Poems track trauma’s burden
Vietnam veteran Steve Mason and friends will read from his work Monday in Ashland
You can take the soldier out of Vietnam, but taking Vietnam out of the soldier is not so easy.
“Memory is in the past,” Vietnam veteran and poet Steve Mason says. “Trauma is in the present. It’s like an elephant on your nose.”
Many of Mason’s best poems track the landscape of trauma. A thin man with a trimmed, graying beard, Mason, 64, a former Army captain and decorated combat veteran, is the poet laureate of the Vietnam Veterans of America. He moved back to Ashland earlier this year after being away a couple of years.
Mason’s friends are planning an evening of his poetry Monday at Oregon Stage Works in Ashland. Actors from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and others will read, including Peter Alzado, Richard Elmore, Bill Geisslinger, Dan Kremer, Dale Luciano, Sharon Michelson, Ray Porter, Derek Lee Weeden. Porter also will provide the music. Mason will host.
Mason is the author of three books of poetry: “Johnny’s Song” (1986), “Warrior for Peace” (1988) and “The Human Being — A Warrior’s Journey Toward Peace and Mutual Healing” (1990). His poem “The Wall Within” was delivered at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1984, and read into the Congressional Record that year.
His poems mix plainspoken declarations and startling metaphors with stream-of-consciousness themes delivered in the rhythms of everyday speech. He banged them out, some in single sittings, on an old Underwood typewriter. He says he never rewrites.
“Johnny’s Song” had a first printing of 35,000, almost unheard of for a book of poetry. One poem, “A History Lesson,” begins like this:
Since Vietnam, three things hold my universe together:/ gravity, centrifugal force and guilt.
The poem “The Wall Within” begins like this:
Most real men/ hanging tough/ in their early forties/ would like the rest of us to think/ they could really handle one more war/ and two more women./ But I know better./ You have no more lies to tell./ I have no more dreams to believe.
“It’s very powerful stuff,” Alzado says. “Because of the depth of feeling, there’s an extended kind of reality to it. It’s very theatrical, very alive.”
Alzado, OSW’s artistic director, has read Mason’s poetry at similar events. He’s been a fan since Mason approached him after a performance of Alzado’s production of David Mamet’s play “American Buffalo.”
Alzado compared acting to sky diving, and Mason asked if he was a sky diver.
“I think he thought I was a paratrooper or something,” Alzado says.
He says Mason is a man of many facets.
“He’s passionate about what he believes, he believes in peace, and there’s a great vulnerability about him. He’s very loved by his friends.”
Mason co-wrote “Moths and Violets,” a volume of love poems published in 1974. He didn’t even mention it to Bantam Books, which published “Johnny’s Song,” because he didn’t want any confusion over what Steve Mason was about.
To vets, especially, the book was a shot heard round the world. And it didn’t stop there. In a photograph by Mason’s desk, a young American soldier in a tent is reading a copy of the book on the eve of the first American invasion of Iraq. The photo was a gift from the soldier’s father. Other photos testify to Mason’s involvement with veterans’ causes, Mason with Gen. William Westmoreland, Mason with Al Gore, more.
Another photo harkens to an earlier war, Mason’s war. On a concrete wall in Vietnam, in a cryptic reference to the statements of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and others, somebody wrote, “Will the last GI leaving Vietnam please turn out the light at the end of the tunnel?”
Mason came home from Vietnam in 1967 after seeing more death than he wanted in the Mekong Delta. He blames the trauma he carried with him for the breakup of his marriage a year later. He says he had no drug or alcohol problems, and still he figures the inner journey of homecoming took years.
“To come to grips with what it meant.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a psychiatric disturbance that stems from combat, and also from abuse, rape, terrorism, accidents or even natural disasters. A PTSD center was established within the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1989.
“When we bury PTSD,” Mason says, “we end up imploding.”
He shudders when he sees the American invasion of Iraq and its continuing violence.
“There’s no clearcut objective we can agree on,” he says. “Many of the guys and women over there are National Guard people, and they’re unprepared.
“I’m not talking politics in a partisan sense, but the plan was not effective. Victory was declared quickly, and so many things went wrong.”
Proceeds benefit the nonprofit National Gulf War Resource Center serving veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org