What a Read
I’ve been captured these last few days by Steven Mason’s final book of poetry, The Human Being. He’d been dubbed years earlier, the unofficial Poet Laureate of the Vietnam War, unofficial only to those who think they have retained the right to award such an honor. Steven Mason won it hands down in the minds of Vietnam veterans and any others who knew first-hand the experience of war – of fighting for reasons you never completely understood nor ever had a choice about. Between his experiences in the war, his stunning penchant for exploring that era when he returned, and a talent for poetry that ranks with masters, his voice thunders in the halls of poetic posterity. He wrote only three volumes; that was all he needed to. Within the covers of Johnny’s Song, Warrior for Peace, and The Human Being he covered the topic: boy turned soldier. And what I’ve come to understand about that metamorphosis is that it leaves those men with a unique frame of reference from which they regard their lives from then on. It is neither voluntary nor reversible. They are for all time a soldier. War doesn’t wash off, strip away, or fade like old denim. It crafts the way they see and understand life from that point on.
High in the attic
of our collective conscience
in a special closed-off corner of our minds
more dark than our fears
more real than our dreams
is a door
behind which is locked Our war (Vietnam)
a large, salivating dog; faithless & mad
snarling in the muffled upward reaches
of our reason—
Howling against the thin, rare echo
of our long stale youth—
Scratching and clawing—hurling itself
against the ever weakening barrier of our sanity;
Our entire house trembles
at its presence…
From Johnny’s Song, Untitled, now hanging in the War Museum, Hanoi, Republic of Vietnam
I can only guess that Steve Mason was fearless in war, because in the act of seeking the truth of it, all those years later, he was utterly fearless, willing to stand on the edge of the abyss and ask the really hard questions that can hold death in their answers as surely as a loaded gun. There is no lonelier nor more frightening pursuit, than a human reaching for a truth that could drop him to his knees—forever.
For a time, most veterans turn inward—
“one man” awareness patrols
searching for a truth to believe in
(which will not die laughing at him).
On all sides of the issues
on both sides of the ocean,
veterans mistrust anyone in a position to lie;
Wives, girlfriends, government officials,
salesmen, lawyers, and the rich.
Veterans trust dogs,
children under twelve,
the chair facing the door,
and any weapon in the dark….
From Warrior for Peace, “In Victory or Defeat”
Steve Mason delivered “The Wall Within,” at the commencement of the National Salute in Washington, D.C., on November 10, 1984, as part of the official activities prior to the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (The Wall) as a national monument. It will stand forever as a dedication among dedications for the men who know.
The eye sees
what the mind believes.
and all that I know of war,
all that I have heard of peace,
has me looking over my shoulder
for that one bullet
which still had my name on it—
round and round the globe
waiting and circling
circling and waiting
until I break from cover
and it takes its best, last shot.
In the absence of Time,
the accuracy of guilt is assured.
It is a cosmic marksman….
From Johnny’s Song, “The Wall Within”
Bert and I spoke with Steve along the way of his life and ours, looking to see if there was something we might do together, to further expose the errors of war and especially that war, which for me proved a turning point in the history of this nation as powerful and scarring as the Civil War. It was an open declaration that we were bullies and more willing to use our power and money for that purpose rather than for peace.
Hundreds of millions
of men under arms
have killed millions
of men, women
and little children
with nails and clubs,
bullets and bombs
They did it and continue to do it
in the name of gods,
for the sake of governments,
and in the cause of nationalism.
But especially they do it
for the thousand nameless men
who control the world of business
and have not yet found the profit
From Warrior for Peace, “In Victory or Defeat”
Steve is gone now; complications of lung cancer and Agent Orange. Thank god that his friends held him up and believed in him so that the last book got written. For in this final one, we are permitted to eavesdrop as he crosses back through his life finally to find his way home. In his own words, in part one, The Edge of the World, in The Human Being, Steve sums up his life.
In the beginning, I was an American fighting man who
fought and killed for the concepts of “duty, honor and
country.” Today, I am a man who has extended his
citizenship to become a human being. I am still a fighter,
yet I do not kill. I have become a warrior of peace and
my commitment is to conscience, human dignity and the
concept of one world.
He knew only too well:
…It is the courage of our questions
which gives us the truth of our answers.
From The Human Being, “Questions and Answers”
Steve Mason was neither saint nor sinner, but he refused to let the terrible confusion that meets each soldier as he leaves the world of war heading for a home he rarely finds, to take him down. He had the courage to question in the manner that rewards us with the balm of truth. Anyone who has ever faced life down to the point where it will finally relinquish some significant insight will meet themselves in Steven Mason’s poetry and welcome his soulful company.
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