Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472

“After Our War” is about the possibility of meaning in the world, about a generation of people who question whether either meaning or love is possible after the Vietnam War. Balaban’s use of lips in lines 3 and 18 suggests that speech or words are inadequate for expressing the experience of the war. The closing four lines of the poem raise questions about this inadequacy:

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After the war, with such Cheshire cats grinning in our trees,will the ancient tales still tell us new truths?Will the myriad world surrender new metaphor?After our war, how will love speak?

Balaban questions whether “ancient tales” can hold adequate answers for the world after the war. Although he looks for new truths, it seems unlikely that the texts and language that spoke so eloquently in the past will have anything to say in this new world. In this questioning, Balaban seems to connect himself to World War I poet Wilfred Owen, who rejected the “old lie,” that it is fitting and sweet to die for one’s country, in his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.” In line 24 Balaban introduces the notion of “metaphor,” which is a figure of speech. Again, he questions whether the world, in all its variety, will offer language capable of describing life and capable of imparting meaning after our war.

Finally, in the last question, Balaban wonders whether love will find language to express itself. By its placement in the poem, this line signals Balaban’s most important concern and his conviction that meaning in the world is a product of love. Further, the introduction of love at this last possible moment requires the reader to look again at the entire poem. Love “speaks,” metaphorically and physically, through the birth of a child. Yet when one returns to the opening lines of the poem, one reads not only of lips and tibias but also of disembodied, destroyed genitals—a reminder that many men came home from the war impotent from either physical or emotional wounds.

Still others came home from Vietnam unknowingly made sterile through their exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange (a topic Balaban addresses in other poems). Both Vietnamese and Americans exposed to Agent Orange also had genetic damage that was passed on to their surviving offspring in the form of devastating deformities. (Balaban reveals in Heaven’s Face that his wife Lonnie suffered a miscarriage while they were in Vietnam in 1971; they were unable to conceive again for sixteen years.) The “extra pair of lips” and the “hard keloidal scar” take on terrible significance in this context. Thus, the literal and metaphorical toxicity of the war makes even procreation, birth, and rebirth questionable. Love, Balaban seems to be saying, is what repopulates and regenerates the world, but the offspring of war are dismemberment, death, sterility, scars, and deformity.

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