Life’s Picture History
I. THE BIG RED BOOK
We've sunk the war, the war's been scratched
and it's gone the way money goes
the way heat sinks,
absent the osmotic gradient
avast the ion pumps, the motor
endplates, toothless gears. Nothing moving,
everything stalled, the waves
let stand the waves.
There's a plane up there
that should never come down, that's perfectly hung
for this morning, a silent screaming fighter
plunged to its belly in white flame, a trailing curve
of smoke above it, oily black.
There's a bomber skipping on the water
and the thought of his lightness holds at this distance.
Amid the scattering of shellbursts
and smoke in great plumes, an hour
is suspended, when he alone on his errand, guided
like a syringe, is blessed.
Only our mightiest shrug, our deepest sigh will deflect him
and the skin of the ocean blunts him, accepts
his belated offering, and in that spirit, drowns him.
The eyes are a dredge among the bodies—
the dead of Nanking, caught in the act of killing themselves
in stampede, at the entranceway of a shelter, where
I only see how naked they are, how soiled and bloody,
how covered with dust, but the camera believes,
before we believe, that they had been judged en masse
for losing all sense and sanctuary, by their own
most grievous fault.
Cameras are roaming at liberty, fixing the stares
of the nearly spent, circling the dazed survivors
with bribes and offerings.
The war is open, cracked and swollen,
the oil slick crawls with ¸bermen, rugged boys
with hands upraised are seeking our lines, off to the East
the boulder field of their gutted tanks.
The rails are gone to their vanishing points,
beyond which horizon
it falls to the guards and the rolling stock
and the dim prerogative of trains.
The smoke on the horizon is permanent,
an indelible grain, and it breeds a heavier water,
a certain viscosity of sky. The war falls open.
I've cradled this thing, called it fetish and bible.
I've pulled it from my father's cabinet, as if from
his eye—Life's Picture History, that creaks and closes
like a door, that rests like a fallen beam.
There on the beach, sucking and gasping at low tide, is
a burning hulk, licking itself, whining after passersby,
the lazy column of smoke leaned backwards.
There is solace in the freedom of the yards and foundries.
There's news that disintegrates before it hits, cattle prodded
for being cattle (our enemies are children again).
They're all resigned now—the souls to their wandering,
the slaves to their beds, their dying in droves, and it all
cries out to be forgotten, because lives go on
that are pledged to nothing but endurance in the ring,
against all fabulous claims, when there's weight enough
to send the whole thing crashing down through chair arms
to rest awhile in my lap. A book does that.
II. THE SAND PIT
In all the games we've abandoned, where the ground
gives cover and shade—in the cemetery, in the
peanut shocks, in the sand pit
wildest of all—I forget, and unlearn the ways,
so much the worse for being saved,
but I draw the lines, with x's and o's in the sand
where we run in defilade
and vanish, in whole platoons.
The war is open, so much we've sworn. We tie
each other's hands, spare no whippings
to underdogs, share no glimmer of hope against
hope. Let saviors save their chubby little girls.
Let victims turn on a little spit, split and fed to us,
one by one. Let a finger flex
or another be raised, for a new game is called
when the dead roll over
to play it again.
Let saviors save what they will.
III. THE SECOND FRONT
Exult, ye oxen, low for joy
ye tenants of the stall
Santa Claus is coming to confirm
what Uncle Joe must assume
is still true: there's no
second front. In all the world
there's no second front to equal
our own. The boughs are crackling
into flame. The green is split
and fed with orange.
Our children, from strength through joy,
are the ones we conceive
at liberty, who squirm in the
success of our arms,
and they are heartened by the fire.
Whether they're wanted or whisked away,
they're set in front of Christmas trees
for cameras to bless and mortify.
pay your obeisance, on your knees
IV. THE SOLDIERS' HOME
It's a day's work to be clean and well,
to stay within yourself, to stay out of
wandering beds—just two long days and two hundred
train wrecks from home—at length to consider
the pilgrim's task, whether adventure or retreat,
Plymouth or America, to improvise a portable hearth,
an imagined spit of sand, the spun gold
you'd make of yourself.
Care surrounds you. Love is now in other hands,
and care decides what care demands.
The mother of dead sons is gone.
The wife stricken with a man
has borne them all.
For the falling man, for the man
in his learned lop-sidedness, there is global attention
and linen to spare, a turning schedule,
a swift current of hands.
Once you awoke in a cavernous tent
to the rustle of white uniforms
and a faint whiff of powder.
It was all so frank and familiar, so warm and dry
as you dug frantically in your helpless love,
finding only deeper creases in the starched white sea
of blouses, a spanking white sail instead of a kiss,
a zing of stockings but no legs crossed, a murder
without a body, nothing to shame the uniforms,
nothing you could remember
when the war was back in your lungs.
She wears her smile on a photo i.d.
Her smock is a field of flowers, with a little pink ribbon
and a twenty-year pin. But today
she doesn't know you, today she's against you.
Her implacable strength shoulders you into the balance,
where you find you've lost weight to her,
you've lost your weight in gold.
You yourself may constitute a populace,
a bombed-out, burnt-out lot, that too easily grants
powers and authority, is suffered and let go—
all those who tremble, and acquiesce,
those done special harm
or indifferent good.
Even on the brink, at this desperate pass,
a rank civility obtains.
Each day's a wider encampment.
Each day's winnowing and numbering ends
in a siege, and wandering steps
are squared in the corridors.
Sleep is a deep dark canyon
rimmed with wolves. Sleep is for bundled masses,
but Mr. Elmo, of the hairy ears and leaking brain,
sleeps apart, and you won't have to ask,
he'll tell you again how the haints crawled in
at the foot of his bed
and sucked on his toes all night.
* * *
"My name is... MONday."
Where are you from, sir?
"I been...EV'RY where."
What branch of the service were you in?
never heard of it."
"The Jewish Infantry."
Mr. Moses—poor at mouthing words, tremulous writer—
write it down. You with the yellow index finger. You
with the tracheostomy, who killed
two men near Cherbourg, I see—in 1944.
Well. I trust they were armed, I trust
they were German.
Mr. Moses, the facts are unremarkable,
given the times. The rules were not breached. The cause
was arguably advanced. You enjoyed, at least,
the faith of your friends.
Mr. Moses, why are you confessing—
and me a poor confessor? This is just an attack
on the way to the john, just a dinner getting cold.
Do you want to join a disfigured race,
your name to be struck?
How like a hero you are!
How like an honoree—to beg off, to beg
everyone's pardon—to be awkward, cramped
Why did I bring you two together
who have only old age
and a scarred up tract of old Europe in common?
You Third Army men are like widowers
mourning the same departed wife. You fidget
at funerals, you talk too much or not at all.
There's one who walked and one who drove and one says
Patton won the war, and neither of you
is satisfied in brotherhood.
You were a one-time guest of the German people,
you were a ball-turret gunner who'd joined the Air Corps
in order to be—of course!—a ball-turret gunner.
You were with the Old Breed on Guadalcanal. You were
only there, you say, "to shoot coconuts." At a hundred-
and-five in the tropical shade, the coconut milk was cold.
You sat in your tank on the Czech frontier on the day the war
just stopped, when nobody cried and nobody cheered
and pressure gauges dropped to nothing,
though blood was still rising, and eyes were wide.
"And all I wanted," you said,
"was to keep going."
You were a medic, shot in France, and were you always
this nervous? You have a German name, a morbid streak,
a histrionic flare. You also have emphysema
and you call for "the little black pill to end it all",
only you want to call me back again: you have
a stock tip; you'd have me remember you to friends.
And when you walk, you walk to a tottering standstill,
your footwork mincing in place, the tissue wadded tight
in your hand.
"Remember, Laaarry—buy Boeing!"
And it's almost always tasteless—to end it all,
I mean. It's hardly more tasteful—though cheaper
by far-to bring you to tears: the words get caught
and wriggle free, you sputter out long-dead sentences,
you keep the name of the island
strewn with blossoms, sickening
sweet as a woman's name.
You accept the counterfeit of strangers,
you're even comforted,
though it does no good, no earthly good-
the ones being weighed
against the millions—
except we should take the pictures down,
asking where and when
they were taken.