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
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."
City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If
you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at firstname.lastname@example.org.