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Page 7
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Passing Through A Gate

By W. D. Ehrhart (reviewer)

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Passing Through A Gate: Poems, Essays, and Translations
by John Balaban

Copper Canyon Press, 2024

John Balaban may be the most unusual writer ever to have emerged from the American War in Vietnam. He was never in the military, but he probably saw more action than three-quarters of the American service personnel who served in Vietnam. He requested and received conscientious objector status from his draft board, so he chose to do his alternative service in Vietnam.

Initially tasked with teaching at the University of Can Tho, he found himself without a job when the university was flattened during the Tet Offensive soon after he arrived in Vietnam. He subsequently managed to get a position with a non-governmental organization called the Committee of Responsibility to Save War-Burned and War-Injured Children.

Balaban's job for the next two years was to go out into the countryside to locate and identify children so severely injured in the war that the medical care available to them in Vietnam was simply not adequate. Children chosen would be flown to the United States and provided free medical treatment. However, the Saigon government allowed this only if every child was returned to Vietnam after treatment was completed.

So this young, unarmed American civilian found himself wandering all over rural Vietnam in the midst of the war. Learning to speak Vietnamese in the process, he also came into contact with the Vietnamese people and culture in a way that very few other Americans ever did.

In the process, he discovered Ca Dao, the ancient Vietnamese tradition of oral folk poetry. Fearing—incorrectly, as good fortune would have it—that the American war would end up eradicating this tradition, he returned to Vietnam a few years later. He spent the better part of another year wandering around the countryside with a tape recorder, still in the midst of the war, getting farmers and fisherpeople to sing for him, work that he translated and eventually managed to get published bi-lingually.

I first encountered Balaban's poetry when Jan Barry and I were co-editing Demilitarized Zones: Veterans After Vietnam in 1975. We used a handful of his poems in that anthology, and I have remained a fan and admirer of his writing ever since. I included a healthy chunk of his work in Carrying the Darkness: the Poetry of the Vietnam War and chose to include him as one of the poets in Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War. However, he was not—strictly speaking—a soldier; he is certainly a veteran of that war.

Balaban went on to a rich and varied writing career, publishing seven collections of his poetry, a memoir, a groundbreaking tri-lingual translation of the Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong (who wrote in the ancient Vietnamese script called chu Nom), translations from Romanian and Bulgarian, a novel, a children's book, several travelogues, and multiple essays.

Like the rest of us Vietnam War veterans, Balaban is not getting any younger. He speculates that this book, Passing Through a Gate, may be his last hurrah. While I hope he's wrong, I'm not taking bets. Be that as it may, however, this is a wonderful opportunity to take in a vast swath of Balaban's writing over the course of his long and productive life.

The collection includes a generous sampling of his poetry, translations of Ca Dao, Ho Xuan Huong, Romanian and Bulgarian poetry, and selected essays. The book's official publication date is May 28th, 2024. I highly recommend it.

W. D. Ehrhart is a long-time VVAW member, poet, and author.

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