2 poems — Richard Olson

A Place Called Hope

My grandmother wrote me
in a letter once when I was in Viet-
nam, out in the Plain of Reeds
how she’d been
looking for a map of Viet-
nam.
But all that she could find,
she said,
was one of Ameri-
ca, she kept in a kitchen drawer,
“and even that
was all but torn in two.”

I wanted to write her back,
that wasn’t a map she found,
that that was my heart,
and the way I felt about the war my-
self.
Torn between war and peace,
torn between doubt and belief,
and torn between love of my country
and hate for the war we were in.

I remember writing to her
and asking about the map.
“Grandma, let me know,
I’m trying to remember…
it seems to me that once,
maybe it was quite awhile ago,
but anyway, I seem to remember
that there was once a place
called Hope, somewhere in Ameri-
ca.
I need to know if it’s still there.
Please, please write me soon,
it’s something I need to know.”

***

For A Fellow Poet I May Have Wasted In Vietnam

We found your body early the next morning
laying in its little pool of blood.
Your fellow soldiers left you there. Why not?
They couldn’t go any further with you now,
and you had no more need to go with them.
I liked the way the light broke through the jungle
to shine on you. as if to say: this is what war does
but do not worry, you’re in the light with us.

You hold your little notebook in your hand
as if your final thoughts are, here, take this-
you’ve taken away my life, now take my poems.
You must not let them die. Nor would I.
I took your book, complete with the author’s blood
smeared on several pages. Of course you knew
the greatest poets always write with blood.
-You’re never really a poet I sometimes think
until you bleed for someone or for something
that you love or hate. But you outdid them all
they couldn’t have meant shed every drop of blood
you have, dip your hand in it, then stamp the cover
of your book with it as if to say: you may not read
the language that I write in, so take my handprint
as my metaphor, my final word and testament on war,
written in blood, and though it’s of my hand
my blood is on your hands now as well.

You must have been a man who chose his words
with thought and care, I feel it in your presence.
I’m sorry to say I’ve never learned your language
but the cover of your books speaks volumes to me.
That bloody handprint that says, we must stop war,
stop killing one another before it stops us all.

It is little enough the living say of war or peace
that makes much sense, and the dead say even less,
but they say it with such silent eloquence
as the bloody hand reaches out to touch us all.

***

Richard Olson was a combat medic in Vietnam. He wrote many poems while there, then nothing again until 20 years later, when the Gulf War started.