Nikki Giovanni defines poetry as “pure energy horizontally contained,” and that’s exactly what the best novels in verse offer: energy and immediacy in the voice of the narrator and poetic lines direct to the mind, heart and spirit of the characters. In Ann Burg’s fine novel in verse, Matt Pin is a refugee from the war in Vietnam. As he says of his new home in the United States, “There are no mines here, / no flames, no screams / no sounds of helicopters / or shouting guns. I am safe.” He is safe, but he is displaced and haunted by his past. His American father left him, his Vietnamese mother gave him away to American soldiers to airlift him out of Saigon, and he feels guilty for the little brother who was horribly injured by a landmine blast while in Matt’s care.
Now he feels like a stranger in a strange land, the “Vietnamese kid, / the one who reminds everyone / of the place they all want to forget.” “My brother died / because of you,” whispers a boy at school. But gradually—with the help of Jeff, a vet who teaches Matt piano, a baseball coach with struggles of his own, a loving American family and the Veteran Voices meetings he attends—Matt begins to find a place for himself, and his screaming nightmares give way to reflections and then to talking about his experiences, gaining acceptance even from the boy at school who calls him frog-face.
Burg’s verse places readers into Matt’s mind as he begins to piece together a remembrance of his life in Vietnam out of “a pocketful / of broken pieces.” Burg has a facility for the surprising image: “tanks lumbered / in the roads / like drunken elephants, / and bombs fell / from the sky / like dead crows.” When Matt plays catch with his American father in the evening, the ball goes “Back and forth / back and forth, / until dusk creeps in / and the ball / is just a swiftly / moving shadow / fading into darkness.”â€©By the end of the novel, Matt has found an acceptance of who he is. He has forged wholeness out of all the broken pieces of his life; he likes his American family, his piano lessons, baseball and his American little brother, but he also is determined to someday find his Vietnamese brother. And readers feel reassured that Matt is going to be OK.
Dean Schneider teaches middle school English.