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Page 35
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Caverns of the Soul

By Donald McNamara (reviewer)

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Caverns of the Soul
by Charles F. Harrienger, Jr.

(lulu.com, 2018)

Trying to deal with the psychological wounds of war can be tricky, because it isn't possible to be absolutely sure that the treatment, or its results, won't be worse than the affliction.

In his book Caverns of the Soul, a collection of twenty-one poems, Charles F. (Rick) Harrienger, who served in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne in 1968 and 1969, presents thoughts about what is not often easily transferable to words: the experience of being in combat. He offers a preface in which he implies that writing these pieces came about because medical attempts to treat his PTSD (although he does not use that term) proved inadequate by themselves. Further, he notes that he employed rhyme, rather than free verse, in order to entertain himself.

Writing even one poem that rhymes can be difficult (try it some time), and writing as many as Harrienger did can be especially challenging, even more so when dealing with deep-seated emotions, or demons.

Rhyme is one means of emphasizing the ideas or sentiments that the writer wishes to express—very often someone who reads or hears a poem will remember at least part of it because certain rhymes resonated in the mind or in the heart.

Many of Harrienger's rhyming verses do resonate in ways that will be familiar to those who are combat veterans, possibly even as well as to those who are not. If they do, however, the resonance will originate in the thoughts he is expressing, thoughts that derive extra force by similar sounds.

Some of the rhymes are discordant, but that's alright because the sounds of war feature their own rhyme—a rhyme that can be called discordant, to put it mildly. The point of this book isn't the poetic craft; it's the way a combat veteran who has struggled with the demons of his war experience has brought insights that might have eluded many, veteran and non-veteran alike. It would be difficult not to be moved by the closing stanza of "Ballad of the Bastard":

I know not of my destiny
but only where I've been.
Alive remains the rest of me.
Alive: begin again.

In "The Vietnam Memorial," Harrienger borrows the meter of Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!":

O president, my president
Your sons are falling still
Another row would tell you do,
If Westy won't… I will

In "Charlie!," Harrienger muses on the fact that the name traditionally given to the enemy is taken from his name. He uses that fact as an analogy to the lingering effects of the wounds of war, which will stay with him long after he has returned home.

"Dear Darling Doctor", which comes about a third of the way into the book, is especially devastating. The lines are longer than in most of the other poems, and the rhyme scheme (if it can be called that) is all over the place. If the title of the poem is an indication, then this poem is a recreation of Harrienger's efforts to relate to one of the medical professionals treating him for his memory of the killing of a Vietnamese girl by several of his comrades who had brought her inside their bunker to have sex with her. It's difficult to tell for certain how much of the narrative in the poem is literally true, but any part of it would be traumatizing.

The last poem in the book, "Againanam," makes allusions to the USA's ventures in Iraq with terms like IEDs and nation building, and that gives the title of the poem, which seems baffling at first, a clear if disheartening meaning: It's happening all over again, with after-effects that will all too tragically familiar for many years to come.

In dealing with his own anguish, Charles F. Harrienger has written a thought-provoking book that has the potential to enlighten, disturb, enrich, sadden, gladden, infuriate anyone who reads it. It should be read slowly, digested gradually rather than gobbled all in one sitting.

It is worth the effort.

Donald McNamara was a ground troop in Vietnam with the 1st Infantry Division from January of 1967 to January of 1968. He is the author of Which The Days Never Know: A Year in Vietnam by the Numbers, (Elephant's Bookshelf Press, 2017).

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