Tim Bagwell’s Love Poem
● by Chris Lynch
I want to write love poems from the autopsy reports
of the in-bound Dover dead, to use cold hard aluminum words
and scar into the stupored minds of the living
the vomitus stink and sludge of war-broken bodies.
— Tim Bagwell, “I want to write love poems”
Tim Bagwell, a local veteran of the Vietnam War, will combine his own poetry with iconic war photographs and recordings of anti-war songs in a 90-minute presentation at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater on November 10. According to Bagwell, he chose that date “so that as people either participate in Veteran’s Day or are aware of it, this presentation will balance out their feelings.” The program, which Bagwell warns “may not be the place for families to bring their elementary and junior high school kids,” is designed to be provocative.
While Bagwell’s poetry is shaped by his personal experiences as a Marine and veteran, the photographs and music will extend the evening’s focus beyond the Vietnam War. According to Bagwell, “The photographs are iconic war photos from the Civil War through the Iraq Wars. There are relatively few of Vietnam.” While there will be a couple of musical selections from the Vietnam era, a range of songs will be heard, including more contemporary numbers by groups like the Black Eyed Peas and A Perfect Circle. “I really tried not to focus on the ’60s because this is not a reminiscence. This is not entertainment. This is designed to get people’s attention in a very serious way. It’s going to make them feel uncomfortable.”
This design extends from the fact that Bagwell, now 64 years old, has struggled ever since the war to be comfortable in his own skin. Even his earliest experiences in the military, which he captures in his poem “Desensitization,” still haunt him. The poem depicts the process through which the military, as Bagwell says, “manipulates minds to be able to kill people.” To Bagwell, “The purpose of the military, the bottom line, is to kill. It’s to kill on demand, not ask questions, and not be overly critical. The first step of being brainwashed into doing that is boot camp.” In “Desensitization,” the drill sergeant’s insult-laden refrain gradually gives way to a single verb:
“Asshole-kill, dick-face-kill, fuck me-kill, fuck you-kill, fuck us-kill: thrill-kill.”
Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill.
“This is one poem that I’ll be putting on the screen and I’ll be instructing people that they will have to read on their own,” Bagwell says. “It’s one that, quite frankly, I hate to read. It just brings back way too many feelings that I’ve struggled all my life to get away from.”
When Bagwell was in Vietnam he wrote regularly to his fiancé back in the states. Although they did not stay together, she kept all of his letters, and about 10 years ago let Bagwell borrow and photocopy them. “I’ve read them from front to back in chronological order,” he says, “and I can just see my gradual mental diminishment.” His unit was pulled out of Vietnam in July of 1969 in the first phase of President Nixon’s de-escalation, cutting Bagwell’s tour short by 6 months. “I’m fairly convinced, although I’ll never know, that had I had to stay the entire 13 months I would have become so exhausted I would have done something stupid and died. So I do think getting out of country early went a long way toward saving my life.”
The psychological impact of the war, however, made life at home difficult. “I’ve been married three times. Prior to coming to Bloomington and going to work for Indiana University in 1999, I had never worked for a company longer than 4 years because I just couldn’t stand the internal politics or I would get mad. Somebody would do something I didn’t like and I would walk off the job. I had zero patience, I hated authority, and I still do. I was just really, really unhappy with myself.”
Bagwell recalls asking himself, “Now that I’ve gotten fucked up, how do I get out of it?” Now retired, with the assistance of therapy and medication Bagwell has been able to achieve stability by exercising, writing poetry, and working as an anti-war advocate. Though his work is unpublished, he has been seriously writing poetry for about ten years, reading it at Boxcar Books and at Carmel High School, which invites Vietnam War veterans to speak to its history students every spring.
The program on November 10 has grown out of his Carmel presentations, but it will now be aimed at a more general audience, a demographic that Bagwell believes needs to pay closer attention to the impact of war. “The middle class has been so totally blinded by going to an all-volunteer army,” says Bagwell. “War doesn’t cost them anything but their tax dollars. It doesn’t cost them their kids, it doesn’t cost them their neighbors, it doesn’t cost them their grandchildren. And they can literally not pay attention to it. I fought post traumatic stress disorder my entire adult life and that’s just not acceptable.”
Bagwell’s goal, therefore, is to provoke those whom he believes have been pampered into indolence. “We — the middle class — have just been bought off with the quality of our life. I mean, our lives are so pampered. There are only 14 years in this country’s history that we have not sent troops somewhere to kill somebody. But we don’t know that. We don’t know our own history. Because I think we don’t want to. It’s too painful. It requires us to turn off the television and do something about people that we’ve never met. And that’s very, very difficult.”
The presentation will be held Monday, November 10 at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. Doors open at 7:30. Program begins at 8 with a question-and-answer session to follow. Admission is free.[Photograph by Jeffrey A. Wolin, Courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago.]