Obscenities

by Michael Casey, Yale University Press, $1.75

EVEN THE MOVIES say "War is hell". What the movies rarely tell us is that war is ugly. Surely, we all understand, at least abstractly, the ethical ambivalence involved in ending life for the sake of the living. Still, for generations of Americans raised on hazy memories of "righteous" wars from the War of Independence down to World War II, these incidentals are trivial stacked against the glory of our supposed war-time causes. Suffering merely humbles the victor, makes his triumph more noble, more admirable. It entitles him to his booty. Political and social questions aside, this points up what troubles Americans most about our entanglement in Indochina; we are losing, and no matter how it is presented, the Vietnam war seems anti-moral and anti-aesthetic.

Herein also lies the difficulty in capturing the texture of the Vietnam fiasco in poetry. A poetry of praise is inconceivable. A poetry of moral indignation would be selfrighteous and deal too gloriously with its inglorious subject. An ideological poetry would obscure the human essence of all that is poetic.

Michael Casey, the winner of the 1972 Yale Younger Poets Award, is perhaps the first American poet to deal successfully with the Vietnam War; he is the first to capture with candor, humor, freshness of insight, a careful eye for detail, and an exceptionally attentive ear for language the thoroughly human fabric of a war from which most of us are physically and, too often, emotionally far removed. A former base guard and highway patrolman in Vietnam, Casey witnessed little of the action from which heroic yarns are spun. Rather, he saw in combat and heard expressed the neuroses of belligerent officers, the fears and daily preoccupations of draftees and enlisted men, and the perpetual, decidedly, mundane struggle of Vietnamese peasants and their children to live and to grow amidst the never-ending holocaust. The very title of his book Obscenities underscores the accuracy of his perspective; however cruel or blackly comic the words or actions he records, we are constantly aware of their idiosyncratic relationship to the human spirit.

Besides the general virtues of his attitude as a poet. Casey exhibits three distinctive assets throughout his work: an abundance of impression mixed with a frugality of expression, an uncanny ability to recreate atmosphere through the faithful reproduction of speech, and a willingness to avoid taking himself in his role as an observer too seriously. The last is particularly important because Casey's writing comes closer to reportage than to philosophy. His tone is only occasionally reflective, and he is careful not to aggrandize his subject by allowing his own role to loom too large.

"KNOWLEDGE" is a good example of how, with a brief but pointedly accurate portrayal of soldiers' language, Casey transmits the fears and pretensions of which much of military life is made:

When the Command Sergeant Major

Asks ya somethin

Don't get nervous or scairt

Don't get flustrated...

The same insight stands out in "Sierra Tango" ("s" and "t" in the phonetic radio alphabet) in its juxtaposition of official and informal tones:

Such reprehensible conduct

Merited subject ride

To Provost Marshal's Office

Where subject was cited

And released to unit

On department of defense

Form six-two-niner

Subject's vehicle was secured

At scene by Mike Papas

Did they ever whip

His sorry ass...

Other peculiarities of military speech and tone abound: an officer's continual mispronunciation of a soldier's name, the false bravado and condescension of childish officers and men, and hyperbole filled with paradoxical accuracy:

Sergeant Rock was in the army

Since the day he was born

He was in the war of the babies.

Casey at no time tells the reader what to think, but the obvious honesty of his account and its deceptive simplicity make his points more deftly and forcefully than if he had:

If you see a little bald-headed kid

Don't do that

Don't go pattin him on the head

This kid's Buddhist

And it's against his religion

You do that

An to them

To these people here

You've fucked with the kid's head

An no one can

Convince that kid's mama

You didn do it on purpose.

In an enthusiastic and perceptive introduction to the book, Stanley Kunitz properly recommends that the poems be read through all in a single sitting. The growth of Casey's insights, one upon the other, the recurring juxtaposition of human comedy and absurdist tragedy, and the escalating force of Casey's convincing verse can best be appreciated when he work is taken in as a whole. Amidst what would seem to be his verbatim transcription of his portion of the war, the poet's moments of reflection are neither disruptive nor pompous, but as frugal, honest and ironic as his descriptive poetry. Somewhat misleadingly, it is his most philosophically-inclined poem "A Bummer" which appears on the front of the book; it concludes with a rare instance of generalization:

If you have a farm in Vietnam

And a house in hell

Sell the farm

And go home.

Those skeptical of Casey's craft might argue that his reliance of dialect is a mere trick, that anyone with his eyes and ears open for a few years in Vietnam could capture and same idiosyncrasies and recount the same stories, that one work is not enough to establish Casey as a poet to be reckoned with. I would disagree. If his obsession with speech patterns smacked of phoniness, the impact of his work would fade quickly. But his achievement seems more impressive upon each rereading of his book. In fact, the skill in constructing poems to intense despite their apparent simplicity belies the feeling that he has done something within any observer's grasp. By producing a compassionate work whose success in conveying the day-to-day feel of the Vietnam experience is so unique, Casey has indeed earned a place as a poet to be watched.