I have been reading Max Hastings’ ‘Vietnam’, an account of the Vietnamese War in which he meticulously chronicles the destruction of the country and the devastating effect of the conflict on those caught in the middle. This poem by the American poet Denise Levertov (1923-1997) distils the essence of that calamity. The diction has a lyric quality which may seem at odds with the subject, yet adds a further sheen of irony to the poem.
What were they like?
Did the people of Viet Nam
use lanterns of stone?
Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
Had they an epic poem?
Did they distinguish between speech and singing?
Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone lanterns illumined pleasant ways.
Perhaps they once gathered to delight in blossoms,
but after the children were killed, there were no more buds.
Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
A dream ago, perhaps.
Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.
It is not remembered. Remember, most were peasants:
their life was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies,
and water buffaloes stepped along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs shattered those mirrors,
there was time only to scream.
There is an echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported that their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.