Palmer's Poems

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 dead!!"

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" 1. 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. 2. 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)
"Christmas, 1967" 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.
"Langour" after a line by Carolyn Forche Note: Peonies traditionally symbolize shame and anger, but also healing and, especially in the Orient, feminine loveliness 1. 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. 2. 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_
"Suburban Blues" 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.
"The Collector" 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.
"Push Ups" 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] Drive-By 1 Iteration 1: the early years ca. 1955 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, except: glass breaking, my uncle screaming, the table collapsing as he fell and: the ambulance shrieking down the street, a patrol car, tires squealing as it sped away, my grandmother crying. The language 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. 2 Iteration 2: Cyclo Girl ca 1967 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. 3 Dead Children ca 1995 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 Hospital Visit --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.