It was really not the time to be thinking of Charles Bukowski.
I stood staring at a display of UXO casings at a Phonsavan tour company. I was thinking of the documentary I’d seen the night before (see previous post), which followed a group of impoverished Lao children as they harvested UXOs for scrap metal.
Something panged in me, and I thought of the poem.
It was the same something I’d felt at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. I stood before pictures of children born with mutations from Agent Orange—small and crippled and bubble-skinned—children who’d been born after the war, hadn’t lived through the war, but who had it in them, possessed it in their DNA. If the images hadn’t been so brutal, I’d thought, they’d have been a metaphor for the intergenerational transmission of trauma.
I’d been surprised in Vietnam, to discover how much of the war I’d carried in me, without knowing it. I hadn’t realized how much a part of American culture the Vietnam War is—in our books, our films, our movies and our freeway exits, cardboard signs and thousand-yard stares. I’d remembered, suddenly, visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC as a teenager—muggy-skied and sweating, watching the grown-ups trace hands along the reflective stone, place flowers and cry—not understanding it. I’d turned; my mom had been one of them, the name of her cousin under her fingers.
And I’d suddenly remembered the poem.
It’s more muddled in Cambodia and Laos, places were the American activity was “secret”—it’s less a part of your consciousness, more a part of something else that you can’t quite name.
“People from my province,” the Cambodian boy looked sheepish as he told me, “they still hate Americans. For the bombings.”
I nodded one, two, three times. “And you know what? America bombed Cambodia in secret. And most Americans still don’t know about those bombings.”
We sat beside each other waiting for our numbers to be called at the cell phone shop. Neither of us had been alive during the 70s.
I’d wondered, as I looked at bomb ponds beside pre-Angkorian temples in Cambodia, how one goes about being American in all this. “‘I wasn’t born yet,'” I wrote, “doesn’t seem good enough.”
And looking at the pile of UXOs in Phonsavan, I had the same thought rise. Because the kids out there harvesting these bombs, they weren’t born yet either. Neither of us asked for this, did this, witnessed this, lived through this. We were born into this, are left to figure out what to do with this, dig through the dirt of this.
And that’s when I thought of the poem again.
I’ve been composing some kind of essay in the back of my head about all this. I don’t know exactly what I have to say about it yet, or if there is anything to say about it. But in the meantime, I’m thinking of a poem that seems fitting. And, in the light of the recent string of natural and political disasters, doesn’t seem so dramatic or fanciful as it once did. It doesn’t feel so hopeless either—it just feels accurate.