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.
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.