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Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti honors veterans

BOONE—Joseph Bathanti, who has dedicated himself to working with veterans during his tenure as North Carolina Poet Laureate, has written his second poem to recognize veterans.

“Fayetteville” juxtaposes horrific images from the Vietnam War with the present-day activities of Fort Bragg, including children’s laughter while hearing a poem read aloud.

North Carolina is home to eight military installations, including Fort Bragg, Pope Air Force Base and Camp Lejeune, and has one of the largest populations of veterans in the United States.

“North Carolina is overflowing with unforgettable stories of veterans and their families,” said Bathanti who works with veterans to share their stories through poetry. Last year, he wrote “Saint Francis’s Satyr Butterfly” in honor of veterans.

Bathanti is a professor of creative writing at Appalachian State University where he is also Director of Writing in the Field and writer-in-residence in the University’s Watauga Global Community. He has taught writing workshops in prisons for more than three decades and is former chair of the N.C. Writers’ Network Prison project.

His poem “Fayetteville” follows:

Fayetteville

… I close my eyes and see the girl
running from her village, napalm
stuck to her dress like jelly,
her hands reaching for the no one
who waits in waves of heat before her.

  • From the title poem, “Song of Napalm”
  • Bruce Weigl

Hurtling through the endless shrouded
gauntlet of Bragg Boulevard –
the machinery, the certainty,
of war secreted matter-of-factly

on either side of it – everything
arrested, etherized – the only danger
a broken tequila bottle
on the sand spit shoulder, neon

signs for bars and guns and tattoos,
a couple Rangers in camos
who nearly drop a mattress from Badcock’s
they’re loading in a pickup –

I carry Song of Napalm,
a first edition, on its jacket face
a helmeted GI, mouth agape
in mute keen. The glowing font

is napalm orange – Song and of
burning over the soldier’s eyes,
Napalm scored across his nostrils.
In the watery lamplight,

on the table next to my hotel bed,
the volume shape-shifts like a hologram.
It pages to black tunnels, wending on and on.
Even the beautiful detonates.

Yet the rounds in that book, its shrapnel,
lethal trope and caliber, remain humble,
almost shy, in combat –
purity that becomes Buddha.

Versed in the lotus,
the poet makes a small place for defeat.
It is sleep he yearns for;
war is an insomniac.

The little girl in the poem,
dedicated to his wife
(which I find soothing, here
in a strange room, without my wife),

is Kim Phúc, naked, fleeing
Trang Bang in ’72 –
Nick Ut’s famous photograph, Napalm Girl.
Carefully I read each word, each

metric foot, down to the syllable –
to help me reckon what truth travels
into and beyond immolation,
that I might be visited by that God.

The next morning at Howard Hall
Elementary, where Count Basie’s jazz
pipes through its corridors, I read
1st graders poems by Shel Silverstein:

zany tongue-twisting alliterative
nonsense – about a bear
in a refrigerator and how to make
a hippopotamus sandwich.

The children sit at my feet
and laugh uncontrollably.
Whispering liftships rise
in the haunted mist.

— Joseph Bathanti