A Small Pain in My Chest by Michael Mack is a poem that artistically captures the gruesome nature of the Vietnam War of 1955-75. Dealing with the theme of violence, loss, trauma and the question of patriotism, the impactful stanzas highlight the sadness and grief of war through an interaction between a first-person narrator and a wounded soldier. The poem was published 1983.
Small Pain in my Chest | Summary
Within the first two lines of the poem, both the characters are introduced. One is the ‘soldier boy,’ who is the main subject of the poem, resting underneath a tree. The other is the poet himself- the word ‘I’ denotes Michael Mack’s first-person narration. The poet is beckoned towards the tree by the soldier, after a long-fought battle which resulted in several unfortunate deaths.
The soldier boy requests the narrator for a sip of water, saying that it would ‘surely do him good’ after fighting through the battle all day and night. He then says the reason he needs some water is because he has a ‘small pain in his chest.’ The narrator then sees the red stain on the soldier’s chest– but despite the injury, the soldier says he is lucky, for while many died, he only sustained a small chest injury.
The soldier concludes that his chest pain must be due to the fatigue that comes with old age, saying that he feels cold despite how brightly the sun is shining. He then explains how he got his injury- two hundred soldiers together climbed the hill when there was a sudden explosion. When he looked around in search of help, all he saw were deep craters and dead bodies. He tells the narrator that ‘he kept firing and tried to do his best’, until he succumbed to the pain in his chest and sat aside.
The soldier thanks the narrator for the water, smiling ‘the brightest smile’ he had ever seen, and musing the incredulity that a man like him, filled with zest, could be defeated by something as seemingly small as chest pain. He wonders how his wife and mother would react to see him in such a state, whether they had ever imagined this outcome.
The soldier then winces at the shining sun that he cannot see, wondering if it could be getting dark soon- to him, it is growing dim despite it being early in the day. He tells the narrator that he will get a little rest before travelling forward, and then quietly passes away. The narrator is unable to recall his emotions at that moment- he says he ‘must have cried’, overwhelmed by grief as he hugged the soldier to his chest- the soldier’s wound pressed against the pain in the poet’s heart.
Small Pain in my Chest reflects the anti-war perspective of the poet, Michael Mack. Mack served in the U.S. Air Force for 5 years, and his sentiments and experience shine through the simple yet poignant wording. It is aptly titled, as the phrase is repeated multiple times throughout the verses with the meaning deepenening at each refrain.This piece uses an interaction between a first-person narrator and a wounded soldier to highlight the sadness and cruelty of war, touching upon the abrupt end to young, innocent lives and the pain it causes to the family. Mack uses a rhythmic ‘aabb’ rhyming scheme, and employs dialogue, symbolism and alliteration throughout his work. Rather than a descriptive presentation of the gore and bloodshed of battle, or an assertive delivery of opinion, Small Pain in my Chest is a humbling and realistic viewpoint of the sadness of war and the emotional after-effects it may have.
Small Pain in my Chest | Analysis
Small Pain in my Chest | Analysis (Stanza 1)
The soldier boy was sitting calmly underneath that tree.
As I approached it, I could see him beckoning to me.
The battle had been long and hard and lasted through the night
And scores of figures on the ground lay still by morning’s light
The first stanza begins with a brief account of the setting– the soldier ‘sitting calmly under the tree’ while gesturing for the narrator, the information that the long battle had drawn to a close with many casualties, and the mention of ‘morning’s light’ which confirms that it is early in the day. It is important to note the adjective ‘calmly’ here because it emphasises that the soldier is either unaware or unminding of his injury. The casual, to-the-point nature of the line ‘scores of figures on the ground lay still’ shows the acceptance of the outcome of war.
Small Pain in my Chest | Analysis (Stanza 2)
“I wonder if you’d help me, sir”, he smiled as best he could.”
A sip of water on this morn would surely do me good.
We fought all day and fought all night with scarcely any rest –
A sip of water for I have a small pain in my chest.”
When the soldier asks the narrator for a sip of water, he smiles ‘as best he could,’ implying the physical difficulty of the action, caused due to the ‘small pain in his chest.’ This is the first time we hear the phrase. It is repeated every stanza, a refrain that carries the message of the piece within just five small words. We must also consider that after ‘fighting all day and all night without any rest,’ all the soldier asks for is a sip of water- this may be a subtle nod to the difficult conditions of a soldier– they cannot experience the normalcies of life, such as stable shelter, three meals a day, or even security. Their requests after battle are as undemanding as a sip of water.
Small Pain in my Chest | Analysis (Stanza 3)
As I looked at him, I could see the large stain on his shirt
All reddish-brown from his warm blood mixed in with Asian dirt.
“Not much”, said he. “I count myself more lucky than the rest.
They’re all gone while I just have a small pain in my chest.”
The narrator then sees the red stain on his chest, describing it as ‘warm blood mixed with Asian dirt.’ This is in reference to the Vietnam War. The soldier was injured on Vietnamese soil, hence the ‘Asian dirt’ on his wound. The following phrase “I count myself more lucky than the rest. They’re all gone while I just have a small pain in my chest.” signifies that the soldier is likely unaware of the seriousness of his injury.
Small Pain in my Chest | Analysis (Stanza 4 & 5)
“Must be fatigue”, he weakly smiled. “I must be getting old.
I see the sun is shining bright and yet I’m feeling cold.
We climbed the hill, two hundred strong, but as we cleared the crest,
The night exploded and I felt this small pain in my chest.”
“I looked around to get some aid – the only things I found
Were big, deep craters in the earth – bodies on the ground.
I kept an firing at them, sir. I tried to do my best
,But finally sat down with this small pain in my chest.”
In the next stanza, the soldier explains how he got injured: “We climbed the hill, two hundred strong, but as we cleared the crest. The night exploded and I felt this small pain in my chest.” This effectively captures the abruptness with which a life can end on the battlefield. ‘We cleared the crest’ also implies that the soldiers believed they overcame their final hurdle before the explosion hit them, showing the brutality of battle. The soldier “looked around to get some aid – the only things I found were big, deep craters in the earth – bodies on the ground”, illustrating the hopelessness of war– the fact that he looked around for help but all he could see was dead bodies is a flash of upsetting reality. Notice the symbolic use of craters in line 18. The big craters on earth versus the small pain in his chest. Humanity has wounded nature and fellow humans alike. There’s also an element of contrast between the big craters and the “small” pain in the soldier boy’s chest, both of which are a product of human violence and aggression.
Small Pain in my Chest | Analysis (Stanza 6)
“I’m grateful, sir”, he whispered, as I handed my canteen
And smiled a smile that was, I think, the brightest that I’ve seen.
“Seems silly that a man my size so full of vim and zest,
Could find himself defeated by a small pain in his chest.”
The soldier then thanks the narrator for giving him water, and smiles “the brightest smile I had ever seen.” This is important to note: it shows the gratitude displayed by the soldier for something as ‘normal’ as a sip of water. A smile, one of the simplest yet kindest expression of emotion, cannot be displayed on the battlefield. The soldier says it seems silly that “a man my size so full of vim and zest, could find himself defeated by a small pain in his chest.” Such a viewpoint hints that war does not differentiate between the young and old, the weak and strong- everyone on the battlefield is looked at as a target, ready to kill or be killed.
Small Pain in my Chest | Analysis (Stanza 7)
“What would my wife be thinking of her man so strong and grown,
If she could see me sitting here, too weak to stand alone?
Could my mother have imagined, as she held me to her breast,
That I’d be sitting HERE one day with this pain in my chest?”
It is the next stanza, when the soldier talks about his family, that the emotional aspect of the after-effects of war truly sink in. Soldiers have families at home- it is not only people’s lives, but families being torn apart. “What would my wife be thinking of her man so strong and grown” and “Could my mother have imagined, as she held me to her breast” are heart-wrenching reality checks to the nature of post-war. This stanza ends with a ‘small pain in my chest’ as did the previous stanzas, but the seriousness only grows. At the beginning, the ‘small pain’ was treated almost nonchalantly. However, as the verses continue, he seems to realise the gravity of the situation. When he wonders whether his mother ever imagined him sitting there one day “with a small pain in my chest,” we can see that he understands its seriousness.
Small Pain in my Chest | Analysis (Stanza 8)
“Can it be getting dark so soon?” He winced up at the sun.
“It’s growing dim and I thought that the day had just begun.
I think, before I travel on, I’ll get a little rest ……….
And, quietly, the boy died from that small pain in his chest
The sun continues to shine brightly, as it is still morning, but the soldier asks “could it be getting dark soon? It’s growing dim when the day has just begun.” Here we reach the end of the soldier’s life– one feels cold and sees darkness as they approach death. He then says “I think, before I travel on, I’ll get a little rest.” This is an enormous display of hope, an element that is often lost in discussions of war. Despite the realisation that his injury was serious, despite knowing that his comrades had not made it, he still held on to the possibility that he was simply fatigued, and would be able to continue his journey after a rest. This hope is both heart-breaking and inspiring- the soldier shows an optimistic attitude throughout the poem, with his bright smile and positive outlook about the pain in his chest. This may be symbolic to the fact that often, hope is all that soldiers have to hold on to. On the ruthless battlefield, fighting for their lives, it is the hope to make it out alive and travel home to their family, the hope to survive and move on with their life, that motivates them to keep fighting. However, it was not enough for this soldier- he succumbed to the injury and quietly died from the small pain in his chest.
Small Pain in my Chest | Analysis (Stanza 9)
I don’t recall what happened then. I think I must have cried;
I put my arms around him and I pulled him to my side
And, as I held him to me, I could feel our wounds were pressed
The large one in my heart against the small one in his chest
In the final stanza, the narrator weeps in grief and agony, holding the soldier’s dead body close. The last line is perhaps the most impactful of them all, built up by verses of humbling dialogue: “And, as I held him to me, I could feel our wounds were pressed. The large one in my heart against the small one in his chest.” The narrator describes the emptiness in his heart caused by the death of the soldier. They did not know each other at all, but the narrator provided the soldier with an ear and a last sip of water, and their little dialogue conveyed volumes of war’s ruthlessness and unforgiving nature. From their brief conversation and the gentle positivity displayed by the soldier despite all his hardships, the narrator wept for the unfairness of the life that was taken too soon. The poet hugged the soldier so that their wounds were pressed together: the soldier’s ‘small pain in his chest’ which ultimately caused his demise and the narrator’s hollow chest, heart broken by inexplicable grief at the loss of a soldier who, at the end of the day, was just a young boy.