Saturday, July 13, 2024


Great blue heron at work (artwork by Jan Barry)


In Newark
Near the Agent Orange factory site,
The Passaic River flows
Serenely, nothing to see
Of the poison in the fish
And blue crabs under the surface
Or in the war veteran
With the walker
On the riverbank

Friday, July 12, 2024

Dominic Albanese Books in Review

Dominic Albanese: War Vet, Wild Man, Poet

By Jan Barry

Fifty years ago
To the minute
… a sound
(I could hear quite well then)
like a soda can pop top
my cells knew
I leaped up as if I were spring loaded
the grenade exploded

… yet, the exhilaration, escape, defiance of death
Was nectar, food for my later madness

This is the kind of kick-ass poetry Dominic Albanese worked for decades to write. But when he got home from a Special Forces tour as a teenager chasing danger in Vietnam, a lifetime of distractions kept getting in the way: joy riding on motorcycles, running illegal drugs, getting addicted to illegal drugs, protesting the war with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, chasing women and more women, raising a daughter, doing fine-tune mechanic jobs on expensive sports cars and on hot stolen cars, staging robberies, enduring a stint in Folsom Prison, then a long rehabilitation with AA and CA and church folks and caring friends. Now he’s a retiree in Florida writing his recollections in poetry collections and memoirs.

The snippet of poetry above is excerpted from “April 17, 1964” which was published in Bastards Had the Whole Hill Mined: Vietnam Poems (Les Editions du Zaporogue, 2015). These war poems describe being dropped into Southeast Asian jungles on long-range patrols: “down the trail/ comes Charlie, with bags o rice/ bamboo medical supplies ammo/ wrapped in banana leaf packs/ wearing the brown hats/ with the little yellow star…” Then he cuts through what he calls the “ra ra bullshit” of war stories. “Well you have never seen/ four guys/ lie so still, so quiet so scared/ never to admit it in public”.

He also takes readers into a back alley in Saigon to share beer and reefer with a “black hair charm woman,” who tells a young soldier his fortune: “she smiled/ I can remember it like two days ago/ in Cham a lost tongue I had never heard before/ but instantly knew/ it was not a spell or a curse/ it was a sad and old/ sin loi sou di duc du kei/ (you will not die only suffer for years to come)/ now again fifty years later/ I wonder how she knew”.

In a companion poetry collection, Then N Now, published in 2015, Albanese notes that poetry helped keep him going through self-destructive times, hanging out between escapades with New York poets at the St. Marks Poetry Project and San Francisco poets of the Beat generation. “Other than having written poetry for decades,” he writes, “I have no further training in poetry—other than a deep and real trust in the healing nature of it, and the absolute pleasure it gave me to knock one out of the park.”

Among the most astute poems in this collection is “Departed But Not Gone.”

this morning
between dark to dawn
I saw a man
pushing an
empty wheel chair
causeway side walk
both side river view
it hit me
She was gone
he walked the
chair without her
not wanting her ghost
to miss
days attendance sun rise
over barrier island mangrove banks

A junior high school-dropout from Coney Island who got a GED in the Army, Albanese prides himself on writing poems in ungrammatical Brooklynese. In writing a memoir titled Dear Miss B, he writes more studiously in homage to his 7th grade English teacher who encouraged him as a flailing student hustling odd jobs and stealing cars on the side. Escaping jail time by joining the Army, after his father and a priest lied about his age, he wrote letters to Miss B from Vietnam. Years later, the woman’s daughter tracked him down on social media to share that his favorite teacher had died and mailed him a boxful of his wartime letters she had kept.

Using the recovered letters as memory aides, Albanese unravels the convoluted story of how a wise-guy kid who couldn’t sit still in grade school ended up as a Vietnamese-speaking communications specialist on Special Forces missions in Vietnam and Laos. “My first patrol up in the hills,” he wrote in an early letter, “hard to even say, how not only is it hard to pass thru the jungle, but when ya do get on the hill side, the rocks, sometimes fall, and you gotta be very careful how you move…So far it is more like some movie than it is a real war, but, bugs, snakes, birds who are loud, and monkeys who make more noise than you ever heard, one of the Yards [GI slang for Montagnards] told me when the birds and monkey are quiet you got a big problem…”

More than a year later, in March 1965, he wrote Miss B: “I am going back to Okinawa, and with just some good moves, I can stay there, or come back to CONUS, and be, outta all this madness.” Pushing the boundaries on what could be put in a letter from the war zone, he adds: “I will tell you the whole mood has changed here, more guys getting killed, and way more ambushes, outright camp overruns, and this is now, really starting to look like a war.”

Getting out of the Army in March 1966 with several thousand dollars, “a few ounces of Cambodian Red Weed, a .45 pistol, two sets of civilian clothes, and a sale brochure for Harley motorcycles,” Albanese set out from California to New York aiming for a life of adventure. His first civilian job, as recounted in a recent memoir titled 101 Elsie St (Poetic Justice Books, 2023), was hauling kilos of marijuana in a VW van from Arizona to sell to mob connections in Coney Island. In the midst of cross-country drug mule treks, he spent some time hanging out with a girl friend in New York’s East Village, where in the summer of 1967 he hooked up with some other angry vets to help launch Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

I remember Dom as being exceedingly bitter, haranguing me to make harsher statements than I felt comfortable with in my fledgling public speaking role as a VVAW organizer. I don’t recall us talking about poetry, although I also dropped by poetry events at St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery, an East Village institution.

And then, like many vets who helped get a radical antiwar veterans’ group off the ground, Dominic Albanese disappeared. Decades later, he popped up on Facebook, interacting with vet poets and posting firecracker bursts of short poems. One day he wrote that he needed money to pay some bill and was selling copies of his books at discount. Turns out he’s the author of more than a dozen collections of poetry and two memoirs. Many of his books are listed on Amazon and

In his book description on Amazon for a 2019 poetry collection titled Disconnected Memories, he notes: “I have been writing poetry since I was twelve years old, and within sight of where I am sitting at the moment are more than seventy-five notebooks full of poems. When I returned to the United States from Vietnam in March of 1966 I spent at least fifteen years--in the words of Bryon--being ‘mad and bad and dangerous to know’. I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a malady that could not then be named--for a few years I had an almost terminal case of it. Crime, drugs, chopped reality, fast motorcycles, women, rum and cocaine, all of these just about killed me. I went to prison for a while. Through all of that I never stopped writing poetry, even if some of my poems from those times are as dreadful as the years themselves were.”

Thursday, July 11, 2024


Osprey on nest near Cayuga Lake (photo by Jan Barry)

Meditation Blues

Sleepy Sunday morning,
During chair yoga slow stretch
My thoughts wander
Like wayward clouds

The other side of 80
Is a place I never expected to be—
Eying the fast lane
From a bedroom chair

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Hitchhiking Home from Danang Book Review

Gerald McCarthy: Haunted Marine, VVAW Activist, College Professor
By Jan Barry
For more than 30 years, students at a small Catholic college in upstate New York took composition and literature courses taught by a quirky professor named Gerald McCarthy. Some were appalled to discover that their English prof had gone AWOL from the Marines after a tour in Vietnam and served time in jail. Others were delighted to find that this acerbic vet—who propelled himself into the University of Iowa Writers Workshop masters’ degree program—prodded students to become better writers.

“McCarthy has led a very interesting life,” one senior wrote on “He draws on his experiences in his writing and encourages his students to do the same. When I was his student he really pushed me to dig deeper and do something meaningful. He's passionate about poetry and creative writing.”

I got some insight into this dynamic while teaching journalism at the same college for several years. Gerald McCarthy also enlightened his students by bringing in as guest speakers avant-garde poets addressing war and social issues. Retired now as professor of English at St. Thomas Aquinas College, McCarthy has dug deep into his past to produce an astounding volume of literature. Hitchhiking Home from Danang: A Memoir of Vietnam, PTSD and Reclamation (McFarland, 2024) reveals the inner world of many war veterans that home folks haven’t a clue about.

“You come home alone and no one knows what it’s like…the aloneness would not let go of me, it clung like a mist or a shadow, and I couldn’t shake it,” he writes. “I felt like there was a stranger in the room, someone I hardly knew—and the stranger was me. Alone, aloof, apart. It stayed and grew and became my ‘thing’ and I could not shake it or find a way out of the despair and unrest it brought.”

There were things that happened in Vietnam that he couldn’t talk about. He couldn’t find words for what troubled him when he went AWOL from a Marine base in Norfolk, Virginia. He couldn’t blurt it out when he ended up in jail, in a military brig and in a Navy hospital psychiatric ward. He couldn’t say, years later, when his 18-year-old son asked what happened.

“I tell Nate, ‘Well, I just left, I’d had enough of it, you know.’ And I think that’s close to the truth, but I’m leaving things out on purpose,” he writes. “I’m leaving out the nightmares, the waking sweats…I’m not telling him about the flashbacks, about the dead, about the other stuff.”

There were no words for what to say about the war for 19-year-old combat vets coming home in 1967. Words like post-traumatic stress, survivor guilt did not yet exist. Grief was not in the lexicon of a Marine. Even years later, he couldn’t tell his wife about the damn, disturbing dreams that kept popping up.

“My wife shakes me in the dark and asks, ‘Who are you talking to? Why are you so restless?’” He couldn’t tell her that sometimes he was intently talking with dead buddies, that he was suddenly remembering a sergeant’s drunken screams about the horrendous casualties in the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic, the explosions of the mortar attack shortly after he got to his field unit, the mortar attack on the Danang airfield when he was about to leave for the States, the airplane burning, men scrambling out of the flames, and so many other ways Marines died in Vietnam.

“And then the others too, after I came home, after I was discharged, after all the ‘military madness’ had ebbed and I was drifting in a cloud of stelazine and beer and regret,” he wrote. “Bill Shaw crashing his old Corvette into a tree at night…Dennis Michaels…hung himself in his parents’ home…two months back from his time with the Army.”

McCarthy struggled through classes at a state college. He got into the Iowa Writers Workshop, where professors told him the war was over and to write about other things. He wrote poetry about the war to try to describe it. War Story: Vietnam War Poems (The Crossing Press, 1977) took a crack at it. It described the elements of PTSD before the malady was named by the psychiatric establishment. That first poetry collection caught the attention of Gloria Emerson, the fabled New York Times war correspondent, who became a mentor. She got him an assignment to write an article about the dedication of the new Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. “You have to go down there and cover the dedication ceremony and then you’ll write a poem about it later,” she told him in a telephone call. “First you get paid to write about it and that will cover your expenses.”

He reached out to other vets, joining Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He offered writing workshops for vets, taught writing at Attica prison, in migrant labor camps, county jails, schools. By the time he became a college professor, he knew a lot about how to help other people tell their stories.

But he struggled to tell his own. This book is focused on revealing, 50-some years since his return from war, what he found so hard to talk about. In retirement, he can no longer hide behind the sandbags he erected as a college professor who took on extra work, including teaching at the American Academy in Rome and at local schools.

“Now they come back when I’m alone, and in the dusk those shadows start to materialize. I can see them—glimpse their faces—this legion,” he writes. “And they are there waiting. They know I have had a life. And I have to join them at some point. I keep trying to tell a few stories, push away from what is there… I think the solution is to learn how to speak to people again, to try to communicate, to keep forcing yourself to wake up. You can’t give in to the ghosts, to the grief, to the overwhelming sadness.”

And he discovered another insight. “Now 50+ years later, and after four years of therapy at the James A. Peters VA Hospital in Bronx, New York, I have come to realize that the tranquilizers were a stumbling block to my recovery,” he writes. “Now I know I needed therapy and counseling. Now I know the tranquilizer led to other depressants like alcohol…and drugs, to feeling depressed and full of self-loathing.”

As a persistently creative poet and writer, Gerald McCarthy demonstrates in this book how he helped forge a better way of dealing with PTSD and survivor guilt: write it out.


Summer flowers (photo by Jan Barry)

Summer Song

I escape the crowds and summer heat,
hanging out in our backyard botanical garden—
ringed by a long overgrown privet hedgerow
entangled with grape vines on one side,
an old apple tree and towering elm
sheltering butterfly bushes and
a rainbow array of flowers in the back,
plus a meditation garden behind the garage
that’s nestled amid butterfly bushes,
a sprawling hemlock with multiple tops,
and a conclave of rock walls—
here I can sit and commune with
butterflies, humming birds,
song birds flitting from bird feeders
to bird bath to hidden nests