Here, in these unmown fields where the morning mists gather once stood the ancient chieftain his clan assembled about him staring into the distant trees under the watchful eye of the gods. As the October winds blew down from the hills, they strode forward blades glinting in the midday sun ebbing and flowing until the moon stood poised for its nightly trek and they stood on the precipice of exhaustion counting fall brethren sacrificed to the blade of the claymore for glory of clan and entertainment of gods.
On these tired fields no chieftains stride and the mists no longer wrap the boulders left to mark nameless graves of kin. These are now ill sown fields, lying in the wasteland between chiefs who sit in silent bunkers, clansmen gathered to retell the tales of glory long vanished, to come. In these fields they till the begrudging soil and beg the gods for meager growth. As the moon begins its slow journey skyward they pause to count the craters torn into the rocky soil, and gather the bones of those newly fallen, sacrificed to the wrath of the claymores, the entertainment of the gods.
First Appeared in Main Street Rag, Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring 2000.
It was approaching the end
of another too long semester
and the sign-up sheet for office hours
was getting fuller with names
I didn’t recognize, or did and not
in a way that would please the student.
It was always like this, the two weeks
after it was too late to do anything,
when the pleading would begin.
I remember being in that position
almost fifty years ago, making my
supplication for relief of some kind
to a professor I had ignored all term,
and he, genial and gentle, taking out
pictures of the rice paddies
and saying to me, you stand
a far better chance in the Air Force.
There are no wars now that I can offer,
and so I tell them the bad news,
but add that Starbucks can
be a career of sorts, with benefits.
We marched for hours, going nowhere really, but nowhere was the point of the marching so we achieved the goal the Air Force set. We didn’t even think it odd that they made us shave our heads, so we’d all look like fools, there was a war on and we were in the military, so we had already proven that point. We were the smarter ones, as it turned out, enlistees who’d spend our time on bases getting the pilots ready to fly into the danger we knew we had so carefully avoided, and for us the greatest risk appeared daily in the mess hall.
They brought him myrrh on a flaming salver and all he could do was say “This is something I would expect from a butcher or a carpenter, and the camera angles would never work, so bring me napalm or punji stakes that we have proven to work.” They brought him ripe oranges and the sweet meat of the pineapple, its juice dripping from his chin, and all he could do was tighten his grip on the AK-47 and dream of night on the edge of the jungle. They brought him Rodin, Matisse, Rembrant van Rijn, and Blake, but all he would see was Bosch and Goya, and then only by the light of fading candles. They brought him the String Quartet in A Major played on Strads and Guarnaris, but he wanted the retort of the howitzer the crump of the mortar, the screams of the child. They brought him his child wrapped in bandages missing fingers and toes, and all he wanted was the nursery, a newborn in swaddling, suckling her breast as he stroked her head and remembered the moment of her creation.
First published in The Right to Depart, Plainview Press (2008)
The moon hid from me last night in a cloudless sky, and only a week from full, so we both knew it was there, peeking for a brief moment from behind the old oak in the neighbors yard. It wasn’t the first time the moon had done this, it will not be the last either, I am certain, but I do remember the time in 1970, the heat of San Antonio in mid-summer more oppressive than usual and only the old barracks for the moon to use as hiding place. Yet it hid, and that night I didn’t mind Lying in the base hospital, where the nurses ignored me for the seriously wounded, as they should reading the orders issued that day transferring me to the Reserves as my fellow air policemen in my training squadron were calling home, most in shock, to announce that their plan to avoid Vietnam by enlisting would soon be scattered on the tarmac of Da Nang Air Base.
He said, “I survived the war, was up to my armpits in water wading through the night through the rice plants that would never bear grain once we called in the orange. I walk through minefields, the noise a deafening silence since the only sound that mattered was the click that shouted death You think Ii have issues now and in your mind I certainly do but you my issues didn’t go away like Jamie’s, he heard that click and a moment later his issues were gone, and the moon was painted blood red that night and it inhabits my dreams still.
To arise from the earth is simple, too fall back the more difficult, for that is a journey we all seem to fear, though with no arising, there can be no falling back. When I finally admitted that I feared dying and didn’t want to be drafted to fight in that war Roshi asked me if I feared being born. “Fear,” he said, “takes up all of your energy and there is never time enough for that.”
It is always odd watching older men gather to talk about their lives, about how much they no longer remember of last year and a decade ago, about the infinite details they do recall of their time spent in the army, air force, navy, the smell of slop on a shingle, the stain on the finger from field stripped cigarette butts, the olive drab they were and lived, the base post exchange the mandatory Ray Ban aviator’s, the sergeants grimace, the body count no one mentioned in the war they hated, wanted over, how they were all brothers in arms, now just old men, sharing painful memories.
The butterflies came in the night floating through the barracks window, mainly monarchs, orange and black but the occasional yellow, with more gossamer wings, and the odd white with small green patches, one to a wing.
There is a corner in my footlocker that is mine, where I can hide the tattered book of poems. A true poet is unafraid to write an ode in blood, if the situation requires drawn from her vein by a needle or the baton of the security force.
In the river downtown the cup floats along, carried on the current into which I cast my dreams when they no longer serve any purpose. I can easily aim the rifle at the silhouette and ease back on the trigger, but would the child’s skull explode with the impact of the round or merely cave inward, collapsing?
I can look into the mirror in the morning, before first light and see the shine on my head. The cancer is advancing, growing until I no longer have control and merely respond to its commands in carefully spit-shined boots as though anyone would give a damn waist deep in the fetid water of the rice paddies.
The heat is unbearable and you sweat at the thought of motion. You, forced march from your dreams, and the butterflies disappear into the exhausting night.
First Appeared in Blind Man’s Rainbow, Vol. 4, No. 3, February-March, 1993.
He lies on the steam grate under a thin blanket and plastic garbage bags, sleeping soundly lulled by vibrations of a passing car, back to the Ellipse and grand white house, oblivious to footfalls of tourists and joggers. Steam seeps upward through his tattered clothes, he is back in-country, lying at the fringe of the jungle, awash in sounds, neat cast up from furnace earth, cutting through fatigues and the heavy canvas and steel toes of the boots, into skin, to pool on muscles held taut, twitching at the first heard whoop of chopper blades or stirring of branches and flora in still summer air which hangs, a shroud. Sun rises slowly, bathing the obelisk in a faint peach glow, he rolls, crushing the fading, wrinkled photo of three boys lost, from a different world, standing in beer soaked mirth, leaning on rifles. One night, trees oozed forth shadows, black angels, and his hand resting in a pool of blood and viscera with whom he had roamed the bars of Saigon and Bangkok, invincible knights before their armor turned to rust.