December 29, 2002
Writing of War, Pointing toward Peace

This is a surreal moment in time. Every day the news is of strangely public preparations for war, even thoughts on timing an attack to avoid Iraq's torrid spring and summer months. Kevin Bowen, the director of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, has seen war and its consequences. After serving in the First Air Cavalry in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969, it is not something he wants to see again.

"What grace is found/ in so much loss?" asks a poem in Bowen's book, Playing Basketball with the Viet Cong .

Bowen is the author of prose, translation, and three books of poetry, the winner of a Pushcart Prize and awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council for both poetry and fiction. His upbringing in Boston's West End was strongly grounded in Catholicism and communal responsibility--a responsibility to be, as he quotes the French writer Simone Weil, "on the side of lightness." Now, sitting in his UMass Boston office, Bowen is surrounded by reminders of war. The Dorchester Vietnam Memorial is close by, the JFK Library down the road. Even the nearby gas tank with its bright Corita Kent stripes recalls the Vietnam era. On the book-crammed shelves that sag dangerously on the wall behind him, a spine directly above Bowen's head reads, The Lessons of the Vietnam War .

"Everywhere I look there's some sort of marker from the war," he says. It was an experience that left him sharply aware of the vulnerability of the body and of the spirit. "I saw what war does to the spirit. You see great moments, but you also see how war demeans human beings as well. They say you see the world when you join the military and you do really see the world." Bowen pauses and adds softly, "When I left Vietnam, it looked like the moon."

What Bowen saw makes him now want to grab us all by our collars and hold us so we cannot look away from the unfolding scenario. In a recent article in Intervention Magazine , Bowen wrote,"Mornings now, like many, I wake to the sound of cars turning over and think of other engines turning over somewhere far away. I fear that, thanks to the poverty of our politics and our imaginations, it is Death who sits behind the wheel and that he is hungry for a fresh harvest."

At a time when, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "things are in the saddle/ and ride mankind," Bowen believes strongly in the poet's responsibility to call out to the world and make people see in new ways.

"The role of the poem is to breathe life into things. It's life affirming in a situation that's death-affirming. There is a sense that beyond the politics, the tools, the toys of war, death is what's being chosen. Writing poetry is a way of fighting that off. You write alone, and the poem is what you send out there that you hope connects you to the world. It's important to speak out. It's an affirmation of humanness and it allows you to sustain yourself personally during this time."

One of his recent poems, Once More Again, reads in part, "Once more again the body counts on the news,/ the hungry armies moving across the desert.//I hear a plane drone overhead and think of fuel/ seeping down air shafts,/ the loneliness of death anywhere."

"There are no answers for questions never asked," Bowen wrote in the Intervention article. He notes that it is the poet's job to ask, and that that, too, is a patriotic act. As poem written by the Vietnamese poet Nguyen Duy and translated by Bowen and Nguyen Ba Chung, says, "In the end, in every war/ whoever won, the people always lost."

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