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.
First appeared in Luna Negra, Spring: 1997
I saw an angel settle
slowly over Akron
dancing in the smoke
rising out of the stacks
of the ancient plant.
It flitted, darting in and out
of the gray haze, one moment
she, the next he, and as the sun
settled slowly down, for an instant
no more than a cherub.
It was not, I think, a vision,
I had seen this before
Ezekiel’s fiery chariot
tearing through the sky
over the Mekong, only to disappear
into the heart of a small village
and again careening madly
from the hills surrounding Sarajevo
until swallowed by the apartment block.
I saw an angel settle
slowly over Akron
dancing in the smoke,
I saw it clearly
from the window
of the Holiday Inn
until the night
leaving only the bones.
The evening news
is a procession of body bags,
the halls of the VA Hospital
are a storehouse of shattered bodies.
He sits with a surreal placidity
cross-legged on the small cushion,
the corners of his eyes pulling up
as if lost in thoughts of Kyoto.
I sit, knees creaking even then,
across the small tatami mat.
He listens with a stillness,
a silent patience, save
for the occasional bat of an eyelid
and gentle nod. His fingers
curl, palm in palm, the work
of the stone sculptor’s art.
“If you are called up,”
he says in a half whisper,
“will you go to Canada or stay?”
We both know I have no answer to that.
Other questions follow, most answered.
Finally as my knees cramp, he asks
“Why aren’t you willing to serve?”
By then we have moved
well past “killing is wrong,”
though we both agree it is.
He wants another, a deeper answer,
and will wait lifetimes until
I offer it, if necessary.
Finally, “I’m afraid of dying.”
It is there, laid out on the floor,
an ugly little thing we both can see.
We stare at it a moment longer
until the silence, too, grows painful.
“Why?” a small voice asks
from somewhere in the room.
I have no answer, for fear may shout
but never speaks in its own defense.
“Why?” again. Another pause.
“Why?” yet again – again silence.
“No,” he says quietly, “Not why
do you fear death, but why
must you die – today, next week
in this war, some other
or eighty years from now.”
“Because I was born,” I say.
The corners of his mouth
turn gently upward, not a smile,
a silent “ahah,” as if he’s struck me
with his stick in mid-zazen,
and I have awakened from a fogged sleep.
As I rise and bow to leave the room
he adjusts his robes, and says softly,
“And did you fear being born?”
Years later, wandering
the tree-shaded paths
of the Imperial Park
at Nara, I paused to stoke the head
of a deer, who nuzzles my shoulder
and we look together
into the Great Buddha Hall,
and all three of us smile
in shared awakening.
In fond memory of Roshi Philip Kapleau.
I enter the station house
and walk up to the neck high desk.
I would like to report
a missing person.
I have been gone
more than twenty-four hours.
I can’t give
a very good description,
my eyes see in the mirror
a still young man
sitting in a park in Salt Lake City
in the drum circle
passing the joint and jug of wine,
my ears hear a voice
deep and rich, reverberating
through the microphone
to the youth of Rochester,
my fingers touch the cheeks
of the girl perched next to me
on the outcropping overlooking
the middle falls down from the inn
the sun dancing
off her long black hair,
my nose smells the sour odor
of JP-4 Jet Fuel
and the exhaust of the F-102
and the beer soaking the floor
of the base NCO Club
late in the evening,
I can the taste of salt
of the sweat in the hollow
of her neck as we lay
in a moment of reflection
as the Greek sun
beat down outside the window.
Sergeant if you find me
please call me immediately
for I am terribly concerned
at my absence, it is
so out of character.
First appeared in modified form in The Worcester Review, Vol. 21, Nos. 1-2 (2000)