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SHALLOW GRAVES: TWO WOMEN AND VIETNAM by Wendy Wilder Larsen and Tran Thi Nga (Random House: $16.95; 225 pp.)

April 20, 1986

Will the Vietnam conflict be the first war recorded better by women than by men? I do not disregard the moving brilliance of Michael Herr's "Dispatches," nor the severe parable of "Going After Cacciato," but a story of war is not the same as a story of men at war; there are wider connections. For these, I think of Frances Fitzgerald's "Fire in the Lake," Gloria Emerson's "Winners and Losers," Bobby Ann Mason's "In Country," and now this dual memorial written by two women, one American and one Vietnamese.

Why should it be so, if it is so? Is it because this was a war more truly perceived, at least by Western eyes, through its cost than through its plot? Agincourt, related by those who came to strip the armor and bury the dead, instead of by Shakespeare's King Harry? "Hamlet," told by Fortinbras?

For America, it was a war neither of victory nor, strictly speaking, of defeat. We have neither Achilles pursuing Hector around Troy, nor Hector fleeing; respective exploits, if you like, along the ascending and descending cycle of prowess. What you have is the trampled ground over there, and the trampled sense of national purpose over here.

We do not find it congenial to think of ourselves as subject to history. No nation does, of course; and political discourse everywhere is triumphalist one way or the other; even the discourse of pacifists and ecologists. Even Thoreau's. But while France's rulers, say, proclaimed various shades of gloire, the people listened and kept something under the mattress, just in case.

We still think history can be what we want it to be; we absorb what enhances us and ignore the rest. Which is why the Vietnam veterans came back in silence. It took Emerson, 10 years ago, and Mason, last year, to look at them. It took a woman artist to conceive the black marble trench--a feminine symbol, if ever there was one--that commemorated their dead.

Wendy Wilder Larson is a poet who spent several war-time years in Saigon as the wife of Time magazine's bureau chief. Tran Thi Nga was the bureau's bookkeeper, and Larson would turn to her for help and counsel. After the war, they met in the United States, where Nga was a refugee, and the roles, to a degree, were reversed. "Mrs. Nga is coming toward me/on the Avenue of the Americas," Larson writes. "She's wearing a red nylon ski parka/She looks small and alone/beside all the reflecting glass."

Together, they wrote "Shallow Graves," a story of two complementary displacements that, taken together, record an avalanche of history. In Saigon, reaching out to a strange civilization that her people were helping to destroy while trying to save, Larson was Ba Larson. In Cos Cob, Conn., reaching out to a strange civilization that had replaced her own, Nga is Mrs. Nga. The two displacements were not symmetrical. Larson's was temporary and by choice; Nga's was permanent and unavoidable. Asymmetrically, then, like bow and violin, they draw out a grave and elegiac theme for our times.

In the first part, Larson relates in unadorned but graceful verse, a succession of vignettes and reflections. They convey her despairing sense of being the outsider at a precious and tragic ceremony; part of some collective Gulliver whose kindest gestures kill. In the second part, Nga tells her own long and astonishing voyage from a sheltered, Mandarin-like childhood to the ghostless chill of an American suburb. Her rich and compelling narrative has been set out as verse by Larson; an operation that is not entirely successful.

In her own story, Larson's poetry, transparent and understated and punctuated with flashes of irony and wonder, serves her marvelously well. The editors are heavy-handed, I think, in stressing its painlessness. In fact, it clarifies and enhances; and the only times that it can be slightly obtrusive is when it goes out of its way to be plain and matter-of-fact.

Her theme, essentially of a single-minded American presence in a complex and highly developed culture, gets a great deal out of incongruity. Briefed before departure by a Time editor: "Any questions? he asked/What about the water?/People do live there, he said." She looks at his wall map, stuck with pushpins for his correspondents. "In a peninsula floating in green/stood two red ones./One of them would be us."

In a poem entitled "Learning the War," she recites the jargon new arrivals had to learn. "We learned to rate hamlets/praise Ruff-puffs/recognize Kit Carson scouts/laugh at white mice./We learned it all/and couldn't speak to anyone/when we got home."

She writes about shopping expeditions for local artifacts, about consciousness-raising sessions for American wives. There is a terrible freight aboard her details. She writes of an American rural adviser who brings along a Golden Retriever that the village children fall in love with. When he leaves, he shoots it. It is one of her themes. Americans do not simply use things, they use them up.

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