Kevin Bowen

Kevin Bowen served in the Vietnam war during 1968-69. He is currently Co-Director of the William Joiner Center for the study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. A collection of his poems, PLAYING BASKETBALL WITH THE VIET CONG, was published by Curbstone Press in 1994


They carried him slowly
down the hill.
One hand hung,
grey and freckled.
No one spoke but
stared straight up.
His body, heavy,
rolled back and forth
on the litter.
At LZ Sharon cooks spooned
the last hot food.
One by one the squad
walked back up hill.
"Don't mean nothing,"
someone said.
But all that winter
and into spring
I swear he followed us,
his soul, a surplice
trailing the jungle floor.


We walked straight into the forest of the dying,
night fires still burning on the hills.
Each man carried another on his back.
A woman with one leg balanced a child on her lap.
One man asked for radios. No one apologized.
We felt the hum of the blades from the lumber yard
calling us back. Someone passed a cup filled with fireworks.
We lit them in our mouths. We sang forbidden songs.


When we moved south
we found comfort
nights at base in new dug bunkers,
the womb hum of generators,
artillery thud and mortars
marking time. And whiskey,

always whiskey and hot music
you had sent from home--
Louisiana blues.
In the cool night, we smoked opium,
danced in bare dark soles
in the red clay dust,
making promises for home.

But here it begins to fade.
I don't remember you leaving us
or hearing they'd saved you
after all that shrapnel
lifted you from the ground.

Still, as I sit here sipping whiskey
late at night
I see you dance
in trails of smoke above my head.


He was just another soldier, when he crawled back into the bunker.
lonely in a bunker.
When a friend offered love Men tunnel through the earth
he took it, all around us, looking for love.
and gave it back again.
No one sleeps anymore.
His one mistake, to tell the sergeant;
his face a raw-boned sea
after that, the small red fish
we watched swim by
in the oceans of his eyes.

And then the chaplain,
who heard his confession,
but not the snap of the clip


for Crisp


In dreams you've returned before.
Last night, smoking
cigarette after cigarette,
pacing across the room,
shop light blinking
up and down the Saigon River,
I saw you again
and all the others.
What mouth could speak
that last moment of fear?


Highway 13.
The dust penetrates, ages us
inch by inch as it rises
along the road.
In tropic heat, whirlwinds--
taunting brown ghosts--
rise up from the ground,
at every bend
and are gone.

We drive straight into the landscape--
a flat panhandle,
unpeopled, and spare.
A sole shape beckons,
the Black Virgin Mountain:
Nui Ba den,
the widow who waits her soldier's return.


Standing below the mountain,
I see you here again
after twenty years.
Red hair gleaming in the sun,
faded brown fatigues
stuffed with letters to Miriam
back in Georgia.

What green thoughts
rise in your mind;
what grace is found
in so much loss?


Jungle trails
still lead back
up the mountain,
past streams and caves
where children hide.

One last time
I kiss the red dirt
that holds you,
suck in again
your last breath,
return it to the wind
that blows down
Nui Ba Den, home
at last.



Outside the gate
the old woman
walks up the hill
from the temple.
Her pace
deliberate as a procession.
From the corner of an eye
she stares.
She must wish our deaths.
Beneath the white silk band
breasts ache for a husband.
She passes in mourning,
counting each step.
Her prayers rain down like rockets.


We had no place to put them
so we piled them, boots
pointed to the sky,
by the mess tent.

All day they kept coming.
I saw one man run from a swirl of dust,
and sit beside them, and his look
when he realized where he was.

By afternoon, the sick and lame
who'd missed the ships
came to gaze in disbelief.
Bodies so close together lies came easy.
They'd wake up when the war was over.
This was it for them.

Dusk, the last ones came from the Angel Plain;
the grass had caught on fire.
Their bodies black and crisp curled in the purple light.
Dawn, we flew them out in bags,
mopped up the mess for chow.