|BROADSTONE BOOKS announces
|Publication Date: February 1, 2021
Paperback, 72 pages
Booksellers: Available from
Small Press Distribution
$18.95 retail, or
when you order directly from
Broadstone Books, below
R. L. Barth is the author of
No Turning Back: The Battle of
Dien Bien Phu and the editor of
The Selected Letters of Yvor
Winters, among other books.
He lives in Edgewood, Kentucky,
with his wife, Susan.
The Vietnam War happened a long time ago in a place far away. For an entire
generation, those known as Boomers, it was one of the most defining events of the age,
certainly for all those who fought in it, but also for those who protested against it, and
for those who watched it nightly on their TV screens, the first time war was witnessed
by the general public in real time, with body counts served alongside the evening meal.
It has been the subject of countless books, movies, and documentaries.
Why, then, should we read about it now? The poet R. L. Barth, who as a young
Marine experienced the war first-hand, responds,
Because it’s truth. Because it’s history.
History often is the most inconvenient of truths, forcing us to acknowledge what we
would prefer to forget, or to remember a different way. And history, we are told, is
written by the victors. But the greatest truth of war is that it can never be understood
unless it is told by its victims.
In Barth’s poems, victims are given voice. Those who fought, those who died, those
who returned wounded and shattered in body and mind, not to parades as heroes, but
to a country that too often victimized them a second time, and would not acknowledge
their service until many years later.
His poems are often short, bursting with the power of ordnance, like that recounted in
“One Way to Carry the Dead,” which reads in its entirety:
A huge shell thundered; he was vaporized
And, close friends breathing near, internalized.
They convey, with elegant efficiency, the horrors and absurdities of war.
And this is most important reason that we need these poems. Barth opens with a
quote from George Gascoigne, “That Warre seems sweete to such as raunge it not.”
As long as war “seems sweete,” we will forget, and thus repeat, the horror. Thus, as
Pound had it, this is “news that stays news,” a lesson to be endlessly repeated until, at
last, it may be learned. Until then, we are left with a black slab of memory, “Up
Against the Wall”:
These dead troops gave their country fame,
Which country travestied their story.
Now, only kin recall each name;
Only the dead recall their glory.
Praise for Learning War & R. L. Barth
For four decades, I have been reading R. L. Barth’s poems, which bear up, in their
admirable craft and deep feelings, as few other poems of our time do. Though Barth
favors short poetic forms, particularly the epigram (of which he is a master), his work
about the Vietnam War has a Homeric comprehensiveness. He renders vividly the
excitement and horror of combat and depicts, with tragic sympathy, the terrifying
vulnerability and suffering of civilians swept up in the conflict. At the same time, he
has a sharp eye for the absurd and sometimes comic aspects of soldiering, and he can
be acidly amusing about the vanity fair of those who profited from the war—the top
brass, the politicians, the pro-war and anti-war celebrities. We are fortunate to have
his Vietnam poems—formerly scattered among smaller collections and chapbooks—
gathered into this single and substantial book.
These poems of our lost war in Vietnam cut to the bone. In the tradition of the poetry
of war beginning with Archilochus and Homer’s Iliad, these terse lyrics call war as
they see it without an ounce of glorification or patriotic bravado. As deft and accurate
as targets seen through a sniper’s lens, they speak with the blunt and lasting authority
of hollow-point bullets. Many communicate in tight rhymes, some as heroic couplets
that are stark, biting, and truthful—anything but heroic. R.L. Barth’s powerful
indictment of war culminates with lines that encapsulate his experience as a
combatant: “Why not adjust? Forget this? Let it be? / Because it’s truth. Because it’s
Barth’s earlier books, Deeply Dug In, A Soldier’s Time, Simonides in Vietnam, and
Forced Marching to the Styx, dealt with his own experience as a Marine in Vietnam
during the American part of the war, after the French defeat. His collections contain
some of the finest poems ever written in English on the direct experience of modern
—Helen Pinkerton Trimpi, reviewing Barth’s
No Turning Back: The Battle of Dien Bien Phu
R. L. Barth
Author photograph by Vanessa Barth