In a ballistics lab in Maryland
three artists known as The Propeller Group
aimed assault rifles at each other
and fired them simultaneously into gel blocks
constructed to resemble human flesh.
Fragments of the projectiles,
fused on impact, float suspended
around a flower of smoke. Shot through
with light, the resulting twenty-one gel blocks,
like this one elegantly displayed
inside a custom vitrine, enchant.
On a flat screen hanging on the wall like a black canvas,
the collision replays on a single-channel loop
in extreme slow motion, the bullets
tearing the surface of the seen
as when a lake breaks from a stone.
The AK-47 vs. The M16 was on view
at the Des Moines Art Center that Thursday evening
back in early June when I visited
“one last time” with you.
Little cloudbursts we left on the glass:
pierced flower, bright insects, tiny supernova.
I stopped looking—you were there.
We turned and walked away.
My Viet Cong
At the bookstore where we like to go, my lover finds me
an almanac of the war, knowing all about my obsessions.
Viet Cong was a derogatory term for Vietnamese Communists
in the south. Instructed by Hanoi to lie low until 1959, they
were activated by the North Vietnamese Politburo to begin
a guerilla war in the south in an attempt to subvert and overthrow . . .
Viet Cong was also the name of this post-punk band from Calgary.
They sound like lasers drilling into ice, winters in Wisconsin,
my heart’s furnace. The sound that begins Viet Cong resembles someone
trying to punch their way out of a coffin, according to Pitchfork.com.
In Saigon once, my grandmother’s caretaker silently clapped
her hands over her ears, mouthing “Bomb! Bomb! Bomb!”
“Three” was what everyone called her. “Bomb”
was the only English word I heard Bà Ba speak.
When Three was a girl the sky opened up with Rolling Thunder
so loud she became partially deaf. War loaned her the word.
My nickname, Bờm, when you say it, sounds like a little bomb.
My American classmates couldn’t say it right, so I became “Boom.”
But I was talking about Viet Cong. The band came under attack,
for not knowing two syllables could trigger such a grim
history. During rehearsal, the bassist aimed his guitar
like a machine gun. “All you need is a rice paddy and straw hat,”
the drummer shouted. “That would be so Viet Cong!”
Their new name is Preoccupations.
As a kid, I watched every single Vietnam War movie.
Apocalypse Now. The Deer Hunter. Full Metal Jacket. Platoon.
You name it. I was too young to realize I was after
my own face on the NVA soldiers and VC guerillas.
I hummed along as King, the black soldier played by Keith David,
sang low, “I come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee,
and I’m going to Louisiana, my true love for to see. Oh, Susanna!”
Back then, I didn’t know they shot the war in the Philippines.
Mount Makiling for jungle scenes. Cavite for river and village scenes.
Or that Vietnamese refugees were hired to act various roles, like VC.
About the worst thing my parents can call anyone is Việt cộng.
It’s been years since anyone has called me “commie,” or “gook,”
or “chink.” One was Kevin, the other Steve. Both red heads.
On the school bus home, Kevin slurred, “Go back to your own country!”
My friend Shaun saved me that day from a black eye.
If you’re wondering, I come from the Midwest of Everywhere.
Hai-Dang means “lighthouse.” Like the painter in the novel
“I have had my vision.” A visible signal of safe harbor
or mark of danger. Call me mariner or renegade or outcast.
My lover and I have names for each other we keep like secrets.
Once upon a time, there was a man who, freed from one
prison, found himself released into a still vaster prison.
Inside he was determined to escape. But first
had to devise a plan, come up with an alias.
He paid for fake ID, pretended to be secretly Viet Cong.
And if they asked him for his name he’d give them mine.
Hai-Dang Phan is the author of Reenactments, a book of poems and translations (Sarabande, 2019), and Small Wars, a poetry chapbook (Convulsive Editions, 2016). His writing has appeared widely, including in the New Yorker, Poetry, New England Review, jubilat, Lana Turner, Prelude, and Best American Poetry 2015. A graduate of the University of Florida’s Creative Writing Program, he currently teaches at Grinnell College and lives in Iowa City, Iowa.