Because my father was a career Marine, I grew up on military bases in Southern California, where during the war years between 1967 until sometime in 1970, I watched troops of new recruits assemble for embarkation to Vietnam. They were mustered at the LTA (‘Lighter-Than-Air’) Station in Tustin, CA, on which were two immense hangers full of helicopters—except on those occasions when the new troops were to be shipped out. At that particular time the helicopters were moved outside onto the landing strips, allowing room to bivouac the soldiers inside the empty hangers, where they were held under armed guard by the Marine Military Police to prevent them from deserting. The base was pretty tense, what with Marines holding guns on other Marines to force them into their overseas duty. Not the image of resolve one expects from our armed forces.
Doug Anderson in his most recent book, Horse Medicine, is fascinated by exactly these complicated loyalties, the sort that the Vietnam conflict elevated into the foreground of military combat. He is less interested these days in the bloody horrors of war per se, than in the ironies that arise when military strategies—such as laying out mines in a contested area—interact with the actual rice paddies and inclement weather within which that strategy tries to exert favorable control. Such are the limits of strategies.
The typhoon spins tin roofs off shacks
and sends them scything.
Where sea meets river mouth,
the swollen mingling
washes away whole villages,
people sucked under in their sleep.
It has been raining for a week.
Leeches spill from flood surge
into the paddies and we burn them off
with cigarettes. Watch them drop and writhe.
The mines we just put down and armed
are shifting in the turbid water
and we fear to step on them ourselves.
Our weapons jam with grit and rust.
The heat falls away, we shiver in our ponchos,
try to light sodden cigarettes.
There a dog stands on a hummock,
cut off from home, where they will eat him.
He shakes and sprays and lives another day.
We wade through rice fertilized with human shit.
The leeches come back and we burn them off again.
There Smithson stands butt naked, killing them,
this thighs streaming with blood.
That night we light sterno tabs and heat coffee.
The rain roars in the leaves.
I would not wish this on my enemy,
out there trying to make a fire to cook his rice.
The rain presents more challenges than the enemy army—both because the infantrymen have been standing in it for a week, which is miserable, and also because the rising water, as it floods the field, shifts the location of the land mines they just armed. No one can be confident where to step. So in the end, the mines threaten both armies—American and Vietcong—about equally. That is a problem. Instead of protecting themselves from harm, the American soldiers have by their own efforts added to the threats against them. Further, rather than concern themselves with enemy movements, the soldiers are (perhaps understandably, but dangerously) distracted by the leeches. Here they are in a battlefield, removing their gear and uniforms so they can burn the parasites off with their cigarettes, despite the compromising situation they would be in if the enemy should happen upon them as they stand there buck naked. Who knows where their weapons are? They probably won’t work in all that water, rust and grit anyway.
Anderson has created a compelling portrait of true misery arising from the deadly combination of mortal danger and abject physical discomfort. The fear is steady. These are the conditions of war, the poet persuades us, which affect all of its participants. The misery of the American serviceman provides an opportunity to recognize the essential circumstances shared by all alike: his enemy is as uncomfortable as he is, and for exactly the same reasons as they try to light their cook fires in the week-long downpour. The profound irony is that the conditions of war work to humanize the soldier’s vision by offering common ground to unify the differences of the opposing armies. The enemy is not demonized, nor reified as a “gook” or other offensive epithet, but like Shylock—who points out that he has affections, organs, and dimension as do his accusing Gentiles—the Vietcong possess a humanity identical to that of the American infantryman. This is not what is taught in boot camp.
We imagined him as wily, reptilian,
squatting in a hole alive with snakes,
or underwater breathing through a reed,
his gelding knife glittering in the green,
leering with the cruelty he’d inflict on us
if he overran our lines. But now,
see this prisoner two-thirds our height,
gray-faced, legs caked with mud,
ribs showing, his rotten teeth
outsize in his shrunk skull. How he
stands there in the rain, dazed, perhaps
looking past the torture to his death
and maybe there, he’ll find some sense to this.
And indeed, here is an essential irony: war can disclose a basis for empathy—which is the ultimate absurdity. As Anderson, from his present vantage, now imagines his service days in Vietnam, he can make the important distinctions. He and his enemies are subject to the universal conditions of war—which means the physical challenges, of course, but the existential ones as well, such as the need to figure out why they are inflicting this immense shitload of death and destruction on each other. Over and over again in this book, Anderson publicizes the fact that the warring animosities, though potentially lethal, are nevertheless topical, and manufactured by self-interested politicos who are not themselves putting their lives at any risk. Not even their discomfort is at risk. The God of War is not a noble hero, but a riotous, disordered, porcine lout.
War comes to visit me once a day.
I can’t get rid of him.
He’s grown old and hates himself.
I stopped a quarter century ago,
but he still drinks—sits in airport bars
and watches the cocky uniforms
line up at the departure gates.
Desert camouflage this time, tan boots.
He orders another double and snickers,
little eyes set close together
in too large a head, like a grizzly’s,
opaque and dead. Flies swarm
around his gore-smeared muzzle.
He stinks of corpse. I let him sleep in the garage.
You see, there’s no way to make him leave.
Go to war just once, he’s always with you.
At breakfast he feels like he’s got
an ice pick in his head, swears off the stuff.
Never again, he says, I’ve found God.
By five he’s back in the blood glow of the bar,
bumming drinks and telling lies.
He’s got an eye for boys and girls
with wallets full of their combat pay.
He’ll Mickey Finn them,
roll them for their souls and go off giggling.
I see Senator Goldmouth weaving
down the bar to slap him on the back:
Let freedom ring! says he,
teeth twinkling from the neon at the bar.
Did I mention that the War God is treacherous, faithless, cunning and deceitful? The work for the poet, therefore, as he returns from battle to re-enter the social world that sponsored the Vietnam War in the first place, is to adjust somehow to the new social subtleties. One of his first, pressing tasks—now that he has abandoned the wartime arena of life and death contrasts—will be to locate in civilian life a similar clarity, a defining role comparable to that of the soldier. Anderson tries on the part of the prophet, returning from the dangerous wilderness with his dangerous judgments and thunderous condemnations (see, for instance, What the Angel Said and Salvation), but he is drawn away from that alienation into a fully participatory life. Anderson does not chronicle his reasons for the migration, but he does offer the tonic that revived him
ONE WOMAN ON A TALL HORSE, THE OTHER ON THE GROUND
That horse’s ears straight up reading what I might think was silence
just beneath this heartbreaker soft breeze and the high clouds flying.
And now he’s reading his mistress’s conversation with the woman
on the ground, longing for that giddyap home
that forms an image in the great globe eye of the sweet green grass
in the center pen just waiting to be grazed long into the day
but now those ears pop back up to catch the Alsatian pup
bounding out of the water in a spray of diamonds
with a stick as long as herself, and then the breeze again
moving the backlit yellow leaves the Swift River
where it comes together with the Ware
and the weaving of the waters is like a strong brown arm
torquing in the earth and opening its hand palm up to the sun.
And now the women are talking about someone who died too young,
his heart ground down and stopped by the drug
and the horse’s ears are up, but open now and the grief
like warm water and the horse’s heartbeat slow,
slower than ours, whispering Listen, if you could hear what I hear,
the sorrow and the cleansing and the water whirling deep down.
Despite the initial suggestions of the title, the poem is actually about the horse, not the women. And this poem is itself one of several (including the poem from which the book takes its title) about horses, which in Anderson’s vision are representations of power, for sure, but power that directs consciousness away from political intrigues and corrupt wars, and toward a vision centered instead on synthesis. Truths tunnel away from the relativism of self-interest and the dedication to self-preservation.
But they also move away from ready articulation: horses, unlike prophets, do not say much; they embody a vast, if mute, vitality. Anderson is all about draft horses here, not ponies but Percherons with “teeth the size of piano keys, and tongues like sides of beef.” This isn’t the usual imagery, no transcendent, Pegasus-like power to uplift the pedestrian writer into the verities of a higher mind—which is a good thing. It is hard these post-Vietnam days to exalt the brute life of animals: respect it, certainly, but don’t overdo the celebration, don’t keep insisting on the romance. Anderson is interested just enough in the conceit of horses to introduce domesticating values into his poetic life: the harmonious rhythms of bodily animation, the bloom of strength, the extension and release of physical effort, the biological joys of the senses.
The irony for the poet is that, once he is centered within his animal gaieties, his fervor is now prompting a seventy-year-old body, which imposes natural limitations to his exercise. His book concludes with a lovely series of poems arising out of his heartfelt awareness of limitation. He can ask in What Now “what to do with love/when we are no longer beautiful,/when life does not want us to fan/our feathers in the sun?” His best answer is to be found here:
Take any trivial thing and watch it with your heart’s eye.
A plastic bunny full of jelly beans, a chocolate egg,
or some creature crawling tremble-legged into the world
from its cocoon. See the way the rain comes up slowly
drop by drop as if checking if the place is safe,
then brings all its friends. Look at your lover after
the glow’s worn off and see her as another world
just beginning: this is how it is as often as we rescue
from the mind’s long staked out country the fine
strangeness, and kiss it into being: be comforted and fulfilled.
The title is imperative and commanding—practice this, he insists, meaning repeat the following exercises until you get them right. The effort is critical, the poet states, to scrape the habitual dullness from the daily world, and thereby behold its wonders and its abidingly strange powers to entice desire.
Horse Medicine represents Anderson’s latest efforts at exactly this practice.