The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“After Our War” is a twenty-five-line poem in free verse. John Balaban uses the first-person plural point of view, thereby including and implicating the reader in the horror of the Vietnam War. Although the poem appears to be one stanza, internal divisions marked by structure, sense, and tense divide the poem into three eight-line sections, followed by a one-line concluding question. The first and last lines begin with the phrase “After our war.” This phrase therefore frames the poem, returning the reader at the end of the poem to its beginning. This device reminds the reader that the implications of the war continue long after the soldiers returned home.

The poem opens with a horrific, surreal listing of the “dismembered bits” of those killed and wounded in the Vietnam War. Balaban credits the body parts with movement of their own; they “came squinting, wobbling, jabbering back.” This series of verbs gives ghastly movement to the poem, as does the image of “genitals . . ./ inching along roads like glowworms and slugs.”

The second eight-line section turns to a description of the “ghosts” of the war, the “abandoned souls” of those who died. It seems likely that these ghosts are Vietnamese dead, because they appear “in the city streets,/ on the evening altars, and on the doorsills of cratered homes,” all images of Vietnam. The ephemeral ghosts stand in contrast to the physical fragments of the first eight lines....

(The entire section is 451 words.)