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American Literature 75.4 (2003) 885-887
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Despite their differences, these two books share a sense that historical contexts powerfully shape poetry's aesthetics. Poetics, in turn, shape historically dependent cultural narratives. Perloff's predominant interest lies in the modernist era, the historical context of World War I, and the aesthetic experiments of T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, and Vladimir Khlebnikov, whose poetic challenges to the traditional lyric form are historically motivated but continue to reverberate in today's political contexts. Perloff relates these artists' poetics to the work of contemporary avant-garde poets Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, and Steve McCaffery. Chattarji's book looks back to World War II to establish a tradition of war poetry that informs the poetry of the Vietnam War. Her study covers a broad range of work by American and Vietnamese poets—both civilians and combat soldiers, supporters and protesters. In both books, poetry is a means of complicating and challenging accepted cultural narratives, and poetics is a catalyst for opening meaningful discussions in cultural conversations.
In Memories of a Lost War, Chattarji argues that poetry brings ethical and aesthetic value to the political and military contexts of war. Poetry extends as it rewrites individual experiences. In this way, war poetry questions what Chattarji calls "justifying and ameliorative myths" that the political and military spheres not only put forward but actively embrace in order to reconstruct cultural narratives. Chattarji calls this process "reconstruction" and sees it primarily as a means of political face-saving. Yet as part of the cultural narrative, reconstruction, Chattarji is quick to point out, is powerful enough to shape and limit the ways in which poets can articulate their responses to the war, as well as their ability to understand and engage with the other—the enemy or the Vietnamese victim of war. One of Chattarji's main points is that the Vietnam experience is difficult to articulate in both civilian and early veteran poetry, both of which tend to expose "American pathologies and traumas" rather than experiences of war (xiii). In the first three chapters, Chattarji argues that antiwar poetry and poetry by early veterans follow imperialist narratives that are reinforced by a World-War-II poetic heritage. The U.S. imperialist desire indirectly creates ground rules along which poets can reject the war (Allen Ginsberg, James Merrill, Robert Bly, Howard Nemerov, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich) or embrace it ("Boondock Bards"). Chapter 4 traces active combat soldiers' poetry and their attempts to reach out to understand the other and move beyond the enemy-hero binary in all its various incarnations. Here Chattarji shows how poetry can complicate reconstruction [End Page 885] myths through rewriting individual experiences. The last chapter looks at poems by Vietnamese poets, translated by Chattarji.
Memories of a Lost War sheds light on poetry written from both sides of the political spectrum and shows the influence of imperialist discourses in both cases. The book challenges us to reread antiwar poetry as, in fact, conventional. In addition, Chattarji's argument provides a fascinating opportunity to compare little-read prowar veteran poetry with antiwar poetry, which has enjoyed more critical acclaim. This refreshing, updated, and unflinching look at imperialist narratives that provide foundations for rethinking and reacting to political and historical tragedy is perhaps the book's greatest contribution. Chattarji's often clumsy and choppy readings of individual poems, however, tend to diminish the strength of the contribution. There is little attempt to guide the reader through each poem's explication toward one specific point. As a result, points multiply within paragraphs, detracting from the force of the book's argument. Along theoretical lines, the Korean War, another "lost war," is not...