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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Balaban’s use of imagery in this poem is both startling and complex. Visual images abound; genitals look like “glowworms and slugs,” ghosts appear like “swamp fog,” homes are “cratered.” There is also the image of not looking. The fragments that attach themselves to friends and famous men make it difficult to shake hands, make it “better, sometimes, not to look another in the eye.”

Imagery is not limited to visual descriptions, however; Balaban also uses auditory images, kinesthetic images that create a sense of movement, and tactile images. Lip fragments are “jabbering” and “yammering,” for example, making meaningless noise, unable to make sense of their current situation. Kinesthetic images such as genitals “inching along roads” and body parts “squinting” and “wobbling” create a particular sense of movement in the poem. Although these “snags and tatters” might be better left in Vietnam, they make their jerky, uneven movement home, arriving in the United States.

Finally, the reader’s sense of touch is addressed early in the poem by such images as “pierced eyes,” “jaw splinters,” and “gouged lips.” The graphic adjectives, derived from verbs, evoke physical pain. Balaban turns again to tactile imagery toward the end of the poem with the handshake, a symbol of friendship and accord. Now, after the war, handshakes are “unpleasant.” With the phrase “at your daughter’s breast...

(The entire section is 484 words.)