The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

“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.

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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. Thus there is a marked shift from physical disembodiment in the opening lines to the spiritual disembodiment in the second section. Lines 14-16 return to the dismembered body parts, depicting their arrival in the United States. The first sixteen lines are unified by the poet’s use of the past tense, letting the reader understand that he speaks of events “after our war” but before the present.

In line 17, Balaban shifts into the present tense, telling the reader how fragments of the war have lodged themselves in the present in the United States as an “extra pair of lips glued and yammering” on the cheek of a “famous man” or as a “hard keloidal scar” on “your daughter’s breast.” The shift to present tense signals the poet’s conviction that the remnants of the war continue to blight the present. In line 22 the poet once again shifts tenses, moving toward an uncertain future. The uncertainty is underscored by Balaban’s use of three questions that close the poem.

The movement of the poem, then, is from past to future, from grotesque specificity to abstract reflection. This movement reminds the reader that the war, which happened in the past, continues into the present, and it raises questions about the possibility of meaning in the future.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

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 thickens a hard keloidal scar,” Balaban uses a tactile image to push the images of the Vietnam War into the next generation.

A second device that Balaban uses skillfully is literary allusion, a figure of speech that makes brief reference to some earlier literary figure or work. In lines 22 and 23 Balaban writes, “After the war, with such Cheshire cats grinning in our trees,/ will the ancient tales still tell us new truths?” The Cheshire cat is an obvious allusion to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a nineteenth century children’s book. Here, however, Wonderland is invoked not for its appeal to children but rather for the violent, irrational, upside-down world that Alice finds when she slips down the rabbit hole. In Wonderland, meanings are topsy-turvy, truths change with the moment, and the Cheshire cat fades in and out of view as Alice tries unsuccessfully to make sense of a world in which she finds herself. Likewise, Balaban suggests, after the Vietnam War, people must try to make sense of a world that seems to have lost rationality and meaning.

A second, less obvious allusion is to Balaban’s own earlier poem “Carcanet: After Our War,” the title poem of his first major collection of poetry, published in 1974. Balaban used the phrase again in his 1991 autobiographical account of his time as a conscientious objector in Vietnam, Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Moral Witness in Vietnam (as both section and chapter titles). That Balaban continues to return to this phrase suggests his concern with finding meaning in a changed world.

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