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Inside Out

Houston

Jerome Gold is a Vietnam war vet who, for the last several years, has worked as a counselor in a prison for youth offenders. This ruthless, powerful book -- his sixth -- is a collection of poetry and prose narratives in the voices of ex-soldiers destroyed by war and ex-children destroyed by the culture that abandoned them.

The first piece in the book, "Prisoners," functions as a prologue. Written in the voice of a Vietnamese POW, it ends:

"None of us believed anything.

We thought only about the food we would

eat that day."

For the people in this book, belief in anything like God or family or culture is an irrelevant, impossible luxury. These speakers' lives are about little more than brute survival.

The book is divided into three sections: the first in the voices of adults, many of whom are veterans; the second in the voices of gang youth; the third in mixed voices about long-term effects of physical, emotional, and atomic waste. By arranging his book in this way, Gold makes us think about both the individual and the cultural inheritance of violence.

Gold renders this disturbing material carefully with flat, deadpan diction. "The Motorcyclist" begins:

"Buff called about six.

She would be staying late.

A motorcyclist had broken his head

and they were trying to put it back

together. I was disappointed

but didn't press her."

Disappointment is the biggest emotional response this narrator has, and disappointment not even in a man's imminent death, but in his sort-of girlfriend's tardiness. These poems suggest that seeing too much horror eventually numbs our ability to feel compassion.

The third section of the book starts with this:

"I knew a boy who killed a man by dropping a

rock off a bridge into the windshield of his

passing car. After two years the boy had convinced

himself that the rock had dropped itself."

Sometimes, Gold illustrates, we alter or eradicate the memory of the awful things that we have done, that have been done to us, to survive. These poems are attempts at remembering and naming what we are capable of doing to ourselves.

Jerome Gold's newest book, Sergeant Dickinson, will be released in December.