A15 Publishing, 60 pages, paperback, $8.99
Though slim and easily read in a single sitting, Jimmy Pappas‘s poetry collection Scream Wounds: How to Kill Your First Man In War is densely packed with nearly 30 narrative poems, each relating heavy-hitting recollections and tales of real-life Vietnam War veterans. Pappas, himself a Vietnam vet (he served in the Air Force as an English-language instructor in Saigon teaching South Vietnamese soldiers) and a member of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 992, has spent decades intently listening to the words of those who served. Here he has given them a voice.
“I have tried to honor the basic truths and capture the individual details that history books often ignore,” states Pappas on the book’s back cover. “I felt I was saving stories that would be forever lost if I did not write them down.”
And to that effect, Scream Wounds is a success. While reading these poems, I couldn’t help but think of the first time I read Raegan Butcher’s poetry collection, Stone Hotel: Poems From Prison . Obviously, thematically, there are major differences between the books; however, the collections are very similar on two points. First, they each contain narrative poems that tell first-hand accounts of lives lived in hellish circumstances (in war and in prison, respectively) foreign to the vast majority of people; second, the poems in each collection are extremely candid and straightforward.
It is thanks to this restrained style that the narratives of each poem carry so much weight. Rather than imparting any perceived authorial slant or bias, each poem simply shouts, “This is how it was in the war/behind bars, and this is how I dealt with it or still deal with it.” There is no room for bullshit here, and in the case of the veterans to whom Pappas gives voice, you have to take them at face value and make your own judgments, because Pappas does not tell you, the reader, how you should feel about them. He does not distinguish between heel and hero, nor does he wax poetic on the underlying morality (or lack thereof) that led the United States to partake in the Vietnam War. Scream Wounds is not an indictment nor a celebration of the Vietnam War; rather, it is a study of war in general and of human nature from the point of view of a sampling of Americans who happened to be in that war.
Futility? Regret? Fear? Pride? Sure, you will find those emotions and others in droves here, not because Jimmy tells you so, but because you can practically hear those feelings dripping from the voices in the poems, some booming, some shaky, some flat and dead. In this book you hear from and learn about otherwise forgotten men whose names are not etched in stone on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, yet still seem to have not been able to fully leave Vietnam.
There is Bobby, a tragic man who once survived on mashed spiders and centipedes in the jungle and returned to America to become morbidly obese, vainly using food to temper severe emotional wounds that never healed. Jim tells how he was accepted into the Army despite having permanent brain damage, sustained during an accident as a child, and how he had to fight new battles in the years since the war just to receive his pension and disability checks. Larry tells his war story in great detail, and interestingly confesses to repeatedly embellishing his roles and actions when discussing Vietnam. Conversely, there is the anonymous narrator of “I Ask a Veteran to Help Me Write a Poem” who refuses to tell any war stories for fear of “pretending to be some sort of hero,” and that it might put “pressure on the next generation of young men who feel the need to be worthy of your respect.”
To me, these two vastly different approaches to discussing (or not discussing) the war are interesting, because though they seem quite different, they are entirely expected and may, perhaps, serve a similar function. Back in 2002, when I took part in an interview with author Tim O’Brien, he discussed the “romanticizing” of Vietnam by some veterans who “look back on it as more heroic, and with nostalgia,” and certainly, many people will encounter veterans of any number of wars (pick a war, any war, this is America, after all) who romanticize or embellish. But you are equally as likely to meet a veteran who buttons his/her lips at any mention of war, or any inquiry, whether pointed or vague. Is it because the subject is too traumatizing? Is it because, as the narrator of the aforementioned poem professes, that discussing experiences in war glamorizes it and “puts pressure on the next generation [of servicemen/women]” regardless of context? Is it because shutting down discussion and being cryptic adds intrigue to the veteran, the brotherhood of veterans, and the wars they fought? And isn’t this, like romanticizing and embellishment, just another form of tantalizing those who haven’t been in war?
I pose this thought because of the futility of the theory of the narrator of “I Ask a Veteran to Help Me Write a Poem” — he is obviously in the right when he explains his feelings on war, his sympathy for gold star parents, the fact that he should not be obligated to relive his tortured past.
But then he states,
“You know, my son went to Iraq.
Now what if he went there because
he wanted to impress his father?
How would I feel if he died there?”
When reading this, my stunned reaction was, “Does it matter why he went there? Didn’t he go there to fight in yet another part of the world the US has no business invading despite your unwillingness to discuss the past? Isn’t this proof that keeping quiet is futile? Wouldn’t his death hit you just as hard whether he was trying to impress you or not? Isn’t death death regardless of context?”
I happen to think there is much truth in the maxim, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The narrator of the poem misses this mark; however, I still appreciate the poem for its honesty, and for the reaction it provoked in me.
In my opinion, Scream Wounds should sit on the shelf alongside such Vietnam classics as Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Funnily enough, a quick glance at the Goodreads page for that book shows Pappas himself stating, “I got the feeling Mr. Herr was just looking for quirky quotes to make soldiers look like fruit loops or, worse, psychotic killers. He totally missed anything about the other sides of their personalities. I have been around enough veterans to know that other side exists. I pictured him rushing off to a pen and paper every time he heard someone say something unusual and ignored any talk about, oh I don’t know, maybe girlfriends?”
In Scream Wounds, Pappas has done just that — maybe there are no poems about “girlfriends” here, but he has exposed the human side and the personalities of a small cast of characters from the Vietnam War. To be fair to Herr, Jimmy has had time on his side; there is an advantage to collecting stories over a period of many years, long after the war’s end, when both the author and the subjects have had time to reflect. Herr cataloged the ugliness of war during the war; he wrote about the crazy shit he saw and heard as it was happening. And there was a huge amount of ugliness to cover. Maybe he focused on that side too much; however, it’s important to acknowledge it. I’m glad he did. I wish I could say that his effort to expose the brutality of war had curtailed America’s thirst for war in the intervening years; it has not.
Pappas’s next effort, Falling Off the Empire State Building, is due out in 2020, and it does not appear to be military- or war-themed. However, I cannot help but feel that his task of bringing to light the forgotten stories of the Vietnam War is yet unfinished. Personally, I would love a second collection of stories or prose poems detailing his and only his recollections of Vietnam, as I am intrigued by both his unique duty as an English teacher in Vietnam and the day-to-day minutia of a young, sympathetic American living abroad in a warzone. And I know this is a long-shot, but as a companion piece to Scream Wounds, I would love to see a second poetry collection that gives voice to South Vietnamese civilians or military, to hear their take.
I realize that this is not too likely, and perhaps unrealistic, but the idea struck me when I read the poem entitled, “The Combat Veteran and the Vietnamese Refugees,” wherein the narrator of the poem relates a story of meeting a family of Vietnamese refugees in an American supermarket, several years after the war’s conclusion. He breaks down and cries when attempting to speak to them, apologizing “for not doing more to help their country.” They offer him comfort and spiritual solace, and it is a nice story, a nice poem. But I can’t help but to want to hear from that family or others like them too. Perhaps someday their stories will be told; perhaps they already have and I’m just not aware of it.
Whether or not you usually read poetry and/or war literature, I highly suggest that you pick up Scream Wounds. It’s a bargain for the cover price, and priceless for the stories that it has saved from being lost to time.