The poems in “Taps on the Walls,” by John Borling, were composed while he was a POW within the infamous Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. An Air Force fighter pilot shot down in 1966, then-Capt. Borling was imprisoned for almost seven years, and this experience deeply informs our reading of his verse. Shared among fellow prisoners using a forbidden code tapped on the walls of the prison, the poems are deeply rooted in the storyteller’s tradition, with flashes of the ribald, the sonic interplay of military jargon, portraits of mundane aspects of military life, and the occasional lyric lifted into the beauty of flight. They are the poems of an imprisoned fighter pilot longing for the wide-open spaces high above Earth’s surface.
Borling’s poems hark back to an age in which poetry functioned as a common vehicle in the storyteller’s trade, and they express a proud military patriotism. The collection is framed extensively: a foreword by Sen. John McCain (in which McCain says he “met John after the Son Tay raid in November of 1970” while in the Hanoi Hilton) is paired with an introduction by Borling himself; Borling also provides a brief epilogue and an afterword, as well as a glossary of terms.
The poems, then, are set within this conversational grounding. The prosaic elements of the book make it clear that it wasn’t written for poets. It’s for veterans and active-duty service members, as well as their families; it’s for those who might pick up the book but who have had limited interaction with the art.
That isn’t to say that practicing poets won’t find value here. Far below the syllabics of this poetry resides a deeper code, each letter meticulously preserved in a chart that Borling describes in his introduction. Thus, while many of the poems stumble rhythmically, jarring the ear as they attempt to fulfill their sonic and formal mandate, I find them compelling. Where I would normally turn a page or close a book, that inaudible presence — within every line — of numerical code tapped on the prison walls of 1968, 1969, 1970 — becomes palpable, almost hypnotic.
The collection is a powerful testament to the sheer doggedness and willpower Borling exerted in preserving himself — and his imagination — through the creative act of making and performing poetry. These are rough-edged pieces, composed in desolate, isolated conditions. And they acknowledge their jagged edges, as in these lines from “The Road”: “Engineer, regard your road, work in vain. / To make crooked straight and rough places plain.”
Throughout the volume, Borling speaks in layman’s terms to readers who may find poetry and military service a foreign landscape. In the epilogue, for example, he reminds us that “listeners fashion images,” while encouraging us to read the verses aloud.
Unfortunately, the retired major general wears his stars in places where the poetry would be better served by his remaining a bard. For instance, at one point he expounds in prose on America’s ongoing need for “robust air power.” Still, at its heart, this is a book of prison poetry; these are poems straight from the cell, tapped onto the walls of the pages. For those who simply want to dive into the poems, I recommend “Carpet of Clouds,” which extols the virtues and pleasures of flight; “Southeast Asia Story” for its belief in the poetry available within military jargon; and “The Tourney,” with its poignant final lines: “For time’s an old and boring enemy. / Too cruel to kill forgotten men like me.”
“Taps on the Walls” adds to the historical record, as well as to the body of prison literature available to us. It’s also a book that attests to the enduring value of poetry. Borling’s collection offers resilience, verse as a means of preserving the imagination, verse as a bulwark against that which would destroy our individual humanity.
Turner is the author of “Here, Bullet,” written while serving as an infantry team leader in Iraq from 2003-04, and “Phantom Noise.” He directs the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College.
At 2 p.m. Tuesday, John Borling will speak at the Reserve Officers Association at 1 Constitution Ave. NE, Washington. Reservations required at www.roa.org.
Pale golden talons stir the eastern sky;
Another fledgling day departs the hills.
It takes the air as thermaled falcons fly,
Cascading light as carefree first-flight thrills.
And who attends this noble soaring birth,
From mountain crag to gentle rolling plain,
May marvel from their vantage point on earth,
Yet miss so much, not of the sky’s domain.
But I’m not of the earth. At altitude,
I greet the infant day with engine song,
My contrails etched on endless morning blued,
And rare abandon urging me along.
It’s here, unfettered brother men enthrall
To first-light flight, the one judged best of all.
— from “Taps on the Walls,”
by John Borling
Poems from the Hanoi Hilton
By John Borling
Master Wings. 164 pp. $19.95