annotation by Lauren Schmidt
This is by far one of the best books of poetry I have ever read. There are so many memorable moments in this text that after only one reading, I am able to quote some of the poems in here. Yes, the success of the book is partly a result of the book’s subject matter—the Vietnam War—but in an undertaking such as this, success becomes incredibly difficult. A poet runs the risk of sensationalizing or exploiting the horrors of war. A poet might be accused of being opportunistic or too singularly-focused. Anderson avoids these criticisms completely in this book. It is, as a result, a harrowing and heart-breaking portrait of a period in our history. I said of Tony Barnstone’s book Tongue of War that every American should read it: I would say that even more emphatically of The Moon Reflected Fire.
What I admire so much about this book is its honesty. The reality of the stories and people found here is startling and often hard to read. (I will admit to crying a few times.) But these moments are often balanced by the tender moments that reveal these characters’ humanity, most often in the form of regret, sorrow, and the suffering the speaker endures many years after the war is over. The book, therefore, is a complete scope of this terrible experience and is most appropriately dedicated to the soldiers on both sides of the fighting.
The first poem, “Night Ambush,” establishes the tone that runs throughout the book—emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed. The book begins in medias res. Based on the details of the poem—“I have forgotten the why of everything. / I sense an indifference larger than anything/ I know. All that will remain of us/ is rusting metal disappearing in vines”—it is clear that this speaker has endured an awful lot by this point. Anderson has effectively conveyed the “indifference” that will permeate many of the poems to follow.
From the first poem, Anderson moves to “Infantry Assault”—a poem that gruesomely portrays an American solider killing a man who is already dead. The poem is more of a glimpse into the psyches of the soldiers at the scene—some of them rueful, some of them enjoying the carnage—rather than a narrative of a man doing something terrible. It examines the “why of everything”—“I thought maybe/ he was killing all the ones he’d missed.” The poem concludes on the haunting line, “how our bones knew what we’d done,” a motif that will resurface in many of these poems. The poet appears to be more concerned about expelling these stories through these poems as a way to free himself than gratuitously sensationalizing the horrors of war.
There are a number of poems in this collection that show the speaker’s humanity. One such poem, found in the first section, is “Purification.” Rather than condemn a speaker who admits to having a sexual encounter with a fifteen year-old Taiwanese mother, the reader pities him. Perhaps it is, in part, due to the fact that the sex is never really mentioned—only a moment where he tastes the young mother’s breast milk. However, I’d argue the reader’s sympathy comes from the fact that the speaker tells the story in such exhaustion and with such honesty, a reader cannot help but be moved by the poem’s final two lines: “I want to be this child’s child. / I will sleep for the first time in days.” Another poem that achieves this same sympathy is the first poem in the final section, “Rain.” The speaker admits to masturbating beneath his sheets as a way, perhaps, to feel human again, or relieve himself of all the angst he has stored during the war. It is a very real moment, one many poets might shy away from for fear that it is too human, too shameful. Even more remarkably is the presence of the nurse in the poem. We see her humanity as well. Nowhere in the poem does it suggest that she’s disgusted, yet it is clear she knows what he’s doing behind her back. Her permission for him to be as vulnerable as he needs to be is a stunning moment in this book.
The quiet, tender poems in this book balance poems such as “Two Boys,” a narrative that details the efforts one of his fellow soldiers went to in order to shoot Vietnamese boys and the “wistful damn” at his failure. It’s no surprise that a poem like “We Sweat” comes immediately before it, because it is also one of those quietly brave poems. It details the speaker’s fear and his need to pray in a place where “the gods are not familiar. / Who knows what prayer provokes? …When you cannot scream, pray.”
The second and third sections are truly unexpected approaches to telling the stories of this war. The second part, in effect, explains the artist’s role in revealing the truth around him, no matter how difficult. He does this through the Spanish Romantic painter, Goya. The allusion to Goya achieves a few things. First, it demonstrates the parallels between the times these two artists expose in their work, thus showing that nothing changes. Second, Anderson reveals the need for books like this to be written and paintings like Goya’s to be painted. Finally, he illuminates the struggle of having to do it.
The third part of the book reveals the Vietnam War through the Trojan War and characters in Homer’s Iliad. By doing this, Anderson is again drawing parallels between not only these two wars, but all wars and all the horrors these men endure in fighting them. Poetically, these two sections break up the narrative that was established in the first section while continuing along the same themes. Though we are not reading about the war solely from the speaker’s perspective, we are engaged by the same obsessions we found in his voice.
The final section returns to that speaker to show what happens in the aftermath of war. In this section, there is recklessness, alcohol and drug use, fear, an inescapable haunting, and ultimately, redemption. His redemption stems from the hope that what he has done in writing this book has freed him and others who read it from the toxins of that war. (The Biblical note that precedes the entire collection is proof.) By book’s end, the speaker does not claim that he is cured of what he has seen and done, but that he will survive all he cannot purge.
This is truly a startling book in that it characterizes a certain consciousness for many men who survived this or any other war. Books like this are necessary to our own survival.