Vietnam War Haiku - A Study of Nick Virgilio
by Dana Sayles
Vietnam holds a daily presence in my life due to my father’s injuries sustained in the Vietnam War; therefore, I chose to write on Nick Virgilio, a haiku author known for his poems on haiku pertaining to the Vietnam War. Nick’s younger brother was killed in the Vietnam War and it helped in his healing process to write haiku based on his experiences with his brother’s death. Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku was published after the death of Nick by fellow Virgilio admirers and included an interview Nick had given to a radio station (Virgilio, 1988) and picture of Nick and his family growing up. The book was a taken from a collection of unpublished haiku Nick had composed throughout his lifetime with the authors and his brother singling out some of his best work that had yet to be provided in book form. (Gruttola, Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku, 2012)
Keywords: Vietnam haiku, Nick Virgilio
The effects of the Vietnam War walked around my house daily growing up. I call him my dad. Drafted into the Vietnam War in 1967, my father was injured in the war and carried the scars with him throughout his daily life. My father and his best friend in Vietnam were collecting hand grenades from a battlefield from little Vietnamese children and one of them handed my father a live grenade. My father’s best friend and all of the children were killed in the explosion; my father was the only one that day that made it out alive. When I heard there was a haiku author that wrote haiku based on the effects the Vietnam War could have on a family, I knew this was the author I wanted to write about. Nick Virgilio wrote as a way to help him accept the fate his brother had endured and to help with the healing process—a way to put feelings to paper and work through the pain. In reading his work, I realized that not only his haiku in Vietnam spoke to me but all his haiku in their very real world existence left me with a deep sense of who he was as a writer and as a person. Nick often wrote based on his daily wanderings through the dying city where he lived in Camden, New Jersey. He believed you should be able to picture the place or scene in your mind before the emotion of the poem spoke to you. He was very descriptive in his writings and often would have many versions of the same haiku before deciding it was how it was meant to be written. Nick even had many haiku that took him years or decades to finish- often having the first two lines finished but waiting years for the last line to come into focus. Below are some of my favorite haiku by Nick Virgilio—I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
The front cover of the book has one of Nick Virgilio’s most famous Vietnam haiku’s printed on the cover. It was a tribute to his brother lost in the Vietnam War.
deep in rank grass,
through a bullet-riddled helmet:
an unknown flower
Nick Virgilio, 12
Emotions run high in this famous haiku. It immediately takes me to a long forgotten battlefield with overgrown grass where soldiers fought so bravely but is now rarely travelled on. I can imagine someone stumbling upon the old helmet riddled with bullet holes and overgrown weeds now intertwined inside the helmet itself. A dark reminder of what used to take place on a daily basis but also the land becoming part of the helmet like the war will forever be a part of so many people’s lives—not easily forgotten. It also makes me sad in that it makes me think of all the forgotten men who fought so hard—even those that came home to a land that did not welcome them home with open arms. That it’s almost discarded in the field—like many of our soldiers who felt they were discarded after they came home. After living in a home with someone so close to the war all of these years—our entire family has a deep sense of patriotism, a room dedicated to the Vietnam War, and we never pass a uniformed serviceman (or woman) without taking the time out to tell them “Thank you” for their service.
Another of Nick Virgilio’s Vietnam haiku that resonated with me was this one:
dazed, all I heard from the Major
“. . . killed in Vietnam . . .”
Nick Virgilio, x
So many parents and loved ones had to deal with the sight of another solider walking up the path to deliver the news that their son wasn’t coming home. You can feel the anguish in this poem and picture the mother falling to her knees as the fateful words are spoken. In her grief, the only words she hears are “killed in Vietnam” and all other words spoken go unheard. I can also feel this from the side of the Major that has to deliver this news over and over again to so many—that it may be the Major that is actually dazed at having to deliver the news to yet another family that will never again be the same.
I don’t know if the next haiku was actually written about Vietnam, but it took me there:
in the night woods . . .
a lone candle lights the face
of the frightened child
Nick Virgilio, 50
I think all too often we forget that the children of Vietnam were often victims of the war as well. Parents and villages were gunned down and many children were left orphaned. I know my dad often befriended the children of the villages nearby and I can just picture this child hiding out in the woods after his village was attacked alone and afraid. I see this as someone coming up on the child and right away you can feel the fear and loneliness in the child. Unsure who is shining a light on him, the child cowers in the dark afraid to move.
One haiku that moved me deeply:
the blind musician
extending an old tin cup
collects a snowflake
Nick Virgilio, 41
This haiku had a myriad of visuals for me. I picture a Vietnam Vet that was not welcome once he returned home; injured from the war where he lost his eyesight (my father only has one eye due to his injuries sustained in the war) and unable to work. I see him as a homeless Vet—long forgotten by others—begging for money on a street corner but all he has collected in his cup is a snowflake from a snow that has just begun to gently fall. I can feel the peacefulness that comes when it first begins to snow and the quiet that sounds the world like a blanket at that first snowfall.
Many times when someone speaks of losing a child it’s always centered on the feelings of loss for the mother. This haiku by Nick speaks volumes to the loss felt by his father:
on my father’s wrist,
keeping time and eternity:
my dead brother’s watch
Nick Virgilio, 62
I think men often deal with loss and sadness of a child in a quieter, inward way than the mother’s do. The haiku above reminds me of a father dealing with the huge loss of his son and choosing to honor him and remembering him by daily wearing something that he himself used to wear. It’s a quiet kind of sadness, like the father cannot let go and wants a daily reminder that his son is no longer with him. To me it feels like the watch is both a blessing and a curse to his father. It’s a reminder every day that his child will never come home and yet he feels close to his son by wearing the watch on a daily basis—almost as if a tribute to his life.
The following haiku by Nick did not have a reference to Vietnam but it had such a profound effect on me that I had to include it:
the sack of kittens
sinking in the icy creek
increases the cold
Nick Virgilio, 30
This haiku was almost hard for me to read—though I read it over and over again and was unable to get it out of my head. This poem literally gave me goose bumps and left me with a heavy heart. I hoped this was a poem of his imagination rather than an actual event he witnessed as I know he often took long walks and wrote about the things he experienced around him. The helplessness of the kittens and the cruelty to which their lives were taken leave me almost grieving in a way. As a huge animal lover, volunteer at the animal shelter, and open home to rescues—this pulled at my heartstrings unlike any other haiku I had ever read.
Lastly I’d like to look at two of Nick’s poems:
signing myself out
of the Coronary Ward:
the sun on the lawn
Nick Virgilio, 6
on the petition
condemning Agent Orange:
the names of the dead
Nick Virgilio, 56
Agent Orange was a very scary part of the Vietnam War and it would be many years before all of the affects it had on people were beginning to surface. These two haiku took me to the place my family has been dealing with over the past 8 years as my father was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and the prospect that he would never again live the active life he once knew. With only 21% of his heart working, it’s a real reminder to us every day that the Vietnam War had an effect on lives far beyond the years the war itself was taking place. Agent Orange is ultimately what the Army determined was the underlying cause of my father’s illness and has since declared him 100% disabled due to him being exposed to Agent Orange. I think Nick and his family too felt the effects of the war long after the war was over and it was something his family carried with them throughout their entire lives just as my family does.
Gruttola, R. d. (2012). Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku. Arlington: Turtle Light Press.
Virgilio, N. (1988, December 12). The Quick In Us: An Interview with Nick Virgilio. (M. Moss-Coane, Interviewer)