“A Grunt” : poetic review

David R. “Poppa” Alexander predominantly makes use of rhyme in his poetry, though “A Grunt” is freestyle. Likewise, while he was a prolific writer (he died in 2006) many of his poems seem rather amateurish when compared to poets like Wilfred Owen or Brian Turner. However, after discovering his literary efforts online I took to his poetic fare based on his sincerity, humanity, and accuracy regarding his personal experience as a Vietnam veteran.

Alexander’s poem “A Grunt” became an instant time-machine for me. He spent his time in the jungle several years before me, but his recollections are timeless for not only those of us who had to inhabit similar terrain in the same era, but for every soldier who engaged a common enemy on foreign soil.

It is bad enough to be sent to fight in a war you never started, in a country you cannot easily pinpoint on a map, in a culture where you cannot tell friend from foe, and with an objective to kill an enemy you rarely see; but then you find out the environment can kill you just as easily as the NVA… and worse, you discover your own Government has authorized the use of chemical agents that will kill friend and foe alike, for decades to come.

Alexander sets us in the environment immediately, as seen in the first stanza:

Trudging along in the muddy jungle floor

A foul smell of rotten vegetation and musty slime

Leaches, bugs, mosquitoes, snakes, and worse

Midnight dark at noon

Not exactly a joyous walk in the park. And where many readers might conclude the fourth line refers only to inclement weather – which does occur quite often there – those of us with jungle experience realize Alexander is equally referring to the canopy; confirmed with the first line of the second stanza: “Water dripping from the canopy above.” The jungle has single, double, and triple-canopy: referring to the growth level of the trees. Single-canopy lets in the most light, double-canopy the mid-range, and triple-canopy hardly any light at all at certain times.

The thick jungle makes it difficult to traverse. You cannot maintain a straight line and there are very few, if any, reference points to focus on: especially at night. And Alexander touches on this in the second stanza: “Only a compass and direction on which to lean.” And he reminds the reader that the soldier is not alone. Even when the enemy cannot be seen their presence is always felt. After all, the enemy is far more adept in this land; they have been fighting here for untold generations.

 

Every noise was a haunting and startling cannon roar

For within the jungle darkness no one is safe

Slowly moving with the agile cunning of a great cat

The NVA would surely like to catch us here

And Alexander shows us that the unit tries to think of everything that will save them:

 

No radio, for fear of being heard

No cigarettes, no stopping for food or water

No time to rest if we wanted to live

Confidently we moved remembering the training we had

 

The days, weeks, and months of repetitive training instill the proper thoughts, muscle memory, and habits, which Alexander shows as well:

 

Inch-by-inch, foot-by-foot, yard-by-yard

One foot after the other, one brother following another

Point man was dangerous and was changed often

Every man depending on the others to get them through

And the author continues to relate what only experience teaches. He spotlights how clearings are equally as dangerous as the thick canopy, for different reasons.

The reader is then introduced to another clearing that surprises the unit: war is full of surprises. Alexander was in ‘Nam in the late sixties, and, like most troops, found out about defoliation when they happened upon it during a mission.

 

This is 1967 and these areas are becoming more and more common

A strange smell is on everything we touch

A bittersweet smell of some type (of) oil

Another mystery of Vietnam

 

But a search of the strange area finds no enemy and allows them a short rest. Food, smokes, and a quick communication to base camp alleviates some of the stress and feelings of alienation… but it doesn’t last:

 

So goes the day until there is the roar of a grenade

Then nothing but fire from hell

The enemy has found us but we are as prepared as we could have been

We return fire immediately, I’m so proud of my men

The battle rages with artillery being called in until it is decided to evacuate by helicopter. It is not mentioned in the poem, but veterans of that war know evacuations were predominantly authorized in situations where the unit is greatly outnumbered; otherwise HQ would rather the unit kept tallying up more KIA numbers of NVA.

Alexander closes out the poem by pointing out a few realities faced by the grunts. First, right after the evacuation they had to go back in on another mission. Second, there is no romantic version of a real soldier’s life (unlike many media accounts). And finally, he confirms to the reader that they would eventually learn about Agent Orange – much too late for many.

I agree that Alexander’s poems do not exhibit the literary merit of a Walt Whitman or Wilfred Owen. However, the average veteran or common man of today will understand and relate to Alexander’s poems much easier than literary royalty. It is comparable to the law being espoused in Harvard legalese or in laymen’s terms.

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14 thoughts on ““A Grunt” : poetic review

  1. Mary Cathleen Clark March 3, 2016 / 2:08 am

    I can understand a poem’s meaning more easily if it employs straightforward language instead of resorting to over-flowery words and vague metaphors. I think more people would read poetry if they could understand it, and I would imagine a lot of college graduates have trouble processing some of the stuff out there.
    I enjoyed the post and the poem you shared, JW.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jwtatfbc March 3, 2016 / 4:15 am

      Thank you, Cathy. I love to dig into creative pieces (or people) and find out why they chose to do things a certain way. I guess that’s why I took psychology in college.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mary Cathleen Clark March 3, 2016 / 4:37 am

        Ah, you like to know what makes people tick. Do I need to wear a tinfoil hat around you? 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      • jwtatfbc March 3, 2016 / 4:43 am

        It might make for a good humor post on the blog, ha ha

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mary Cathleen Clark March 3, 2016 / 4:53 am

        I wrote a short story a while back about a ten-year-old girl with severe schizophrenia–psychological horror. It was inspired in part by an article I had read about a man who wore tinfoil on his head so Martians couldn’t read his thoughts. It popped into my head when you commented on my comment.

        Liked by 1 person

      • jwtatfbc March 3, 2016 / 4:59 am

        They’ve been using that character trait ever since the 1950s when they came out with a lot of those corny space flicks. But sometimes it can still be utilized in a unique way that brings a laugh, or add something new to a different character. I hope the rest of the outfit isn’t tinfoil as well. ha ha

        Liked by 1 person

      • jwtatfbc March 3, 2016 / 5:07 am

        We’ve had enough conversations for you to know the answer to that, my friend.

        Liked by 1 person

      • jwtatfbc March 3, 2016 / 5:14 am

        I’m glad. A woman’s joy brightens the world.

        Like

      • Mary Cathleen Clark March 3, 2016 / 5:23 am

        Aw, thank you, JW. 🙂
        I’m off to bed. I woke up way too early this morning and couldn’t fall back asleep. It’s been a loooong day.
        Goodnight, sleep tight, sweet dreams.

        Liked by 1 person

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