table collapsing
as he fell
the ambulance shrieking
down the street, a patrol car,
tires squealing as it sped away,
my grandmother crying.
had not yet developed,
no term, no phrase
no piece of jargon
to reduce the act
from brother rage
to headline size
And yet, blood spilled onto the carpet,
painted itself into the pattern
of blue on green geometrics, a red spot
that would turn brown, still there,
after forty years.
Iteration 2: Cyclo Girl
At a sidewalk cafe
on _doc lap_ street in what
was then Saigon,
they talk about the war,
eat pho and fish
with nuoc mam, spicy
sauce just ten weeks old.
She wears an ao dai, long
flowing dress, sits sidesaddle,
as the law requires, her left hand
on the cowboy's shoulder,
cyclo girl, Honda screaming,
and without aiming, fires three shots.
A routine thing, we practice it,
fall upon the floor,
hands covering heads,
though hands will
never be enough.
The white mice come
and find one man
his head smashed open
brains mixed with pho
and fish sauce.
The cyclo girl is never found
rides through the streets
of urban America
fires shots through windows
speeds away into dark night.
They bury them in the same coffin,
cousins on the same day killed,
victims of a spray of bullets
from boys in a slung low Chevrolet--
just ten years old, victims at a party
on their birthday.
But it is easy now. We know
what to say.
We have a word for it
developed after years
of practice. We can reduce it
to a hyphen on the front page.
Copyright © 1995 H. Palmer Hall
--For the survivors
I give her a puppet--an armadillo,
fuzzy and warm, to slip over her hand
in the dark when there is no one near
only time to think and a dark marble of fear
that awakens, pulses deep down in a silent
spot that no one knows but she. Tom,
her husband, died somehow in Viet Nam
and she has kept the pain in that same place
for all these years, has hardly talked
of those deep jungles where his body lay.
The doctor comes and speaks of this and that,
cool and calm, detached: of the mastectomy
to be deferred for chemo, the bone scan positive,
biopsy positive, mestastasis into the bone. Sterile words,
remote from the throbbing space that whispers in her blood.
"Yes, it's raining." I say.
"Yes, your sons are here."
She feels the lump in her breast, a pressure, a weight.
She says "I don't need it anyway. My sons are grown."
She says, "My husband died so long ago. I don't need
to talk about the war." She strokes the puppet. "I want
quiet, rest and peace." A steady stream of visitors troops
into her room, brings sweet flowers with perfume
that palls and mingles somehow with the silent
drip of an IV in her hand. A slow anointing,
laying on of hands: fingers trace a cross with water,
touch her head, but it is not the sacrament of the dead,
only a rite for healing, something to contend with that
central core where dark shapes gather. How hard
it is to be polite, to kiss, to hug, to shake each hand.
"I'm fine," she says. "I only need a little sleep."
She smiles. I take her hand, slip the puppet on.