A poem for Veterans’ Day
I lived in one of the great cities
along a river spanned by beautiful bridges.
Trains ran overhead and underground.
Bells rang as if we were still in the old world,
trolleys passed, shopkeepers swept the sidewalks
or cranked down canvas awnings as before the war.
Every few moments a jet lifted off from the airport.
Everyone talked about money, having it or not.
We watched what everyone else was watching,
heard what everyone else was hearing, read
what everyone else was reading. Endless
arguments sought by disputation to discover
why so many women were dying and so many men
were empty of feeling except for a murderous rage.
And because, before I arrived here, I had lived
in another city of slow rivers and boulevards,
downtown bright with color for the holidays, music
and monuments, factories, ballfields, railroads, schools,
all gone now — not transformed, collapsed — I wonder,
walking the avenue eating ice-cream, looking
in the windows at the new merchandise, how long
before the money finds its interest elsewhere,
leaving behind it video training games for the poor,
push-button killers on the sofa, slapping high fives,
knocking back shots in front of virtual tortures,
or stoned in front of wide-screen horror DVDs.
You have a right to ask why I am telling you this
in the past tense, clearly addressed to you in the future.
You have a right to ask if I tried to awaken,
or if I was among those paid to devise new ways
to remain asleep, or if I remained asleep myself.
(I am not sure, today, how I would answer.)
You have a right, like Dante, to condemn me
to the vestibule of hell where, neither in nor out,
I will prevaricate forever, comfortless, deliberating
whether to suck my left thumb or my right,
whether to stand or kneel, speak or remain silent,
and you have the right to refuse us all forgiveness.
I acknowledge it here and now. And yet I hope
what will come is no kingdom, no dominion,
no chink of coins, no rustle of bills, instead,
as before the long nightmare, the learning of poems,
the making of music, the trading of songs.
I’m a son-of-a-gun.
I know, I know:
go ahead and groan
but it’s more than a pun.
(If men shot arrows,
I’d be a bow’s.)
A man shot his gun
at another and missed,
and went down, done
DNA in the dust.
The other went further,
became my father.
What was taken from me was taken from so many
everyone turns away or sneers if you bring it up.
I would have had enough of history too,
had I come home like my father (in one piece, yes,
but how many pieces had he been before?)
talking about having a roof over your head
you keep down, never volunteer, and mind
your business, get yours, war behind; but
then my uncle’s war, all pictures of mud and rain
as if it had been some natural disaster; and then
my neighbors, friends’ big brothers, off to the islands;
when they called my number, I said no and found
a shrink who for a couple hundred dollars
called me crazy; what I was was empty, the way
you’re empty when you first wake up, alert, and listen
for something you thought you heard, a cry, maybe,
or a siren, but then you’re not sure if it was a dream.
The news comes on and sets me straight: no dream.
He still can’t talk about it,
my father. A killer? But he is here
in the photo, rocking my child!
an infant crying in the crook
of practical tenderness, caught
with a fan-toed tiny foot stuck
out from the blanket, forever,
nothing of who he’s become,
lifting me off the ground and
kissing me when he sees me now.
(He will mourn me one day, I hope,
and not the other way round.)
And his grandfather, captured here,
bows his head, purses his lips, and
gazes in incorruptible wonder.
Aeneas, aged father on his back,
is framed in a falling doorway,
child by the hand, fire all around,
three generations of refugees,
home not the ashes behind them,
nor even the old address, but
a new place they yearn for:
kitchen, burial plot, and playground.
The tale of our fathers’
grief, of their labor’s
theft and our betrayal,
must now be told:
torn from our mothers,
told over and over
life is a bloodless secret
men share with the dead
and the love we thought
was ours for nothing
was nothing, we were led
in uniforms to stadiums
and called to prove
in blood we were not
what they called us
then, not then, not ever.
Now the stone breasts
of statues move us,
women with wings
not tears, and not these
hurt and angry mothers
of our sons and daughters
whose fears we no longer
remember, like peace.
I prefer to think of him as an infant trying to learn
to bring his palms together, not a man with an injury
deep in his head, an obstacle of scar where a word,
the one he cannot find, is lodged, a pellet of shrapnel.
It is not that he cannot find things to applaud
but that he can no longer do so in the usual way
and has had to forget so much lest he come
to the end too soon, with nothing to desire.
a trying man, an
infant who can
think not one word,
an unman, an
obstacle, an end,
a scar, a future
he cannot find
I wanted an explanation
too, but no one had one for me,
so I made one up. You want to hear it?
I didn’t think so. What good
would it be to you? By the time enough
of what has happened in my time
is recognized in yours, it will be too late
and it will all be happening again.
That was, in fact, a part of my explanation.
Ares, in a hurry always, in a moment before the meeting,
takes Aphrodite from behind,
while Hades, already arrived,
runs the numbers one more time. The deal’s
already made — some gifts and a shake across mahogany
and they’re out of there,
leaving by separate exits. No, no photographs, no paper,
no record, though between them there are promises,
a contract, sure as a contract
for so many barrels of oil, so many miles of pipeline,
a deal for so many souls has been brokered by men,
a deal for a number of souls
to be shrunk each to a drop of black blood and stored,
bitter with remorse, with understanding come too late,
with longing for old enchantments,
in the many chambered cellar of the pomegranate
where, wine of recombinant myth, they wait,
aging in the bottle,
dark as ink, as the dark the new stories about them
will claim to come from, as the dark of a theater
where our children, in rows,
thirsty, imbibe black promises, false premises,
seeds of the pomegranate, mix of blood and oil,
another shipment of souls
warehoused and up for bid. What good has ever come
of any kind of congress between the gods and men? Listen:
that is wailing you hear.
An age ago. The names are changed,
and we are from new and different countries;
our tongues cannot make certain sounds
when we happen upon old tales in books,
though glyphs depict there people dancing,
rituals, records of conquest, feats of heroes,
fantastic animals in symbolic postures,
and naked slaves in familiar ones.
You say history; I say robbery.
You say desire; I say necessity.
You answer God.
That wasn’t what I asked.
Let us at least be honest.
Let us honor the dead.
Let us pray:
I want to be felled and burned.
I pray to be taken and used.
May I be chosen and consumed,
but let me say when and by whom.
What might he follow
to find his way home?
The need for his mother.
The grief in his father’s eyes.
How will he know
he is nearing the place?
The way the sky
betrays the ocean,
the air the field of rye,
the cascade the unseen lake
higher in the mountains.