John Akins enlisted at age 19 in the Marines and served as a rifleman in Vietnam beginning in Tet Offensive in 1968. He was part of an infantry battalion and later worked with small teams called Combined Action Platoons. He was wounded and medevaced to a field hospital. After the military he roamed around working in various occupations, including construction electrician and welder, reporter on a small daily, minister of propaganda for the Washington State legislature and other state agencies, including Washington Conservation Commission, and as a high school teacher. John lives in the Seattle area with his family.
“Excerpt from Quang Tin Province, 1968”
Nights in Ky An ville I prowl blood-slaked
gardens tilled by ghosts.
Moon slivers bokeh flora shapes.
Trails unwind in blackened murk.
My brain focuses like a radar screen.
I sift every sound, scan each shadow for a
speck of thrill.
I pray for a goddess who sanctions kill.
Soft-lip breezes brush my hair.
Adrenalin seeps through my gut
like moonshine through a backwoods still.
At a tick of sound, a flicker of motion,
I ignite the barrel of my M-16.
Days in Ky Phu ville my pockets bulge with gifts:
Stateside smokes for men my father’s age;
unlike him, they’re old.
C-rations of ham and fruit cocktail fit for a
Candy for a shy girl and big-eyed brother astride
Medicine for a baby’s eye.
Villagers gather; they grin at my Vietnamese.
My voice drones like a one-string guitar.
“Con cua me dep lam,” I say.
“Cac em ten gi?
Your children are beautiful –
What are their names?
“Con gai con ut ten la Phoung,” she says.
My youngest girl is Phoung.
“Con chai ten la Manh.”
My son is Manh.
“Chi ten la Tuyet –”
My oldest daughter is Tuyet. “Ahn ten la Lanh Loi.”
My oldest son is Lanh Loi.
Ten cua cac em it min la gi?” I say.
What do their names mean?
Phoung means tiny.
Manh means strong.
Tuyet means snow.
Lanh Loi means clever.
The children giggle at my hairy skin.
Sister and her little brother still hang back.
I show them my arm.
“Em, khong so; lam on lai dai, em ten gi?” I say.
Child, don’t worry; come here, what is your name?
She glides near, touches my forearm.
Her brother tucks deeper into her hip.
She whispers her name, “Hoa Binh.”
It means peace.
“The American Dream Sells It Out”
School, job, family—
Boys fight for their country.
At war I learn the truth:
Taboos are broken.
Kills gain nothing.
You cheapen your life.
A sniper kills a Marine.
Our artillery pounds the ville.
A mother holds her shredded baby in her lap.
His head lolls back.
I sink into the underworld.
The dream sellers keep their distance
And wave flags.
Politicians claim the price of freedom
Is worth a few lives.
The men who know never the mother's eyes.
I look over undulating hills.
Smooth, clipped grass
Borders rows of white crosses.
Here the fallen are honored.
Weeks before, I fought
On jungle hillsides.
My dead are not honored.
I connect with ghosts here.
I too, fought for my country.
I too, have lost—
No longer a believer.
Empty of dreams.
Responding to the Poetry of John Akins
- From “Quang Tin Province, 1968,” how does the poet allow you to see the “heart” of the Vietnamese people?
- In the poem Akins speaks of a blurred (bokeh) image. How does that add mystery to the poem?
- What is the reality that calls out as the Akins moves through the village?
- What thoughts are you left with after having read the poem?
- In the poem, “The American Dream Sells It Out,” how does Akins speak about the evolution of a soldier’s life.
- What is the result of a Marine getting killed?
- Explain Akins last stanza of the poem. Who are the people referred to as the “dream sellers?” Consider the last line of the poem, ”The men who know never the mother’s eyes.” To whom is Akins referring?
- In the poem, “Gettysburg, 1969,” what feelings does Akins have as he views this old Civil War battlefield? What comparisons is he making to his own life? How is he a different person than the man who first went off to Vietnam? How has he become a “loser”?