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From War to Peace Poet

June 30, 2014


Not many poets these days embrace being peace activists. Based on poems published in popular magazines, readers would have no clue what contemporary poets think about Americans’ addiction to waging—and continually celebrating—an endless litany of wars.

Doug Rawlings embraces being a poet and a leader of Veterans For Peace. His new book, Orion Rising: Collected Poems, is dedicated to his family and the veterans’ organization founded in 1985 by Rawlings and other former soldiers. Over time many others, including me, signed up as well.

I first encountered Doug Rawlings’ soul-shaking poetry on surviving an Army tour in Vietnam just as that war was ending. Several of his poems graced Demilitarized Zones, the anthology of angry verses by Vietnam vets that W.D. Ehrhart and I published in 1976. At the time, he was teaching high school English in Maine. Publication of those early poems, he notes in his recently self-published book, gave him a social and literary grounding.

Over the years, as his teaching path led to the University of Maine, he continued writing poetry and persistently advocating for peaceful resolutions of the far-flung wars that the United States insists on partaking in.

“As a veteran,” he writes in his book dedication, “I feel a specific obligation to bring back old memories, to rekindle anguish and despair long buried, and to speak out against this military madness that has so grotesquely distorted our past, that is tearing apart our present, and that threatens to extinguish our future.”

In his collected poems, Doug Rawlings confronts the worst of life, and celebrates the best of life, in poems that transform calcified clichés into lightning bug flashes of insight, foresight and delight. His war poetry punctures the patriotic balloon that imploded amid soldiers in Vietnam. His political poetry turns home front homilies into trumpet calls for peace campaigns. And his poet’s gaze on family, friends and nature—from his corner of Maine to the star-spangled universe—is no less, quite often, breath-taking.

In “Low Intensity Warfare,” for instance, he contrasts the atmosphere in North America—“Up here/ fall is in the air/ the mornings are crisp and clear”—to that in parts of Central America torn by civil wars stirred by US military and economic exploitation: “Down there/ young peasants/ are slipping into puddles/ of mangled skin…Down there/ the morning air/ smells of burning flesh…”

Doug Rawlings’ alternative way of life, embraced by many war veterans, is conveyed in his poem “Flower Song”:

Live your life
like a flower

Blossoming every hour

Reaching for the sun

Growing with the rain

Living every moment
like it’ll never come again

Orion Rising, which includes artwork by neighbors and friends Carol Scribner and Rob Shetterly, can be ordered through lulu.com, the online publisher.

Selected Works

Poetry
A tonic spray of poetry, verses that a Vietnam war veteran lives by.
Prose
A pragmatic, common-sense handbook for civic action at the community and international levels.