Gretchen, an MFA student at George Mason University, is the daughter of a Vietnam veteran who served from '67 to'68 with the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, Headquarters and Maintenance Squadron-13, MAG-13, in Chu Lai, Vietnam.
In her own words: "As the child of a Vietnam vet, I felt like Vietnam was in my bones from the time that I was a little kid. In my family, some of my dad's stories were whispered or not spoken of at all, and some of them were stories that were with us, overtly, all the time. My dad took me to my first POW-MIA demonstration when I was 10 or 12 or so, and that was when I knew I had found a community of people that would be part of my life forever. few years later, my dad and I got into his falling-apart Subaru station wagon and started driving from Connecticut to D.C. for Rolling Thunder. At a rest stop in New Jersey, he let me get out of the car and jump on the back of a Harley for the rest of the trip. That Memorial Day, when we gunned up in the parking lot of the Pentagon, I felt like I was home.My dad won't get on a motorcycle, but he was there on Constitution Avenue waiting for me to roll by with my ride, and I don't think I've ever felt so humbled or so proud in my whole life, seeing him there waving at me from the sidewalk.
My poems are like that,
I hope - I'm trying to ride for my dad. All my life, I've grilled him for all
the details of his Vietnam stories. No matter how hard the telling is, he always
tells me. I don't want those stories to be lost. Even when the stories are
brutal, as they often are, I feel like it's my job to tell the truth - whatever
ambivalence or pain that may reveal. I think of my work as poetry of witness -
writing that tries to tell the truth of horrific events, in the hope that we
will never forget those events, and in the hope that no one after us will have
to suffer in the same way.
I'm indebted to my father, to all of his Vietnam buddies, and to all of the amazing vets I've met along the way, for entrusting me with their stories. I won't ever know what they've known first-hand, but I'm honored to be a part of their family. I hope that the work I do with language and poetry always serves vets, as they served us, and always offers both a recognition of what they live on a daily basis, and a vision for thanks, healing, and peace."
More Than Brotherhood
Tet, Chu Lai, January 1968.
Eddie "Tomatoes" D'Amato
drags your stoned ass
from the hootch down into the open
bunker when the VC drop a rocket
on your bomb dump. You'd missed
the rocket's suck through air, sat mesmerized
in the flash, concussions like music.
This ain't no fucking fireworks, Tommy.
He hauls you by the band of your skivvies,
grateful, later, under the lip
of dirt, that you wasted time
to grab the flask. The GAF bunker,
you'd called it, for give a fuck.
After Tet, you and Tomatoes cover it
with runway matting and sandbags.
Three months later, on night supply
with Tomatoes, stoned in the early morning,
the rockets hit again. You run
across the sand under fire, crab-wise,
back to supply from the bunker
to find Eddie's cigarettes and a canteen
of coffee. A brother knows
what a brother needs
to keep him from shitting his pants.
Later, you remember these small things:
whiskey, cigarettes, coffee, heat of bodies
in a bunker. Not so small.
Thomas, geminus, twin.
D'Amato, amare, to love.
I was not the man on the ground
belly-down to the jungle bugs
and the dirt soaked with rain and
blood. I was not the man who humped
the dead and near-dead through night paddies.
I was not the man at My Lai;
I did not break for lunch and eat
slowly so bound fathers could watch
their wounded daughters die in ditches
at my feet. No, I was only the air
man, the drop boy, Vietnam a sponge
of green under the chopper. I just
threw their food, their guns,
my own gun rusted to my hip.
But I saw the hootches burning.
I watched them kill the children and animals
when all the men and women were dead.
My mother, Catherine Josephine,
small phrase, thin remnant,
the haunt that hung at the windows nbsp;
and smoked. We will not speak
about sickness in this house --
my father's command, as she
beat her devils down the drainpipes
with ammonia and burned
her ghosts back into the wallpaper
with a hot iron. We will not speak
about sickness in this house, as I sang
the Mass for an infant brother, born dead
and soft, never named.
And later, for my own father, Richard Barry,
whom I carried to the toilet
four times an hour for two years.
Dead from hacking on his own stomach,
the pulp of cancer dried on his lips,
the sickness that sealed them.
for my father and brother
What I remember most about that winter
in our father's cabin is kerosene
and the hunger of the four brown stoves.
And the clatter of wind on the roof's
metal skin, and each rusted pipe
that gave up from November to March.
The dust-colored birds that pecked
at scraps of the cake he let us eat
for lunch. His bone-scrawny Shepherd
that watched us chew turkey from aluminum
tins. Do you remember the lake there,
brother, Dog Pond' Vexing name,
silted water, and we skated it that winter
on soaped moon boots, under the scum-gray
light of the sun. There were mice
under the pocked wooden sink and a kingdom
of feral cats in the abandoned lean-to.
Abandoned. It has the right sound and feel
from here, as I lift the memory and hold it up,
locked like a daguerreotype, and see
three refugees and their animal comrades,
wintering, frozen in a scene from a familiar
documentary. What I remember most is gratitude,
later, for meat with bones, hot water, insulation,
the demise of the KeroSun stove, and him,
leader of a fractured tribe, a man who shouldered
weight as light, said pioneers, not exiles.
Year of the Monkey