Because We Are Men, Vets, Rehab. Journal
BECAUSE WE ARE MEN
Those war-whooping days we retrieved the paper
dog-eared on the steps in the damp, and spread it
first thing on the counter with coffee. What was it
that riveted us to the carnage ahead of politics
(o bitter amusement), the comics, even the sports?
Page one: our helicopter downed in the desert -
engine failure. The entire crew. We dipped our flags -
a tragedy. The President was heartbroken. Visited
the homes in Vermont, in Kopki, to assure the old
and soon-to-be-old each bodybag was cared for.
A few stood, limp placards at a corner: Honk if
you love peace - dancing for a wave. A few picketed
the post office. No one burned the recruiting station.
Where were the remains discovered - in what positions
did they die? It was the details that finally seduced us.
Above Chamonix the B-52s would refuel, headed for
desert targets. Farmers rose in the dark. Woodstoves
kindled, tea water singing. Milking time. Hearing
a rumble, they'd look upslope to the sleeping massif;
a good year so far - no slides. Please, God.
Already dawn in the fishing village on Crete.
At the bakery window a boy standing on one foot
choosing, turning the coins over and over.
At the sound he'd squint up - silver winks in a blue
deep as a headache. He'd decide on baclava.
In the sands outside Baghdad the mind stopped - wouldn't
approach the smoldering tanks, their treads flopped off,
big sandbox toys, the stench of hair and nails at a broil;
it wouldn't look inside at the harvest of justice,
the boiled fruits of freedom. But it would, it did.
They lived by a bridge on the Tigris, strategic route.
She woke to the glass caving in; the children rushed
toward her and on past, wearing their shirts of flame.
Dust rose from where the stairway began.
The screaming stopped; where were the children?
Five hundred, baked while they slept in a shelter.
The stretchers carried their charcoal into the light
whether we imagined or not. They kept coming,
piled on flatbeds, carried off through the throngs.
Is this what we wanted to know, why we read on?
iii. on target
More ugly still. Because we are men
we know: when, slate-dark, the Phantoms
lumber to the runway nose-to-tail, lift off
and shudder the earth for twenty miles
the general calls it history in the making
and even though it will shake us awake
years from now on an August night - still,
to imagine we are what makes a desert quake
for hours on end - nothing, besides tumescence
or death's husky whisper, brings a man so alive.
Throbbing east under quiet stars, we're the ones
chosen to separate light and dark, friend and foe
on an amber screen. A line's been drawn and crossed:
who will deliver the promise? For this moment
doubt and the difficult feelings drop away. Go on.
We hum an old song - Brothers, sisters - careful
not to think of those down there who'll evaporate,
astonished, before they imagine what rains
from the cipher we've become in a white noon sky -
pure, potent, far ahead of our incandescent trail.
booze can't burn the fungus out,
down where it doesn't show,
the mind's own groin.
- Walt McDonald, "After the Fall of Saigon"
You know when he begins too slow - and stops,
eyes slurred - he's fighting for something; when
the glasses fall, wool sleeve across a cheek,
he's lost. Just look at his life! Undecorated vet
with no parade - wouldn't kill for his country
but took its hurt.
And has to tell his story,
shame of a gentle man in a hard platoon -
how they touched him, how he let them - all
the worst details, no longer a throbbing cyst;
you'll know exactly who he is.
comfort, or jest, or savor the window's gold -
anything but witness this. He'll pull out
a blue bandana - wheeze, glare, dare you to
face him. Not a cure; tomorrow he'll be
mostly the man he was.
But something in his
posture - splayed in the chair, hands turned up -
nicks the scab you grew around those years:
quiet, pressure beneath the ribs - you need to
speak now, root for the first slow words that
make him sit there silent, let the sun burn down.
Degeneration, attemperable by rehabilitation.
Sure. But I can't move from here to there.
Can't stand, can't breathe without stabs. Fuck
compassion. You can sympathize and go.
I was the one who could walk away from the wreck,
not the one slumped on the shoulder holding his mouth,
amazed at what was smashed, not the one leaning over
to keep from staining his clothes. It couldn't be me
stretched on asphalt, staring at a marbled sky.
Now I love what I did without thought -
row out to the mile buoy - its raft of sea
lions - a cool ocean sweat that won't run
slide under the quilt and her gown
no doubt she'll be moist and waiting
Keep your comfort. It's my bitter melon. My days
prone, studying leaves. Swallow this rind? Never.
Like a kid careening on a bike,
bell at the handlebars, cranking it
over and over with a thumb - I'm
Alive! A day free of pain and I'm
an idiot of the senses - denim and
chocolate, cinnamon wind, green
swallows dipping out of it.
it was a dream, a roll of bad news
flung at the door each morning -
someone else's poignant story,
a diversion over coffee and roll.
Outside, a neighbor's last bitter
words and a door slammed shut.
Imagine: after dinner we'll light
candles, sip Madeira by a fire,
slip out of kimonos, delirious . . . .
Who recalls pain when it's gone?
Who'd balance a seesaw level
when you can slam your end down
then hurl out of your seat at the top?
iii. dog days
I've bolted up that alpine path with my oldest -
past the laggard, the halt, day-dreamers -
every switchback to the indigo lake at treeline.
It was what I deserved.
He's scaling it now
alone, to dive from the cliffs. He'll surface, hair
gleaming, stroke to the shore - June's casual
pleasure for those who know nothing less.
I loved that place, and the body that took me -
light-headed in thin air, before the deep plosh.
Not a chair - a deck that squeaks. Not rocking.
* * *
Past granite-scabbed lichen, columbine shaking
September windsocks; slow scrabble back to
lakeside - dark water, commotion of aspen
turning silver-backed ears toward snow.
Still can't dive where trout twist and vanish,
can't even crawl to the ridge, along its spine.
Let him go alone. A sharp west wind -
I'm glad for the warmth trapped in stone.
Didn't value health when I had it; now I blame
myself - a second hurt compounding the first.
Can it be so hard to love the self? It can. It is.
It's not the pain of bending - the ground an impossible
distance, shoelaces flapping beyond reach in the wind.
November's discreet - leaves spin, sunsets ignite the bluff,
backlight the breakers. It's hard to call loss by its name.
My father smiles like a boy; he doesn't believe he's old.
Forever we persuade ourselves. But don't arms and legs
grow spindly from disuse, doesn't the belly swell?
The body's forever-life breaks down.
I saw it
in my mother's eyes, head rolling on the pillow.
I was holding her hand, face close so she'd
know me - but she looked beyond, and saw fear.
It was the last look she gave me - almost enough.
No. Loss is a tide that just ebbs. First you run on
the shale; then you walk here and look down there;
then you stay home and imagine that breakers
suck at the beach, pelicans over them bank and wait.
My youngest drags up the beach, dripping:
Vacation's half gone! sensing the speed of delight.
No! - I'm surprised; it's my voice - It's here!
My hand's at the back of his slight, cold neck.
So I won't jog, swim out past the break for a final
wave. Who else will love what's left? Gray gulls
shriek by on the wind; the pelicans plunge and surface
and swallow what they've got. All of it. Whole.