Kevin Bowen Wrote Down His War in Poetry

Memories from Vietnam still do not flow easy with Kevin Bowen. Talking about the war, his normally steady narrative halts and jumps between time and place with a smattering of context. Drafted at 20 in 1968, in Basic when Martin Luther King got assassinated, and in radio school a few months later when Bobby Kennedy got killed, assigned to the 1st Calvary Division Bowen arrived in Vietnam at the end of the Tet Offensive.

“I was 20, which was old,” he said. “I was with 18-year-olds, and the difference in age seemed huge, and last week at radio school you listen to Morse Code and there were mortars and gunfire in the background, and A to M were sent to Vietnam.”

The deployment started out relatively quiet, but every few months he moved. Four months toward the end of his year in Vietnam, Bowen spent working a helicopter launching pad in the DMZ, collecting communications as choppers carried in reinforcements and carted back the injured. Talking about the experience he sometimes sounds wistful, and sometimes a little angry or bemused.

“It was a weird year,” he laughed. “I was there when the men landed on the moon. I was like, what are they doing on the moon? We’re right here. They can bring him back, but they can’t bring us back. Everybody’s got a different kind of experience there.”

Last week, In a studio in the basement of the Healey Library at UMass Boston, Bowen read one of the poems from his first book, “Playing Basketball with the Viet Cong.” Here’s the audio:

Here’s the text:

Willie, Dancing

When we moved south
we found comfort
nights at base in new dug bunkers,
the womb hum of generators,
artillery thud and mortars
marking time. And whiskey,

always whiskey and hot music
you had sent from home —-
Louisiana blues.
In the cool night, we smoked opium,
danced in bare dark soles
in the red clay dust,
making promises for home

But here it begins to fade.
I don’t remember you leaving us
or hearing they’d saved you
after all that shrapnel
lifted you from the ground.

Still, as I sit here sipping whiskey
late at night
I see you dance
in trails of smoke above my head.


“With literature and art, a lot of people talk about the healing aspect of it,” he said. “But it’s also about creating bonds and connections and deepening respect for people’s experience.”

Caleb SN