Reviewed by Catherine Faurot
When I was a girl in the ’70s, my friends and I were able to instantly recognize Vietnam vets. There was something different about the way they moved that broadcast their status to us, as if everything was unbearably bright to them. For the life of me I could not say anything concrete about how we knew. But we did. Those men were the living counterparts of the missing whose names we wore on tarnished metal POW-MIA bracelets, and the killed and wounded we heard announced on the news every night. And there were millions of them. Over 8 million GIs were on active duty during the war and over 2.7 million of them served in Vietnam.
Thanks to countless images of the Vietnam War, as well as books and movies, most of us feel at least a passing familiarity with the conflict. In her poetry collection Retrieval, Gail Hosking addresses an arena far less familiar: the home front. What happened to the loved ones of those millions of men? What happened when the war’s intercontinental fractures of grief and violence wrecked families at home? In this tender, anguished book, Hosking brings her family’s story to life in searing flash frames, poems like Polaroids laid out on a table, each one a snapshot of what happened after her father earned a Purple Heart and lost his life.
In “Concert,” Hosking writes, “They die, we go to movies.” This sense of dislocation, of living in two worlds at the same time, runs throughout the book. For Hosking there is the world she lives in and the world inhabited by her father, a ghost life that has taken up much of her imaginative and emotional existence. In “Split Frame,” she writes about dropping her uncle at the train station, when the “scene suddenly split: / to a frame of tiger-striped soldiers . . . Everywhere I look / the world divided, a double feature showing / simultaneously in the same theater.” This sense of a split life also applies to the past bleeding into the present. In “Notes From the Underground,” Hosking compares the experience of growing up in a war family to “a movie that keeps playing . . . a requiem that refuses to end.” In “Crossfire,” the sense of a double life continues, with one scene playing out in a rural landscape moving at the speed of drifting clouds, while a second scene explodes in Vietnam showing “men with rifles raised / crossing a river, grenades, split- / second decisions, a father placed / piece by piece into a plastic bag.” These memories of life and death “entwine like slender snakes” in her life and her poems.
In a reversal of media’s fixation on Vietnam’s impact on soldiers, Hosking writes extensively of the war’s impact on her mother, providing a portrait of the war’s collateral damage on families. “One night at the Enlisted Men’s Club / she takes that first drink and never returns—crazy / as that sounds.” The descriptions of her mother and other women at home on the military base are particularly compelling, offering Technicolor glimpses of women smoking, “their lipstick-stained butts piled into ashtrays,” while boogie-woogie plays in the background, or doing laundry, or watching children alone after their men leave. Hosking’s family becomes another casualty of war, along with her father’s death. In “Geometry Class,” she writes about the “morning my mother left / for good,” leaving her unable to concentrate on the math homework, unable to stop “thinking of my mother driving away / to another state, how I never said goodbye.” With her father dead and her mother gone, her family has unalterably changed. “Do the math: we were no longer / a hexagon, no longer a pentagon, but now / a simple square without solid footing.”
Hosking does write about her father, but his presence is felt more as a fading afterimage, a hole in the film burning incandescently. (She wrote of her journey to understand the father she lost at the age of seventeen in Snake’s Daughter: The Roads In and Out of War, University of Iowa Press, 1997). In Retrieval,he appears only obliquely, seen through the lens of the remaining family members. In “White House,” President Nixon gives the whole family pens while a photographer asks them to smile. In “Personal Effects,” a poem I’m tempted to quote in its entirety, Hosking lists the belongings they received after his death: shirts, tropical worsted trousers, books on soldiering, and finally: “one black body bag.” Also devastating are the “secrets that show up as postcards” and the suggestions of her father’s infidelity in “Madame Thi Speaks,” “Saigon, 1966 . . . Dear Lover . . . I wait for you.”
The double-barreled loss of both parents, one by abandonment and the other by death, fuels the explosively emotional engine of Retrieval. In “Wasson at Mid-afternoon,” after invoking her grandparent’s house and the emptiness of the surrounding landscape, Hosking zeroes in on the personal vacuum left in her parents’ wake. “It was like this: / sometimes you disappear / and not a soul knows.” While describing her sisters playing with Barbie dolls, she writes, “I should have picked up my small head / and glued it back on.” The radiating and destructive impact of war is the center of the book’s spiral, but the poems themselves range over decades, following fracture lines back to original wounds and spiraling back out, the past and the present informing each other as perspectives shift.
Hosking writes that she is “desperate for pieces of war to become words / I can borrow and then speak.” As part of her journey she plans to travel to Vietnam along with other daughters and sons of American soldiers, “for the sake of a few bone fragments, / though I know I’ll find only myself there.” The trip to Bien Hoa is only part of her emotional journey, but it is a potent one. In Retrieval, however, Hosking uses that trip to amplify her message about the cost of war, one that has failed to reach lawmakers. While waiting in the Singapore airport on the return trip, President Bush announces the Iraq War:
sacrifices will have to be made. History moves
over us like a thousand tiny ghosts. Words
like decisive force and military families praying
caught in the back of my throat, absurdity
fading from bright red to pale pink to no color.
Ultimately Gail Hosking comes to a fractured peace with the past. In the moving “What’s Going On?”—dedicated to Marvin Gaye and one of several poems that weaves in the Motown music of the era—Hosking experiences moments of radical acceptance. “I can see everything / suddenly. I imagine my mother’s blue eyes / soaking up sorrow like sandbags after a monsoon.” In “Thich Nhat Hanh Down Broadway” she quotes the Buddhist adage, “No mud, no lotus.” Lotus flowers, of course, are rooted deep in the mud, the mud in Hosking’s vision being the past, the unconscious, the collective darkness we would like to banish so the next war can burn unimpeded by the wreckage of the last. We want to forget the “vinyl pocketbook of failure come down through the years,” whether it’s personal or national. Hosking writes, “Vietnam is passé, an editor tells me.” But we cannot afford to forget.