At first, I didn’t recognize the girl’s elongated arm. The photo is cropped at the shoulder, and there is no visible face. But when I read the poem on the opposing page, I realized this was the outstretched arm of Phan Thi Kim Phúc, the naked, screaming, Vietnamese girl from an iconic photo that in 1972 scorched America’s and my own nine-year-old psyche with the human horror of napalm warfare.
Kim Phúc’s photographically truncated arm is one of many arms Deborah Paredez strews across her poetry collection Year of the Dog, a mythic, cross-genre, documentary collage that fragments the violent dramas of the Vietnam War era, built around 1970, the year of her birth and the Kent State massacre. By portraying this history as disparate shards, Paredez poses an aesthetic challenge. Can a decade’s social chaos be lyrically assembled into an artistic unity?
The book’s severed-arm motif establishes one unifying thread, signifying emotional extremity. We see the extended, palm-up, beseeching arm of Mary Ann Vecchio witnessing the 1970 Kent State massacre; the joyous, spread-open arm of a family member on a tarmac receiving a just-returned prisoner of war; a raised-fist black power salute cut off at the elbow; and most frequently, grainy shots of the arm of Paredez’s father at work during a tour of duty in the early 1970s. The paired text reveals how he too is deeply wounded and how when the veteran father brings his affliction home, his young daughter becomes a secondary victim.
Paredez constrains her own personal narrative, positioning herself more as witness to the era and to her father, whose service story represents a Latinx community that has been historically underrecognized in Vietnam media accounts. But in one of the opening poems, “Self-Portrait in the Year of the Dog,” she initially marks herself as prematurely scarred during her mother’s pregnancy in 1970 (the Chinese lunar year of the dog). Hanging Christmas ornaments, “the woman who will be / my mother is pushing / stickpins through the eyes / of sequins.” This brief gesture of bodily piercing, a moment accentuated by the enjambment at the word eyes, resembles the photographically amputated arms and signals psychic dismemberment and dislocation.
Paredez marks herself psychologically injured in part because she links her birth year to the 1970 Kent State massacre, a recurring visual and textual focus. “Year of the Dog: Synonyms for Aperture” opens with simple, neutral documentation: “Mary Ann Vecchio is down / on her knees. Jeffrey Miller’s body is face down.” Vecchio, a fourteen-year-old runaway on campus to protest the war, kneels in a kind of stricken prayer over Miller, shot down by Ohio National Guard troops.
Paredez isolates the mouth, like the arm, as a bodily location of psychic distress.
The bullet enters Jeffrey’s opened mouth
and comes out the other side. Mary Ann’s mouth
is open, an obliterated star. Synonyms for aperture: mouth—
Paredez sharpens the moment’s cold brutality by assuming the photographer’s objectifying gaze, paralleling the camera aperture that lets in light to record images with Miller’s mouth that lets in a bullet to kill. She splices in quotes from later news interviews with the photo’s surviving subjects, including the photographer, John Filo, who noted flatly that Vecchio’s scream “made me / click the camera.” The camera lens is the poem’s silent voice in a frozen moment when a paralyzed, open mouth is incapable of emitting words.
In the white spaces around the Vecchio photo fragments, Paredez superimposes lines from Book XIII of Ovid’s Metamorphosesthat describe Hecuba plunged into grief and rage over the killing of her children. “As her open mouth shaped itself for words, trying to speak, she barked.” Hecuba, who is literally transformed into a wordless dog-like creature in the drama, becomes a classical ancestor of Vecchio, who is choked without words in her horror. The Ovid line also refers us back to Paredez’s description of her own birth in “Self-Portrait in the Year of the Dog,” in which she states “I’ll enter as Hecuba / nearing her end: purpled / and yelping griefbeast.” Paredez thus simultaneously identifies herself as child victim and grieving mother, a dual wound she revisits at the volume’s end.
Paredez weaves a complex mytho-historical chorus of female grief by linking Vecchio, Hecuba, Antigone, herself, and also the legendary Mexican weeping mother La Llorona, who wanders the netherworld seeking her lost children. But the structurally central female subject of the collection is Kim Phúc, both visceral war victim and objectified documentary victim, labeled in world news as the stripped bare “napalm girl.” Paredez sets six poems, each title beginning with the girl’s name, as the middle act of the collection’s three-part structure. “Kim Phúc in the Blast” sutures various secondary and primary source quotes together with Kim Phúc’s own words from later recollections. Arranging the text inside a white-space chaos, Paredez suggests the chaos of a napalm attack itself:
I tore off unwritten
my burning rule of engagement
clothes jellied sleeve of flame no fire directed at unarmed
Paredez may have been too young to see or emotionally register the photo when it was taken in 1972, but anyone like myself, who consciously lived through the era, immediately recognizes the image. A viewer’s skin feels almost scalded just looking at it, a group of children fleeing down a roadway, with Kim Phúc in the center, her arms spread in raw agony from the phosphorus burns. “Kim Phúc´ in the Barsky Burn Unit” gives her father’s viewpoint as he keeps bedside vigil in the weeks after the attack, expecting his daughter to die. He imagines her being buried with her ancestors, hoping her ghost will not haunt the family. But this mortality narrative then opens into a moment of hope when after weeks of skin grafting, the father asks his silent, bedridden daughter in a whisper whether she knows him and she is able to “answer back one word—Know.”
In the Kim Phúc series, the cropped-arm photo appears six times. This repetition performs a symbolic flashback, a PTSD-like flooding of unintegrated experience. I was reminded of Vietnamese American Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial near the Washington, D.C., Mall, whose 58,000 chiseled names on the black wedge surface dignify each fallen service member, and yet, when scanned for any extended length of time up close, overwhelms the mind with its unrelenting repetition. When I was an undergraduate at Yale, where Lin was a graduate architecture student, I heard her speak about how she first conceptualized the memorial as “a scar in the earth.” The Year of the Dog works as a catalog of scars, like those remaining on Kim Phúc’s body.
Paredez humanizes the tens of thousands of names on the memorial through her father’s service and homecoming story that undergirds the collection’s larger narrative. The details she provides of his combat experience maintain her focus on the body. Gilberto Villareal served as dentist for two years in the 56th Dental Detachment and in “Self-Portrait in Flesh and Stone,” he pulls a rotten tooth from a Vietnamese boy’s gums, again turning the mouth into a site of injury. The extraction is a reparative act, yet also invokes the countless combatants and civilians who lost body parts during the war.
The most wrenching moments we witness of his war story occur after he has returned home, because we enter these moments through a young daughter’s anxious eyes. The repeated cropped shots of the father’s arm obliquely indicate he suffers from PTSD, but the vivid “Lavinia Writing in the Sand, 1973,” explicitly portrays the syndrome through an epileptic seizure during which “his body ricochets / with the crooked electricity.” Here the mouth again signals acute disturbance, as Paredez’s mother, a trained nurse, grips his jaw to keep him from choking on his tongue. Paredez herself absorbs the convulsive energy in the living room, when her mother insists that she stand near his sleeping body and ensure he not swallow his tongue. In a sense, she must swallow her own tongue, unable to express the fear she likely feels in “the whole house gone silent.”
Year of the Dog addresses the overall underrepresentation of Latinx sacrifice in Vietnam War documentation as much as it explores the father’s personal story. “Edgewood Elegy” is like a Latinx capsule of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a five-page inventory of the fifty-four men from her father’s San Antonio school district who were killed in the war, some entries with nicknames, letter fragments and dates and causes of death (e.g., mortar, accident, drowned). Paredez noted in a 2018 New York Times op-ed that the school district had one of the highest casualty rates of any district in the country and cited data that Latinos during the war made up about 12 percent of the U.S. population, but represented nearly 20 percent of soldier deaths. Year of the Dog thus extends the racial narrative beyond the prevailing black/white binary of the Vietnam literary and cinematic canon built upon books like Michael Herr’s 1977 Dispatches and films extending from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now to this year’s Da 5 Bloods, directed by Spike Lee.
Paredez also connects the Mexican American community’s war sacrifices to the suppression of Mexican American women, including herself. Alluding to La Llorona, Paredez writes,
When you’re a brown girl raised up
near the river, there’s always a woman
bereft and bank-wrecked, bloodied and bleating
her insistent lament.
She invokes the words of fellow Texas-born Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa: “How do you tame a wild tongue . . . how do you bridle and saddle it?” Paredez quotes here Anzaldúa’s 1987 essay that explores how American culture has tried to silence the Chicana voice. In the larger associative historical fabric, this fierce voice echoes those of Vecchio, Kim Phúc, Angela Davis, and Paredez herself.
Angela Davis is one of many Vietnam-era activists Paredez references to expand this poetry volume into a political-resistance portrait of the broader socially fragmented Nixon era, during which various racial groups suffered distinct traumas. Paredez includes a poem on the 1970 massacre at historically black Jackson State University, filling the lines with enumerated statistics. There is a poem on the Indians of All Tribes 1969–71 occupation of Alcatraz, written as a series of mock dictionary entries, and another on the 1969 murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton. One message is that racial oppressions at home and military oppression abroad intersect, producing a global, collective, interracial trauma.
All the untreated energies of such widespread violence then transmit to the next generation, the present, and finally the future. With “Hecuba on the Shores of Al-Faw,” Paredez suggests the 2003 invasion of Iraq is part of Vietnam’s legacy. Referencing the 2014 police murder of Eric Garner recalls the assassination of Fred Hampton. And in the second to last poem, “Year of the Dog: After-Math, Reprise,” Paredez unmistakably joins Kent State and the 2018 Parkland school massacre. Reaching the final pages, we are no longer flashing back, but watching a contemporary news video.
Paredez closes the volume with an eerie personal transmission. In “Self-Portrait in the Time of Disaster,” the woman born in the year of the dog now buttons the winter clothes of her own daughter, who physically resists, “uncertain how to settle into this / leashing.” We return to the stricken mouth and limb. The daughter, become a Hecuba like her mother, “won’t stop barking, her hands suddenly paws.” Forced into mittens, the child’s hands seem like stumps. And we wonder, what will be the psychic generational inheritance of 2020?
This collection has ambitious sweep and a reader may well ask whether Paredez has overstretched the canvas by combining an impressionistic family drama, historical documentation, lyrical current-events reportage, classical elegy, Mexican folklore, and a dramatic dialogue that includes Antigone and Marvin Gaye. Does it all organically cohere? Such a reader might also consider that Paredez may ultimately intend to work against coherence. Psyche and body cannot hold together when a post-traumatic myth explodes.
Rochester, NY: BOA Editions Ltd, 2020. 128 pp. $17.00, paper.