SHALLOW GRAVES: Two Women and Vietnam by Wendy Wilder and Tran Thi Nga Larsen

SHALLOW GRAVES: Two Women and Vietnam

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A free-verse journal of the Vietnam war, written by the wife of an American reporter and an educated Vietnamese woman who fled the fall of Saigon and now lives in Connecticut. The form is taken from the Vietnamese truyen, a verse novel from an oral tradition. Here it functions to tell both women's stories in a series of simple, affection notes and observations, though their two voices contrast sharply. Larsen's poems are generally ironic, more about the failure to communicate than about moments of clarity. She observes the ignorant boasts of a G.I., her own misapprehensions of language and custom, the strange detachment of a journalist, the absurdities of war. In pithy, often humorous lines, she details the twisted effects of the American presence. Nga's story takes up the larger part of the book. Her poems are less complex, in a mood that is more often simply narrative than contemplative or critical. The cycle of her poems has much more the feel of folk literature. When she employs a metaphor--like the ""shallow graves"" of the title--it is generally derived from cultural or religious traditions. Nga recounts the entire story of her life (Larsen, only her experience in Viet Nam), including her childhood, marriages, various moves and education. Her account of the fall of Saigon and the refugee camps in Guam and Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, is particularly acute in communicating her very private sense of cultural loss. These pieces often confound modern notions of what a poem should be--they are so simple, factual, without device--but putting these expectations aside, the verses prove a compelling form, a literary nco-primitivism. They are clear, essential, striking.

Pub Date: April 23rd, 1986
Publisher: Random House