Poet's work portrays combat horrors

"Leonard was standing beside me
when he was shot.
He dropped to the ground
like a puppet with its strings cut."

It took nearly 35 years for Baldwin resident John Musgrave to be able to write about the day in 1967 when he and his fellow Marines were ambushed by North Vietnamese soldiers.

"It was a long, very difficult struggle," Musgrave says.

Musgrave, himself, was cut down by machine gun fire, and two of his buddies were killed trying to rescue him. After 11 months of combat, Musgrave's wounds forced him out of the war, ultimately leaving him a disabled American veteran.

Musgrave went on to make a name for himself as a combat poet, and several of his poems about his war experiences have been published in books. His latest collection, "Notes to the Man Who Shot Me: Vietnam War Poems," is taken from the title of the poem about the ambush that left him wounded.

"It took me a long time to even consider him a human being," Musgrave says of the North Vietnamese who shot him. "He doesn't need to be forgiven. He was a very good soldier. He did the same thing I would have done."

Musgrave, 54, started writing poetry while he was in hospitals recovering from his wounds. It was his way of coming to grips with his war experiences, he said.

"Some of them literally wake you up in the night, and you have to write them down," Musgrave says.

"Notes to the Man Who Shot Me" is a collection of poems that begin with Musgrave's decision to join the Marines while only 17 years old. One poem depicts how nervous he was just signing the enlistment papers. He misspelled his name three times, he writes.

Musgrave's accounts of Marine boot camp describe a terrifying drill sergeant straight out of the R. Lee Ermey mold, complete with profanity and "hands on training."


Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo

John Musgrave, Baldwin, has written several books of poetry about his experiences in the Vietnam War. He will read from his latest collection, "Notes to the Man Who Shot Me: Vietnam War Poems," at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt.

Even more terrifying are his accounts of warfare.

"You don't have to speak
to know when someone
is begging you
not to kill them."

His poems describe losing close friends, finding the remains of enemy bodies after an air strike and firefights with an enemy he couldn't see.

Musgrave's book was published by Coal City Review Press and was edited by Brian Daldorph, assistant professor of English at Kansas University. In an editor's note to the book, Daldorph says Musgrave's "unflinching" poems relay vividly what war is really like.

Baldwin poet John Musgrave will read from his latest book of poems inspired by his experiences in the Vietnam War, "Notes to the Man Who Shot Me: Vietnam War Poems," at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt.

"If we're lucky, then these poems might help keep us from talking too blithely about 'surgical strikes' and 'limited collateral damage,'" Daldorph writes.

Musgrave will read from his book at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Lawrence Public Library auditorium, 707 Vt.

The book was released at a time when American soldiers are again on the verge of going to war, this time with Iraq.

"They are very well-trained, and they will do well," Musgrave says of today's Marines. "But the reality of combat is beyond anybody's ability to replicate."


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