Monday, July 14, 2008

Cordwood: poems from the forgotten war

Ralph Jacobs, the author of CORDWOOD, A COLLECTION OF KOREAN WAR POEMS, is a treasured friend and a Harvard educated medical doctor. He served in Dog Medical Company, First Marine Division, in the Korean War.

"We clambered over the ship's side on rope ladders and chugged on a landing barge into Inchon. With another medical company we set up the major collecting and clearing hospital at the Korean Kimpo Air Field, just captured, to treat the casualties from the assault on Seoul. . . I served in the Marines from July 1950, through June 1951. . . I hope the poems will offer a personal lens for you to see and feel my experiences in Korea. Many of the events, situations, and dilemmas in these poems mirror what others have seen and felt in other wars."
Ralph Jacobs, from his Introduction
April, 2004

The three poems that follow are from Ralph’s first “chapter” of poems: Trip to Korea, Inchon and Seoul Campaigns. “Cordwood” can be purchased from Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Bl., Corte Madera (415-927-9016) or Ralph Jacobs, 55 La Costa Ct, Novato, CA 94947 (415-898-6064)

I will post his poems from the three following chapters periodically in the weeks leading up to the presidential election. (Spectrum blog has previously posted a piece I submitted in which Jacobs’ poem, Cordwood, is featured.)


Telegrams summon the active reservists.
"Report within twenty-four hours."
Six of us docs at Pendleton examine them all day,
still a line a block long at 2 A.M.

Our commanding medical officer—
"Nobody fails this fitness exam—
they're active paid reservists."

One naked Marine—Please speed this up, doc—
my girlfriends waiting in a Carlsbad motel.

Another: My wife's eight months pregnant.
"Hurray, you'll have a son or daughter waiting."

And another: My store will go bankrupt!
Please let me out to sign those loan papers.
"Sorry son, c'est la guerre."

And another: I joined the reserves for the money.
"A real patriot. A corpsman, you lucky dog—
you're going on a luxury cruise."

"Total arrhythmia, grade IV rheumatic murmurs
in all hard areas in one-man.
What a mystery—a human heart."
This man fails.

A new war. Truman mobilizes.
The First Marines sail from San Diego to Korea.

Smallpox is endemic in Korea
"physician protect thyself
No-take vaccinations in your past
leave you on immunized"
Before sailing I tell my corpsman
Prick deeply—get the blood
under the cowpox vaccine on my arm.
Three days later he blurts:
You look like hell doc!
"An immense canker on my lip,
a papule on my arm—I rejoice."

Six months later—in our hospital tent—
two Marines frighten me.
Profoundly listless, hemorrhagic pustules
on their faces, arms and legs.
By the next morning—both are dead.

The Chinese Army; not immunized—
loses tens of thousands
to smallpox, typhus, cholera.

The Chinese people are appalled—
so many recruits called up.
The Chinese government denounces us:
U.S. Planes are dropping germs.

U.S. Fleet Task Force
Army Marines—Amphibious landing
Inchon, Korea, September 1950

All ships engulfed
by a brutal typhoon—
A howling black-cloud dragon spews
walls of water.
Our radios are dead.
Through a deck hatch I watch
whipped foam;
waves five times higher than the top
of the rigging
fling our troopship like cork.

On deck a two inch steel cable
linking three sailors snaps.
The three, swallowed by the sea.

Seasick pills are gone in thirty minutes.
Treatment—keep eating.
Four-inch sides fence the mess tables.
As the ship pitches, Dinty Moore stew bowls
slide up and down, up and down.
Stew three times a day for three days.
Grab that bowl as it goes by.

The reek of vomitus
from gray-green Marines,
bunks in five layers,
the deck, bulkheads—pervades.

The Marines want to get the hell out
of that stinking hold
onto landing barges,
scale shoreline clips,
Way to harbor mud,
attack North Koreans.

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