Michael Casey has once again offered his readers a collection of amusing, deceptively simple poems about daily life as a military policeman during the Viet Nam War, in Check Points, published by Gary Metras’s Adastra Press, 2011. Unlike many contemporary books of poetry (books that gather unrelated poems, loaded with enough filler to remind me of 1970s record albums), Check Points works as an assemblage, its whole greater than its individual poems.
Still, several poems here invite rereading and meditation. I count among them “personal effects,” “pentagon,” “bagley removes a thought,” “victor,” and “be afraid, brother.” Despite their casual surfaces, these poems seem to me among the best to come out of the war, more worthy of being anthologized than some poems that seem almost canonized.
Michael Casey is a skilled storyteller, writing crisp, brief anecdotes or vignettes free of extraneous lines or phrases. “Imaginative literature is about listening to a voice,” A. Alvarez says, more than about information or even stories. Listening to the voice is probably the chief pleasure in Check Points.
The 52 poems in Check Points involve the same few characters who have appeared in earlier Casey poems, notably an MP named Casey, a friend named John Bagley, and a young Vietnamese woman nicknamed Stanley, hired to help with female prisoners.
Serious and still innocent, Stanley is a foil to the Americans, who have a whiff of detached cynicism about them, in the best tradition of American military humor. Many of the poems are modestly humorous anecdotes in the tradition of military humor, not far from Reader’s Digest “Humor in Uniform” items. As I wrote elsewhere about his Millrat, these poems are free of sentimentality, bombast, and pretension.
Without much of a war going on around them, the young men in this military police unit tease each other, play verbal grab-ass, and sometimes treat regulations and security rather casually. They might all be heroes in a some politician’s speech, but in these poems they are just young guys. Like many who served in Viet Nam, these men seem to be civilians at heart, and kids at heart.
As usual, Casey’s poems have no punctuation, as if they were transcriptions of casual stories told in bars or factory lunch rooms. Words are dropped, syntax is clipped. The poems sound casual, spontaneous, and unedited, but my guess is that Casey rigorously worked these poems to eliminate anything extraneous.
Underneath some of these working class soldiers’ simple accounts of simple events, Casey provides irony and indirection. Soldiers learn to suppress inconvenient emotions, and Casey recreates this survival technique wonderfully.
Some of these poems approach but pull back from directly facing the deeper unpleasantries of war: abuses of the living and dead, the death of fellow Americans, and our abandonment of the Vietnamese people at the end of the war.
“Cenerizio’s service,” for example, ends with a digressive attention to one minor detail, a shift in attention that allows the speaker to ignore the deaths themselves. The poem tells us that two men were
killed in the same bunker
the same night
the same hour same minute
maybe not the same second
but you know it was close very close
Whenever a poem’s speaker edges towards understanding, he stops short, offers a deflating joke, or finds a convenient digression, and the poem ends. But the attentive reader cannot stop as suddenly as the speaker, and slides past the poems’ last lines, moving lightly forward into understanding.