Friday, October 26, 2012

A letter from a U.S. Marine

A reader sent me a letter recently, by which I knew him to be of my generation or an older one. He was writing from Spindale with kind words for my review of "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" at Carolina Actor's Studio Theatre. He signed his note Col. Thomas Paul Graham, USMC (ret).

More interesting than the compliments was a poem he enclosed. He'd dedicated it to the late George Will Curtis, a U.S. Army captain and newspaperman he'd befriended. He titled it "A Photograph From Kosovo," but the snapshot of wailing women he describes in the first verses triggered memories of his time in Vietnam decades before:

"Doi dai! Doi dai! Their black pajama arms fly up
Or clutch tightly around themselves or enfold
Their Viet kin or friends. Their accusing eyes, brimming cups
Of black, biting, bitter tears cry...cry cold...."

War has often inspired powerful poetry, from Homer's epics of ancient Greece through my own generation. My favorite British poet of the 20th century, Wilfred Owen, died one week before the end of World War I, while storming a German stronghold. Benjamin Britten's War Requiem incorporates Owen's devastatingly sad work, including the most touching poem I know about battle: "Anthem for Doomed Youth."

But most great war poems have come from people who were already poets (or, at least, writers) before they went off to fight. Col. Graham was not, as far as anything on the Internet tells me. He has written from the heart and from a sense of horror at what he saw, and he shared those reactions not for acclaim but for understanding -- or as much understanding as someone who hasn't entered battle can give him. (I was in the last round of the draft for the Vietnam War but was not selected to go.)

The poem reminded me, for the thousandth time, not to let preconceptions run away with me: Col. Graham also enclosed a picture of himself in uniform, wearing what my Air Force dad would have called a "fruit salad of medals," and I didn't expect a poetic side.

And I realized again that the desire to make art out of our experiences lies in all of us. Sometimes it lies dormant, because it doesn't get the right intellectual or emotional encouragement. Sometimes the minutiae of our daily lives bury it too deeply to grow. As William Wordsworth warned, "The world is too much with us, late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." But those powers are in every human being.