Feet of the Messenger
“we readers can be thankful for these beautiful poems of pain and healing by a writer who shares his life with great care . . .”
“Even in the worst context, one may be able to find something beautiful,” says author H. C. Palmer, and in poem after poem, most set around the Vietnam War, he finds moments of beauty and caring.
Having served during the war as an army surgeon, he came close to the wounding and deaths of so many military and civilian casualties. The timing of the book with the PBS release of the 18-hour documentary The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Linda Novick is fortuitous. In both we hear from the survivors and can gain some new understanding and strength.
These gritty war poems in the first section of the book are given a human context. As critic Linda Gregerson notes, “H.C. Palmer is far too wise, and far too good a poet, to lecture us on the consequences [of war], but in his tributes to the dead, his tributes of survival, his luminous portraits of compassion and reprieve, he grants us a vision of the better world . . .” In several we find ourselves intimate with him as he stands at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. In one he notes that North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh was once a pastry chef, and turns back to the wall:
I breathe over a name.
The inscription blurs—
but only for a moment.
I walk panel to panel,
speak the names
on this carte d’ardoise—
as if I could order
them back to life.
In the sequenced “Five Notes from War,” he and a fellow vet stand at the wall in the snow and cold when they notice a couple reflected in the granite.
For a long time I watched
them inside the stone.
When I turned
I saw them weeping.
Do you have someone here? I asked.
Just the two of you, she said.
Most of his poems are not of the violence of war but of its consequences and its effects on us all shown in images and acts of compassion.
Palmer declares that “After a time, I understood that the American war in Vietnam had changed my life in almost every way—even the way I interpreted memories of childhood.” And in section two we experience poems of family, most of his mother and their deep bond. In “The Milk Barn” he recalls,
After barn chores and supper, after dishes and radio news
from the war, after you read the bedtime story, you printed words
across my back with a fingertip softened by Udder Balm.
Each night a new word—retraced and redefined
until I fell asleep. Soon this world will be a better place,
you promised. One day you can use these words to tell your story.
Section Three finds beauty and comfort in being alive in places, most of nature. The book’s title comes from a quote from the prophet Isiah: “How beautiful upon the mountains/ are the feet of the messenger who announces peace.” And we readers can be thankful for these beautiful poems of pain and healing by a writer who shares his life with great care, the way you would hope a surgeon might.