Vietnam Veteran Shares Poem 'Combat Paper' About Wartime and What Followed

Sep 13, 2017

Vietnam veteran Martin Lesinski, at KRCB's studio September 13, 2017.
Credit KRCB/Steve Mencher

Vietnam is once again pushing its way into the national conversation – courtesy of an 18-hour film about the war by documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. It starts on many PBS stations on Sunday night; KRCB will be airing the entire series at a later date. The film inspired us to connect with local Vietnam veterans – including Martin Lesinski, a Nicasio-based photographer and poet. When he visited our studio this week, he brought a poem, inspired by an art project that encouraged veterans to create sheets of paper by pulping their combat uniforms. He read excerpts to News Director Steve Mencher. 

The cover for Martin Lesinski's book of poetry, assembled from materials that were part of combat uniforms.
Credit KRCB/Steve Mencher

Combat Paper

In uniform you became a cipher.
Singularity forfeited for unity.
Conformity molding a unit.
Quirks an ornament to unified action.

Post deployment:
Your uniform recycled,
Utility reduced to fiber,
Fiber molded into paper, into this blank page.
Touching it.
Rubbing it.
Reaching for traces of where you’ve been, your sweat, perhaps your blood.
Listen, Listen!
… for the echoes of your hopes and dreams, your fears, your overwhelm, your boredom.

This paper: its history, its past life mute
This paper: beaming the potential of the blank page
This paper: awaiting tales of the new life embraced, explored.
Compost your baggage into nutrients.
Reset your course by unfamiliar stars.
Strive for reconciliation, for gentleness and generosity,
the untasted of laughter and of love.

This paper with a front and a back
Evoking the outside and inside of the uniforms from which it’s made.
What of this demarcation of outside actions and inferior self?
Fertile soil for confusion, for disjunction, for conflict.
For days riding the pendulum of anger and numbness,
Nights a replay of alarm and loss.
How clean the self now standing naked without the uniform?
Camouflage removed.
Standing naked, bare naked.
A clean body, a smile.
Yet what failed to scrub clean?
Launder the uniform, soap and shower the body.
Yet cogs remain in the mechanism of self.
The very uniform you wore into action pulped into this blank page.
As you from conscription through enlistment now standing naked before your future.
Yet as this paper has fibers, possesses texture what you remains?
… having been molded, assaulted, discharged but not into peace.
I run my fingers across this paper yet wish they could massage your soul.

I do not see your face in memory.
Yet I see the faces of others - others I have known.
And if I look over their shoulders I see a line of faces stretching into antiquity.
Were they able to pulp their uniforms into papers,
into a clean page on which to write bright futures
Across the relentless momentum of conscription, transformation and discharge?

The places we can’t scrub clean remain
unknown to others
and our voices never rise above the hubris of war.
That drum beat of those who do not know, who do not risk.
The march to sacrifice if not of life then at least of self.
The places no one will ever see.
What gravitational forces
propel your reshaping of self,
your steps into possibility,
into unrecognized wants and needs?

Struggle has skinned my touch of roughness
Yet not ebbed my sensitivity to your tale,
your struggle to recognize and actualize that which is right.
We hold this paper.
What was once worn into battle now a blank page.
Silent about self.

Martin Lesinski