A Poem For Veteran’s Day & How The Poem Came To Be

11 Nov

these brothers they broadside published in ARTLIFE 1999

These Brothers They
by Gwendolyn Alley

Let me tell you
what I know about the Vietnam War.
I know nothing
I didn’t understand the headlines
I couldn’t look at the pictures
My parents sold the TV.

Let me tell you what
I know about the Vietnam War.
I know nothing
it seemed dramatic, romantic, exciting
dancing girls, long hair, flowing skirts
angry faced raggedy protesters
yelling and waving signs
I flashed peace signs at strangers
my father called me passé
I didn’t understand why they burned that bank
or why my father’s face grew dark.

Let me tell you what I
know about the Vietnam war.
I know nothing
the boys that came back
wiry, tattooed, eyes flashing wild
addicts all clinging to Jesus
these boys they
took my seven year old hand they
held it held it held it
I didn’t understand what
I saw in eyes that burned into mine
I didn’t know what to say about their nightmares
but when they gave me their dreams
I wanted him to sail around the world
and him to travel to Africa
send me postcards
come back for me
build me a house
grow a garden
I would stay sweet and honest
I would keep listening
these boys these brothers they
worshipped my mother, my father
these boys these brothers they
stayed with us they
hugged and played with
my younger sister, my brother, they
gathered near, too near
as if by touching us they
could touch Peace.

Let me tell you what I know
about the Vietnam war.
I know nothing
these young men their eyes
winning one battle only to lose
this other these boys I knew
who came back they these brothers they
didn’t really come back
these boys these brother they
died here disappeared here they
took a part of me with them.

Let me tell you what I know about
the Vietnam war.
I know nothing
I was born in 1962
I have lived twice as long as
these boys, these brothers
I lived for 10 more years but
they didn’t come back
I lived for twenty more years and
they haven’t come back and
I have lived for 30 more years and
when I see one on the street
Levi’s hung low over boy hips
white t-shirt pulling tight over
worked muscles: could it be he?
If he had survived
the demons, the addictions he
would be 50 he
would have sons he
would have grandsons and
his children his
grandchildren he
would take a hand in his
and hold it hold it hold it.

–c. Gwendolyn Alley

In the US, we celebrate Veteran’s Day today. Few of us do more than take advantage of a day or two off, but we have a day off to remember those who have given their lives to service for this country.

For me, remembering those who have gone to war and remembering their sacrifices reminds me of the importance of the work for peace.

A little background to this poem: in the late 1960s and early 1970s my mom worked with Viet Nam war vets and other addicts in the Port Hueneme area near Point Mugu Base. Because of the Port and the Base, drugs were very easy to find. For many years, I wanted to write about the war and the vets I knew, and the sorrow I felt. I’d been doing a lot of writing practice, and one day at a stop light an idea for this poem came to me, so I wrote it down. When the light turned green, I pulled over and wrote as much as I could as fast as I could. I revised it later that night and in the coming days.

At the time, I was in a writing group with two other faculty members, so when I was ready, I brought it them. They had a few suggestions which I considered and soon after, I published the poem in ArtLife Limited Editions as the broadside you see above. (I made extra copies; if you are interested in buying one, let me know.)

Later I was taking a workshop at the Taos Poetry Circus with World Heavy Weight Champion Ntozake Shange (author of for colored girls which was recently released as a movie). I wanted to get some feedback on the poem to find out how else I might revise it to make it better. We were sitting outside around a table under a pine tree as I read it aloud to the small gathering of women poets including Los Angeles poet Pat Payne who went on to win the Heavy Weight Championship.

They were quiet when I finished. Tears sparkled around their eyes in the Taos morning sun. I waited for their responses.

“Read it again,” said Ntozake. I did.

Instead of constructive criticism, Ntozake and the group discussed how and why they appreciated it the way it was, how it elicited their emotions in an authentic way.

I hope it is meaningful for you as well. I would love to read your comments!

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Gwendolyn Alley = Art Predator

2 Responses to “A Poem For Veteran’s Day & How The Poem Came To Be”

  1. Jay Windsor November 12, 2010 at 1:52 pm #

    Heartfelt. Powerful. Evocative. LOVE the poem. (And the back story, too.) Thanks for sharing this, Gwen.


  1. Poetry For Veteran’s Day & How The Poem Came To Be (via The Write Alley) « whisper down the write alley - November 11, 2010

    [...] Let me tell you what I know about the Vietnam War. I know nothing except … Read More [...]

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