War in the Company of Medics, by John J. Candelaria, uses short narrative and imagistic poems to present a tale of war from the perspective of the executive officer of a MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit in Vietnam in 1969-70. Taken together, Candelaria’s thirty poems, offering vivid images of blood-soaked hands, a severely wounded commander promising “I’ll walk again,” the body of an enemy combatant caught in concertina wire, and spring rain falling amid bombs, ponder the consequences of a politically questionable war.
Most of the poems are composed in free verse lines, but several use rhyme or poetic forms such as the villanelle, haiku, and what Candelaria calls a “found poem in a Sijo sequence,” in which the titles of all the poems are included in the last poem to help create an overview of the entire poetic sequence. Most of the poems employ an objective, almost anonymous narrative voice that is quite effective. The poems reach their best, I think, when they are most abstract and cryptic, creating scenes that could be overwhelming if relayed in a more subjective, personal manner: “Scissors cut uniforms, wounds/ pressed to keep life in”; “Blades slice the morning calm./ Dustoff arrives”; “Again, the body shudders,/ the boot strikes/ as if to wake the sleep of death.”
Although the author occasionally concludes a poem by repeating a phrase or otherwise interpreting the scene that do not enhance the already powerful vignettes (as, for example, in “Slice of Time,” which ends with the comment “I left the morgue never/ to forget that slice of time”), overall these poems are memorable and striking. The “calm expertise” and “relentless sense of urgency” that Candelaria ascribes to the members of his surgical unit describe as well the driving tone of this work. This is a strong and significant collection.
Review by Nancy Arbuthnot (June 27, 2018)