The Memorial Day parades are about ready to kick off and, across the country, the focus will be on remembering our war dead. Just a couple days ago, a new measure for a new war was announced when U.S. dead in Afghanistan reached 1000. Lately,Â I’ve been paying attention to war more than I usually do since a little over a week ago I moderated an author’s event where three notable writers talked about writing about war. Not surprisingly, they talked more about the toll war takes on the soldiers rather than aboutÂ heroic actions.
While doing research for the author event, which isÂ available for viewing at the Michigan Humanities Council website, I discovered a series of poems and letters written by former East Lansing resident and MSU student Jim Thomas. In 1965, Thomas enlisted in the Marines and was sent to Vietnam. For more than 10 months, he sent his time at war writing for MSUâ€™s underground newspaper “The Paper.” The poems and letters were candid musings about his feelings about the war and his actions. His writing was very good and, as I paged through “The Paper,” I anxiously looked for his next installment and then they stopped.
Â On December 20, 1966, one day after his 20th birthday, Jim Thomas was killed in action. The followingÂ poem was written by him in 1966, and it is foreshadows his own death. How could he know? Somewhere, someone much closer to Jim Thomas is thinking about him today. At the writer’s event, I dedicated the East Lansing session to all those writers who didn’t come home.
Night Watch Monkey Mountain
On this night, no eagle strains
In a standard metaphor
Against the fall of night.
These are the hills of Cain
His exiled crime courses
Out hill, though only kites
Trace stream water, down from the ruined
Game paths are highways. The junctions, boulders cleated
By roots, are guideposts new
At evening when haze
Rises and rain meets scrub to replenish the springs
Darkness forces me to knife
My companions, the red-earth and low chattering.
In the midst of such life why must I be so dead.