In the First Days of the War, Memorial Day
IN THE FIRST DAYS OF THE WAR
In the first days of a boyish war,
the days of sand-kicking and puffed chests,
all the toys still banging about the field,
spilling their beautiful fire,
so that at distance, on some far Karakoram,
or the moon,
this might seem a joyful wedding,
or all the starved children brought at once
In the first days of uncertain war,
before the high deeds out of high hearts
etch the annals,
before the squalor of murders,
while some of it is yet a wonder,
in the last days of a world that was,
I think I should set down in words
the six rose stubs I planted
against a summer yet to come,
the six rose stalks meant, in time, to swathe
the impossible sheer front banks in sheer white.
The cream rose with the snowdrift shadow,
I should speak of it.
Listen, I have proof
not all begun in muck returns to muck.
The great pear tree in flower, say,
that minaret of white bloom, that soul
watching with its white eyes.
It is the sort of thing a riper race would know once
sprouted from the breasts of warriors laid down hard.
Here, now, the young men foaming back in spring,
all promises fulfilled
to brides and mothers in the way the stories have,
a shower of petals where the body was.
The crazy lady from the last war when the moon rises
holding up her arms to that world her love was blown to,
crying mine and mine.
You'd think I'd be grateful for something to write about
in an heroic vein, the loud war cry,
the clank of bronze on bronze.
I think I'd rather, though, a lullaby.
In the first days of cynical war, waged by liars against thugs...
No, that is not the way to start a story.
Say tonight the soldiers lay them down,
along the Tigris, along Euphrates, brown boys
and white boys in the cold hearths of the Ancients,
say, where their bodies lie, their heat goes to the ground
and weds it. When they rise at morning
roses rise behind them,
airstrips buckled by a bloom,
battlefields in riot of blood-color,
flowers outspreading, thorn on thorn,
ivory on sand dune, everywhere they lay,
engendered by such innocence,
rose beds in the shapes of bodies.
The living shoot out white rose, the dead, a red,
climbing and mingling, stalk crossing stalk,
the bees in their half-drunk murmuring,
green in the creases of the tank-tread,
threads in the sleeping engines,
roots in the gaps of profaning mouths.
Say the white and the red thorned rose
around each boy its bulwark throws,
and the generals may shout to them.
Say it is like that.
That spring morning in the first days
of unsettled war.
Say it is like that,
that spring morning when you took your stand,
having planted. Roses.
Mr. Porter next door played steel guitar
in honky-tonks and at red-neck weddings
with the red punch and the mints in paper cups,
and the brawling beer blasts afterwards
when the church people had gone home.
You'd hear him practicing late at night
after his other job, that lonesome twangling
cheap and passionate at once,
like a cowboy in love, with only
the unembarrassable steers for audience.
One night, Mr. Porter stood on his back porch,
and Mrs. Porter tried to drag him in,
but he stood there with his arms spread out
as one waiting for a child to toddle to him
from the gathering dark, and the voice he made
was like his instrument dropped down two octaves.
It said...something unbearable in the evening calm.
Mother said, "Come. Don't look. They got a visitor.
About Ricky. You know him. Their one son.
He was...who had that golden hair. O God. Vietnam."
Unreachable now is the love of fathers
whose fatherhood was a photograph
someone lifted from a blood-stained wallet,
brushed off a little, turned in a mud-caked hand
and said, "Must have been his kid. Too bad."
And this is a photograph of Francis,
whom my mother loved, and who would never be my dad.
In his letters he wrote "toots" and "jive"
in the way they had back then. He dug jazz.
Tried to explain it to the Tire Town girl.
Sent scarves painted with volcanoes and tropical birds,
his way of letting her follow his progress
around that turbulent blue bowl that is half the world.
Under the scarves is the letter telling her
he was blown up—some kid, some company secretary
fresh on the job, using exactly those words, "blown up"—
with the picture of her he carried in his wallet,
perfect, somehow surviving the bomb amidships
that stopped so many fathers.
I would have been taller, darker.
I would have been Italian.
Maybe smiled that crooked, girl-annihilating smile.
I am trying to remember what the quarrel was.
I am trying to imagine the wedding and the kids
and the laughing old age.
I'm trying not to say what this mocking,
what this selfish time would say
to one who for the benefit of strangers
burned all his twenty years away.
Francis, I think I would fight, too,
for this little house, for the neighbors, maybe,
for my sister and her kids in Atlanta, for friends,
for the American Way, if I know what that is
when the time comes round.
You're practically the only one I'll tell.
I mean, should the sirens blast,
night waken again to the ringing of the bell
I think I would dig my heels into the ground,
I would, I think, keep faith with those who fell.
Unreachable now is the love of fathers
who died before they were fathers,
the arms of ghosts outstretched into the night,
lullabies swirling from the throats of mist.
Francis, never quite father, I keep faith.
I name your innumerable sons and daughters.
I trim my fury for true flight.
I kiss the scarf you must have kissed