Doug Anderson’s “Judgment”

Doug Anderson is an American poet and fiction writer who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. Anderson served as a combat medic in Vietnam and has written several books that chronicle his experiences during the war. “Night Ambush” is taken from his second collection of poems, The Moon Reflected Fire, which was published in 1994. Anderson’s war poems have been called “uncompromising” and “wrenching” by fellow poets and rank as some of the most honest, intimate portraits of war’s complex imagery — often brutal and shocking, sometimes strangely tender and unexpected — to come out of that era of history.

It is so quiet
you can hear a safety clicked off
all the way on the other side.

Anderson’s poetic strategy is not to create poems that protest the war and its evils; rather, the poems serve as witness and recall, in exacting detail, what his experiences were like and reveal the complexity of one’s consciousness. In “Night Ambush”, Anderson describes the long moments of silence before a night raid on an enemy village. Notice how even the poem’s syllables are short and click-like, as well as the chopped sentences. Small movements (smoke, insects in the speaker’s hair, the tracer above the hill, and the snake) all seem to exist in simultaneity as the speaker’s admissions and awareness of his place in what is happening.

Night Ambush

We are still, lips swollen with mosquito bites.
A treeline opens out onto paddies
quartered by dikes, a moon in each,
and in the center, the hedged island of a village
floats in its own time, ribboned with smoke.
Someone is cooking fish.
Whispers move across water.
Children and old people. Anyone between
is a target. It is so quiet
you can hear a safety clicked off
all the way on the other side.
Things live in my hair. I do not bathe.
I have thrown away my underwear.
I have forgotten the why of everything.
I sense an indifference larger than anything
I know. All that will remain of us
is rusting metal disappearing in vines.
Above the fog that clots the hill ahead
a red tracer arcs and dims.
A black snake slides off the paddy dike
into the water and makes the moon shiver.

4 Replies to “Doug Anderson’s “Judgment””

  1. Diego Granados, Period 5. This poem is protesting the war in Vietnam because it tells about how “children and old people. Anyone else in between is a target.” It’s depressing but that’s the way wars are. People die for no reason other than they were born and live somewhere.

  2. This poem is protesting bout war. The man has kids and indent people on target to shot at. Kinda makes it seem like he don’t wanna kill them 🔫🔪💀 Pedro Ortiz per.5

  3. This poem feels almost overwhelming with the amount of small pieces which build up to the speakers full awareness. I assume that hyper-awareness is what is feels like to be in such a situation, though. So for his goals as a writer, I’d say his method of writing is quite effective.

    1. I agree! I find the poet’s use of anaphora (I do not; I have; I have; I sense; I know) and the active voice make the middle of the poem especially powerful. It is interesting that he uses anaphora as a marker to cue the reader that the poem has moved to the center, from the surrounding geography, to the village, to himself, and then out again.

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