STATISTIC

Today, now many,
yesterday, tomorrow, how many?

We have grown tired of counting
the mind cannot deal with numbers
of that magnitude, Stalin was correct,
it is all statistics now, and bodies,
always more bodies, never enough,
always too many, by violence
in the street, in the economy,
in the courthouse, in the COVID ward,
there are too many places now,
where the dead gather, and we
cannot bid them farewell, for we
do not want to be counted
among them, to join them, to admit
that we in some way have led them
into disease, into poverty, into death.

WE ARE THE PEOPLE

We are the people,

Who heard the glass breaking
that night as we huddled at home,

Who inhaled the smoke
of the Holy books as they burned,

Who tried to flee but had
nowhere to go, always turned away,

Who visited cosmetic doctors
to reshape our noses to look like the others

Who adopted names to help
erase a potentially painful history to come,

Who now turn a blind eye to those
who expel others from a land we claim
is ours by divine right from a God
of all people, just as specially chosen.

A NAME

Someone said that you must name something
before you can really know it, and we
have gone about naming everything, even
as we know less and less about those things.

We have grown so adept at naming things,
that we have created multiple names
for the things that we find the most problematic,
for then they can be more easily ignored.

Where once we found ourselves in wars,
we now engage in armed conflicts,
police actions, and where we are the aggressor,
active dispute resolution operations.

The bodies that litter the battlefield
did not stop to consider whether they
were at war, and had morphed into police,
they did not resolve any dispute with their blood.

MARCH ON

We marched regularly, often carring placards,
this week against an insane war
in a place we had no busines being,
next week for the racial justice
promised for a century but never delivered,
and then for the ecology, trying to save
the world that our parents promised
for us as little children and failed
to provide, choking through the smog
and the teargas, scraping knees
on the concrete as we were pushed
back, pushed away, pushed into a corner.

Then we were marching in uniform,
across the pavement in Texas, Lackland,
Fort Sam Houston, sergeants always by
our sides, always willing to remind us
that we were dirt, incompetent, useless,
but they’d make us into soldiers, they
would find the cohesiveness we lacked.

Now we are struggling not to march,
not to be lemmings headed for the cliff,
not to give up the small victories
once won,not at war now, still searching
for justice for all, still chokng
on the air we have made putrid,
and we teach our grandchildren
how to march, how never to give up.

HUP TWO, MY ASS

WARNING: A SHORT STORY, SO A LONGER READ THAN USUAL. BUT WORTH IT HOPEFULLY

He wondered why he allowed himself to be in this position. He
knew that he didn’t actually allow it, he courted it. But you could
claim allowance when you chose the lesser, by far, of two evils.
As a child, his mother always told him he was fragile, that he
should avoid overly strenuous activities and drafts. With the
Vietnam “conflict” waging, that was one time he thought his
mother right, one draft to definitely avoid. So he enlisted in the
Air Force. “Choose the devil you want to dance with, if you have
to dance with the devil,” a friend said. He didn’t think it would be
all that bad. Sure, he’d heard stories, but who didn’t tell stories,
other than him. He would learn. Lesson one was the large sign on
the gate, “Welcome to Lackland Air Force Base, Gateway to the
Air Force.” Gateway to limbo was more like it, though it seemed
a bit like hell.

They had been in line for what seemed like hours. In San Antonio
in April, when the humidity is up, minutes seem like hours. They
looked reasonably absurd, hair of all lengths and colors, a motley
of pants, and all in the sickly yellow t-shirt with U.S. AIR
FORCE across the chest. They entered the building in single file,
emerged moments later as motley as ever but each and every one
skin headed, courtesy of Lackland’s finest barbers (though he
doubted they had taken a single class in cosmetology). And they
looked none the better for effort.

The one thing you could trust was that if you felt the least bit
insulted by the Air Force, the injury that had to accompany it was
just around the next corner. At least they knew he was coming,
had the correct names on his uniforms. And the sort of fit. Save
the combat boots. “We’ll fix those tomorrow,” Sgt. Leal bellowed,
“just put the damn things on!” Then it was time for the ID Photo,
and a string of “stop smiling, moron, just look at the camera.”
And magically, moments later, he had grown four inches. When
he told Sgt. Leal he needed a new ID, Leal scowled, “No, dipshit,
you need to grow four inches. Get on with it!”

He’d always been a night person. Uncle Sam cured him of that in
about two days. 9 to 5 was once a working day he assumed. The
Air Force taught him that it was a sleeping night. And the alarm
wasn’t a trumpet call like in the Boy Scouts. It was the bellowing
of Sergeant Leal. Fifteen minutes later, they were showered,
dressed in the uniform of the day, always the OD’s, and in
formation outside the dorm. Yes, dorm, although the same
building across town at Fort Sam Houston was an old WWII era
barracks. A short march later and they were at the chow hall, it
was only amess in the Army and Marines, and with his daily dose
of SOS (shit on a shingle) and a silent prayer for the pig so cruelly
disposed of, then it was finally time to play soldier.

He remembered what it was like parading around in the Texas
sun. You didn’t use sunscreen, the asinine pith helmet was
supposed to protect you. It simply made you look stupid, you
thought, but one in a sea of stupid so you never felt out of place.
The uniforms were that olive that seemed to cry out “witness the
fool unable to avoid this drab outfit.” They gathered sweat as
would a sponge, but dried quickly enough since you would wear
them again in two days, and they wouldn’t be washed for a week.
You looked forward to night, when a hint of coolness arrived,
hopefully with sleep before the Drill Sergeant bellowed to greet
another day in the Air Force’s version of hell.

Far and away the worst duty in boot camp was kitchen work in
the Visiting Officers Dining Rooms. KP was never fun, but
usually it was dish out the slop that too often passed for meals,
scrape plates and load the industrial dishwasher, avoid the mess
sergeant or keep him happy and hide when you could. But the
VODR was a whole different world. You had officers from
countless countries who expected to be treated as invited guests
who wanted what they wanted when the wanted it how they
wanted it. And they dripped arrogance on a good day. It was
never a good day in the Visiting Officers Dining Room.

He was still four inches short of his goal when he made the short
hop from Lackland to Kelly, for his police training. He had be
told that since he would be trained for the Security Forces, they
would have to reissue his ID card. And this time there was an
even chance they would get it right. He held out hope. His hope
was misplaced, and when he was injured in a bar in downtown
San Antonio while still in training, we accepted a transfer into the
Air Force Reserves, with the stipulation that they wouldn’t expect
him to grow the missing four inches.

Be thankful you didn’t join the army, was his sergeant’s most
common refrain. Sarge was a lifer, or at least trying to hang on
until he could quit and never really work again. Wouldn’t know
how to do a real job, he said, and wouldn’t want to have to learn.
Nobody with half a mind joined the Army if they could get out of
it. He saw that at his physical with all the probable draftees
feigning this or that to duck service. Thing is, only real money
bought your way out, and he wouldn’t know that until years later,
once the war was no more than a faint memory to most.

Things went as badly in Security training as he expected. On his
first call, riding shotgun with two Security Forces officers, they
responded to a bar fight downtown where a half dozen Air Force
trainees decided to take on two Army Rangers. It wasn’t pretty,
less so when the last Airman standing decided to miss the Ranger
with the padded chair he was swinging and struck him. He knew
instantly his Security days were over. The Air Force agreed five
weeks later, transferring him to the Reserves. “And with a bum
wrist, we’ve got to change your assignment. You are now a Clerk-
Typist.”

That was the brilliance of the Air Force Personnel specialists. If
you have a bad wrist, they make you a typist. As one why and
he’s likely to say, “But your index fingers still work, right?” They
did, but the base doctor still said he wasn’t fit to type, so it would
be another day shuttling between the NCO club and the BX, with
a stop for lunch down the road at the Pig and Whistle. Even there,
the hot dogs had pork, but there was no shingle, so it was a major
improvement over his nightmares of Lackland.

Once in the Reserves, the rest of his service became a game: he
versus the Air Force. The Base doctor made it clear that he was
not fit for typing, the wrist continuing to be a problem. So his job
was to sit around and stay out of the way. But for most jobs in the
Air Force you could train by reading and passing basic test of
knowledge, not demonstrating any real skill. In short order this
clerk typist who couldn’t type (ironically though he could but for
the injury) became a qualified Medical Clerk, Legal Clerk,
Chaplains Assistant (a particularly useful AFSC on a base with no
Chaplain, and a Loadmaster Apprentice. Any job you could learn
from the books he did. He wouldn’t dare do any of them. That was
how the military always got into the messes it seemed to relish.
But it kept his NCO and commanding officer happy, and if they
were happy, well, you get the picture. But the wrist was no better,
and eventually the base doctor, a pediatrician by training, decided
it was time to get him help or get him out.

Then the fun really began. The wrist was still acting up so he
went to the V.A. Hospital. And that began the next chapter in the
Government That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (although it could shoot
itself in its foot with surprising accuracy). He filled out the
paperwork. He waited. It was like he was back in the Air Force,
the waiting, but no uniforms this time. Finally the letter. The
Army has no record of your service. A phone call, a patient clerk,
a “well that would explain it. I’ll put it right through. I can get you
an appointment Thursday in the Orthopedic Clinic. Don’t tell
anyone we fit you in.” No one would believe it anyway. And two
weeks after the clinic appointment, on his scheduled weekend
duty, the base doctor called him in to his office. The Captain of
his unit was there as well. He knew and smiled as he saw them.
“The VA says you need surgery and they have a doc who can do
it. Problem is they can operate on those still in the Air Force, so
you are being discharged. Honorably, of course. We’ll have the
paperwork ready by Sunday, so hit the Base Exchange (such as it
is) one last time, you will be a Veteran by Monday.”

First published in Green Silk Journal, Spring 2020
https://www.thegsj.com/spring-2020-.html

FORGETTING

What they don’t want to see, or are
perhaps blind to, is that it always
came down to boats, and fear was
always overcome, the ocean tamed.

Today, it is trucks, trailers, and still
boats, and fear is still overcome
for the promise of better, for
the hope for life without terror.

None of the arrivals came invited
many were turned away repeatedly,
but if they still breathed they
would continue the attempts for

such was the value of freedom,
from tyrants, oppressors and fear,
but we have forgotten them, those
who are why we are here today,

we so willing to build walls, to turn
others away for they have no
invitations, for we offer none,
the country being ours alone

DYBBUK

The evening slowly enters
Warsaw — along Aleje Solidarnosci
a lumbering truck backfires — some old ones
cringe — thoughts collapsing — into rail cars — lightening
bolts on stiff black wool uniforms — polished jackboots —
a wrought iron gate — Arbeit Macht Frei

The evening slowly enters
Warsaw along Aleje Solidarnosci
a truck backfires a sudden flock
of sierpowka Eurasian Collared Doves
rises gracefully from the trees
each carrying another lost
in the ghetto ’43 in the revolt ’44

Night settles on Warsaw – there is solitude

First appeared in Pitkin in Progress, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2002)

DRINKING TEA IN KABUL*

Rockets flash briefly
across the chilled sky,
plumes of smoke, ash
carried off
by impending winter.

Over the lintel of the entry
to the Inter-Continental Hotel Chicago,
carved deeply into the marble
Es Salamu Aleikum
staring implacably
through ponderous
brass framed doors
onto the Miracle Mile.
Countless guests
pass below it
unseeing.

My son and I
sit across a small table
spilling bits of tapas
onto the cloth,
laughing lightly
at the young boy
bathed in a puree
of tomato, his shirt
dotted in goat cheese.
My son explains
the inflation of the universe,
gravitational waves
cast off
by coalescing binary
neutron stars.
His words pull me
deeper
into my seat.
We speak somberly
of the jet engine
parked haphazardly
in the Queens gas station
unwilling to mention
265 lives
salted across
the small community.

We embrace
by his door, the few
measured hours run.
He turns to call
his girlfriend,
I turn my collar up
against the November night.

The Red Line train
clatters slowly back
into a sleeping city.
In my room
I brew a cup of Darjeeling.

*”We will drink tea in Kabul tomorrow morning, if God wills it.” – Basir Khan, Northern Alliance Commander, quoted in the Chicago Tribune, 13 November 2001.

First appeared in Hearsay, 2004 and in The Right to Depart, Plain View Press (2008).

A FOOL’S ERRAND

Looking back, it is easy to see now
what was difficult then, not
looking like complete fools,
we all did, but knowing that 
we looked like fools and would
for the foreseeable future,
those of us lucky enough
to survive and actually have one.

We knew they wanted to 
break us down, rebuild us
in the desired format, always
bending to unit cohesion,
following orders thoughtlessly,
never questioning why we
were there, when those who
sent us were ensconced 
in their homes and offices.

Once a year some offer me
a free meal, on a day, they say
they honor me, and while I
appreciate the gesture, I know that,
for me, is one more fool’s errand.

DUST AND ASHES

Between Scylla and Charybdis
they cower amidst the ruins
fearful to look skyward
lest they encourage
the rains of hell.

Now and then they visit
the corpses, hastily buried
grief drowned by the sound
of the laugh of the gunner
peering down from the hills.
It is always night for the soul
and lookout must be kept
for Charon, who rides
silently along the rivers of blood,
that flow through her streets.

In the great halls,
far removed from the horror,
self-professed wise men
exchange maps
lines randomly drawn,
scythes slicing a people.
They trade in lives as chattel,
reaping a bitter harvest,
praying there may only be
but seven lean years.

They offer a sop to Cerberus,
three villages straddling the river,
but the army of the hills
knows they will take that and more
and waits patiently for the winter
when the odor of sanctity
no longer arises out of the city
to assail their nostrils
and Shadrach is
no more than a ghost.

First Appeared in Living Poets (UK), Vol. 2, No. 1, 2000.