By way of full disclosure, I saw an early manuscript version of Fusen Bakudan (a reference to the balloon bombs Japan sent over to the U.S. during World War II). I thought the sequence had the makings of a terrific poetry collection then. I was wrong; it’s a great poetry collection. This is not to say it’s the happiest book you’ll ever read, because it’s, as its subtitle notes, a tragedy (Poems of Altruism and Tragedy in Wartime).
The tragedies that the poems in Fusen Bakudan encompass are the carnage wrought by two wars: World War II and Vietnam. The stories told are of real people: In May of 1945, the newly minted Reverend Archie Mitchell and his pregnant wife Elsie take a group of children on a picnic up Gearhart Mountain, outside the logging town of Bly, Oregon. Elsie and five of the children are killed when they stumble across a balloon bomb on the forest floor (they were made in the thousands by Japanese schoolchildren and landed as far east as Nebraska and as far north as British Columbia and Alaska) and it explodes. Or as the grieving Reverend Mitchell laments in “A Saturday-Afternoon Picnic,”
The history books say
they were the only six Americans to die
on United State soil,
but I number seven—
Elsie five months pregnant.
His faith sustains him, and after two years, when his ministry at Bly is coming to an end, he marries Betty Patzke, whose younger siblings, Dick and Joan, were also killed that horrible day. And because Archie and Betty are people who live their faith, they go to then-Indochina, Vietnam, to work at a leprosarium, just as the Vietnam War is starting to churn up more bodies. Archie, Dr. Vietti (who runs the leprosarium), and Dan Gerber, another aid worker, are all kidnapped by the Viet Cong and never seen again, though Betty holds out hope over the years that they will be returned, alive. They’re not. Tragedies upon tragedies!
That, in a nutshell, is the plot of Fusan Bakudan, but plot doesn’t even begin to portray what a masterful job Rammelkamp has done with this forbidding and chilling subject matter. In poem after poem of plain spoken diction, he gets us inside the heads of these characters, and also gives us a sort of Zeitgeist of the times, in the person of the one-man Greek Chorus of the piece, longtime Bly, Oregon, resident Ori Gaines, who comments on the action and the other characters from time to time. Ori, a man of his times, is a Grade-A bigot, fearful and hating all that he doesn’t know or understand. In “Ori Gaines and the Culture Wars,” he has this to say about the African American G.I.s sent to Bly to help with forest fires, since they were forbidden to fight overseas: “They’re just as bad as the Japs/maybe worse.” And later in the poem, he adds, “I don’t feel safe around them, /don’t want them anywhere near/my daughter Julie.”
One of the best things about this collection is Rammelkamp’s quiet, understated rage at the losses inflicted by war and the misunderstandings that can turn deadly between enemies. Archie, Betty, Dr. Eleanor Ardel Vietti, Dan Gerber and the others of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church are in Vietnam to try to alleviate the suffering of lepers and to try to help the general peasant population, and of course also to bring them the Gospel. Their work is not unappreciated, but even so, the friendly South Vietnamese wonder about their motives, as in “Vu Nguyen Appreciates the Missionaries”:
At first, I wondered
why they were doing it—
the medicine, the food,
the agricultural training.
True, they force-fed us
their Christian religion
All we had to do
was say yes—
Yes your God sounds
like a wonderful Daddy;
yes, your selfless morality
sounds so pretty to have;
yes, in your fantasy world,
we will all be ‘saved.’
Yes, yes, yes.
In a nutshell, this statement captures the guarded appreciation of the Vietnamese and their perception of the naiveté of their American and Christian “benefactors.” This reminds me of the Native American response to Spanish Christian missionaries: how nice that your god died for you once; ours dies for us daily (sunset).
Given this tenuous state of affairs with the peaceful South Vietnamese, one can only imagine the distrust these well intentioned missionaries engender and inspire in the highly nationalistic Viet Cong, for whom these white Christians are nothing more than spies for the growing American menace that has merely replaced the French menace, even if the missionaries are not spies, and are (implicitly) horrified by the attitudes of American officers in the field, as in “Doung Van Nam on Spies”:
The bitch doctor, all smiles.
took them [American officers] around the compound,
like some little dog
wagging her tail.
I knew then it was true,
The missionaries were spies.
But here, in a piece of bitter irony for his totally misunderstanding the missionaries’ reactions, is Greg Dooley, an American soldier, in “Greg Dooley Regrets”: “I recognized the little bastard/glaring at us from his bed,/when Dr. Vietti gave us/a tour of the facilities./Fucking VC gook.”
Thus, tragedies and wars are begotten.
If I have one quibble with Rammelkamp here, it’s that too many of the poems are not labeled in the title for speaker. Most of the time a reader can figure out, by the end of the poem, who’s speaking, though that seems a little long to wait. But on the other hand, it often necessitates a second and third reading of the poem, and that is a very good thing, since these poems reward and reward and reward. In a couple of poems, however, I really had no idea who the speaker was, and this problem could’ve been so easily fixed.
But this is indeed a tiny matter in an otherwise superb collection. The language is so quiet, so effective that it lingers and echoes and haunts the mind and heart long after you’ve finished this heartbreaking, but somehow soul satisfying collection. I’ll conclude with these lines from the final poem, “Searching the Sky,” spoken by one of the Japanese-Americans who spent the War in an internment camp:
Once on a visit to Japan, in 1986,
I saw a television program
where Yoshiko Hisaga, a teacher
described how her students
made the balloons.
I later sent her the names of the six victims,
signing my name, John Takeshita.
In return, Ms. Hisaga sent me
a thousand hand-made paper cranes—
symbols of peace.
This is so quietly mind-blowing: that Mr. Takeshita can forgive and so identify with his fellow Americans. And Ms. Hisaga’s response is so poignant it brings me close to tears every time I read those lines. These reconciliations among parties injured in so many ways leave the reader with the hope that sustained Betty Mitchell and the others for all those years.
Similar works: Tongues of War, Tony Barnstone; Lightning and Ashes, John Guzlowski; In Witness, Barb Helfgott Hyatt; Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson.
[Ed note: Charles Rammelkamp has written reviews for Chamber Four, and is friends with Robert Cooperman. We're fine with that bias.]