Laren McClung is a poet from Philadelphia. Her poetry has appeared in War, Literature and the Arts and other serious journals. In Between Here and Monkey Mountain: Poems (Sheep Meadow Press, 64 pp., $14.95, paper) she thanks the William Joiner Center and the poets Yusef Komunyakaa, Vinh Long, and Bruce Weigl, among others.
McClung also thanks her family “for their conversations, which made many of these poems possible.” These thank yous are clues to her connections to the Vietnam War.
This poetry book has a creepy-beautiful cover from a famous painting that has nothing to do with the Vietnam War, but is suitably grotesque. The back cover has a long cryptic blurb from the great poet Bruce Weigl, who has written a Vietnam War poem or two.
The title contains the clue that made me hope and suspect that this book was a book of Vietnam War poems, even though the back cover showed McClung to be a very beautiful young woman for whom the Vietnam War is likely an event that concluded long before her birth. That is surmise. I also surmise that her father is a Vietnam War veteran.
The book has a large number of fine Vietnam War poems, perhaps having their roots in the above-mentioned family conversations or perhaps coming from the same wellsprings of imagination from which Stephen Crane pulled The Red Badge of Courage .
Section three, entitled “Monkey Mountain, ” is all Vietnam War poetry. It consists of thirteen pages of excellent poetry dealing with the tour of duty of a grunt. Friendly fire, bouncing betties, morning ambushes, LZ’s, the red-brown clay of Khe Sanh, the South China Sea, R&R in Bangkok, Pleiku, and Qui Nhon all make appearances.
There is also plenty of the Vietnam War and fine poetry elsewhere in the book. I loved “Lined up on Their Backs” and also “A Fable of Tuy Hoa.” Here is the latter:
Someone was shot in the free zone.
He said maybe a farmer, maybe
carrying a rucksack. As he walked up to check
He saw her wedged under the Viet Cong.
Did she know enough to play possum in the grass?
When he rolled the body from hers
he said he caught sienna of eyes opening.
This one was alive. He carried her
from the field to the firebase, his only
prisoner. She was four, he said.
I wouldn’t have thought that a young woman who had never been anywhere near the Vietnam War could write that poem, but what do I know? Not just anyone can write a truly great Vietnam War poem, but Laren McClung has done it. In fact, she has written several.
“Many of the poems are mysterious, passionate love poems, ” the poet Stanley Moss says on the back cover, “and there are war poems.” That’s an understatement.
Buy this book and read it and add it to that small shelf of Vietnam War poetry books that are worth reading, savoring, and saving.