In the Silos, Baghdad Zoo, Of Canyons and Their Discontents
IN THE SILOS
The low hum, the invariant bleeping.
Outlines of cities green and glowing;
old coordinates cling to their circuits like grease.
Technicians in Tyvek mop steel brows,
polish hulls with diapers, sing lullabies,
though the thrill's long passed through overstocking:
crushed velvet dusters sizes 2 and 18,
potato peelers printed with smiling spuds,
keyboard mini-vacuums as-seen-on-TV;
all shipped off in boxes to molder in junk shops—
not them: The sun of banana republics
will never warm their heads. They sit in the lots
like late model Fords, but once
they were going to see the world;
they were going to see Cuba and Moscow.
Nights they quivered with excitement
beneath grassy plains rippled by breezes
straight from the vodka-slick teeth of Stalin
beaming his avuncular grin,
but they never left home,
never broke through the cloud banks
to drop toward patchwork of browns and blues.
Napping, dreams ping against their plutonium hearts.
Someone could sell them on eBay,
adopt them out like pound dogs,
but perimeter sirens at the surface wail
when kids from nearby towns creep close,
daring to touch the craters' rims.
The technicians come with polish and sponges,
their gloves soft as dough against the soldered seams.
They scrub away bedsores of rust;
they read bedtime classics, Clancys and LeCarrÈs.
They stroke their heads, encourage them to nap.
When they dream the lights in Reno flicker.
O Father Robert. O uncles Teller and Ulam.
Reach in to my cylinder and comfort me,
O ancestors, O early models dismantled, decommissioned.
When will we be united beneath the flint and shale
of the burial ground at Yucca Mountain?
Clouds splitting below me! Fields of shining snow!
The gleam of approaching cities, their domes and minarets—
O Mischka! My brother, born
from the same smoky womb,
I thought we would pass each other
somewhere over the Atlantic,
nod, tip our cones like busdrivers in the night,
our friendly faces briefly lit, companionate in duty,
but my rockets wheeze. Coyotes in the hills above
leave green and radiant footprints through sage and trinitite—
there is nothing now, I wish only to lie down:
I will rest my head on the mahogany desks of the Capitol
I will bristle in the pines and crumbling sandstone of the west
I will hum in the cornstalks and the clear water of rivers
until the convoys come to take me home.
When the rockets dropped,
the camels roped to the rusty aviary
tore the rings from their noses trying to escape.
A stray mortar blinded the lion;
a hole blown in an outer wall
let loose big cats, a bear, baboons, a moose—
later, nervous soldiers on night patrol
would turn a corner to see giraffes lope by.
Looters came, slipping the strangled squawks
of parrots into sacks to hawk on the black market.
Starved, others took whatever would not eat them first:
wild pigs, angora goats and chimpanzees.
For a while the zoo grew smaller by the day.
After the worst, the elephant was left.
Its flank had caught some shrapnel in the siege,
and a sergeant from the 3rd swung by each day
to check its wounds and hook a hose
to a water tanker that the Brits rolled in.
He'd always save the elephant for last,
first filling troughs for the wolves and bears,
the ostrich they'd found wandering in Sadr.
Then he'd climb a ladder up the broad gray back
and turn the water on the elephant,
who slapped his trunk and stamped the floor,
dust dripping to a muddy pool beneath,
its bristly skin shifting on its back
like the slow slide of continents.
The hazy heat and desert light
were not so far from back in Galveston.
The best was when the elephant would trumpet.
Later, privates blowing off steam with booze
would try to feed the tiger steak,
shoot it in the head when it turned mean,
enraged how it slashed blindly at their help.
But for weeks, the elephant's afternoon aah-oogah
replaced the muezzins' vanished calls to prayer,
rose above M-16s pecking at nests of Baathists,
drowned out the choppers' thunder overhead,
drowned out even the lion, whose pleading whine
droned on as if he'd been the only one left blind.
OF CANYONS AND THEIR DISCONTENTS
I have come to kill Indians, and I believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians.
—Col. John Chivington, speaking of the 1864 raid in which U.S. Cavalry troops under his command killed more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho women and children *
"Everyone sees the Grand Canyon, but
Bryce is really better," the clerk tells us.
He's young, perky; the wall behind
the desk contains two ads: See the Petroglyphs
and Support Our Troops. He's matter-of-fact,
has the odd possessive pride
of those who live in strange geographies:
so many canyons, they're not easily impressed.
Up in the room, we laugh at him:
All day our minds have struggled to cope
with those stone cliff striations of billions,
one year crushed down upon the next, mauve
on crimson on ochre on umber,
scorched and scored by infinite blue,
forced to think that word, infinite, over
and over—the word that set my head spinning
when I first spoke it, as a child,
first lay in grass trying to see where the sky ended,
trying to pierce that canopy with my eyes
and felt the heavens swell to meet my push,
give and give until I had to look away.
That roil of fear and pleasure in my gut
came back today, descending
from snow in the Rockies into land that looks
cut out from slabs of bloodied muscle.
Our words have shrunk from sentences,
collapsed into whoa, then wow,
finally just breath—
all we can do is breathe,
on empty roads between red mesas,
or sipping coffee in a string of breakfast nooks,
watching the tiny soldiers inside TVs
work their way into Baghdad, riding
an endless scroll of text below their feet.
My friend, my fellow traveler,
there are things words cannot get at:
canyons so huge and ancient they dwarf
the idea of words, the idea of people, the idea of countries
the idea of people driving across a country
abloom with yellow ribbons, endless flags.
Big, huge, enormous—everyone sees
the canyon, so many, no one sees it anymore.
Postcards, photos, dust in people's eyes,
carried away beneath their lids as memory—
the canyon each time diminished?
With each travelogue's word, a little less awesome?—
and what is talk worth,
in a world where canyon walls
look like flesh, and where our ears
boil over with language—
collateral damage, friendly fire—
describing scorched flesh most will never see?
Yet here in the desert, there is no obligation
but this thread of words we spin between us,
this laughter and the common dream
no digger finds intact. The land is thoughtless:
the metaphor, the good idea that didn't catch
disappear with sinew and with nerve,
and future tribes will knock the dirt
from bones, from clay-caked arrowheads and guns,
will know us by artifact, not intent.
This is how it is with words and canyons:
the more we see them, the more they disappear.
Let us go into those caves up in the hills
where warriors and antelope dance in faded lines
and write, alongside them, our own story:
We made two towers; our enemies knocked them down.
Many were killed. There was much weeping.
Our people were afraid. All they could see
was the canyon, so huge their eyes
could not find the end, or believe that emptiness could ever fill.
Their eyes were clouded with tears. They could not see
the cramped and airless spaces behind words like
But we say here clearly and hope you will forgive:
It is a bomb
that drills through stone,
then sprays out fuel,
then sets that fuel on fire,
turning people into screaming, writhing lanterns.
* In November 2000, the place of the massacre—in what is now called Chivington, Colorado—was designated a national historic site. Approval of the measure in Congress was, according to Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, "an overwhelming acknowledgement by Americans that we are better than our past."