poem index

223 A soldier's life

223 A soldier's life
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Bagram, Afghanistan, 2002
Marvin Bell, 1937
The interrogation celebrated spikes and cuffs,
the inky blue that invades a blackened eye,
the eyeball that bulges like a radish,
that incarnadine only blood can create.
They asked the young taxi driver questions
he could not answer, and they beat his legs
until he could no longer kneel on their command.
They chained him by the wrists to the ceiling.
They may have admired the human form then,
stretched out, for the soldiers were also athletes
trained to shout in unison and be buddies.
By the time his legs had stiffened, a blood clot
was already tracing a vein into his heart.
They said he was dead when they cut him down,
but he was dead the day they arrested him.
Are they feeding the prisoners gravel now?
To make them skillful orators as they confess?
Here stands Demosthenes in the military court,
unable to form the words “my country.” What
shall we do, we who are at war but are asked
to pretend we are not? Do we need another
naive apologist to crown us with clichés
that would turn the grass brown above a grave?
They called the carcass Mr. Dilawar. They 
believed he was innocent. Their orders were
to step on the necks of the prisoners, to
break their will, to make them say something
in a sleep-deprived delirium of fractures,
rising to the occasion, or, like Mr. Dilawar,
leaving his few possessions and his body.
223 A soldier's life
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Dulce et Decorum Est
Wilfred Owen, 1893 - 1918
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
223 A soldier's life
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Facing It
Yusef Komunyakaa, 1947
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't,
dammit: No tears. 
I'm stone. I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way--the stone lets me go.
I turn that way--I'm inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's 
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.
223 A soldier's life
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My Father on His Shield
Walt McDonald, 1934
Shiny as wax, the cracked veneer Scotch-taped 
and brittle.  I can't bring my father back. 
Legs crossed, he sits there brash 

with a private's stripe, a world away 
from the war they would ship him to 
within days.  Cannons flank his face 

and banners above him like the flag 
my mother kept on the mantel, folded tight, 
white stars sharp-pointed on a field of blue. 

I remember his fists, the iron he pounded, 
five-pound hammer ringing steel, 
the frame he made for a sled that winter 

before the war.  I remember the rope in his fist 
around my chest, his other fist 
shoving the snow, and downhill we dived, 

his boots by my boots on the tongue, 
pines whishing by, ice in my eyes, blinking 
and squealing.  I remember the troop train, 

steam billowing like a smoke screen. 
I remember wrecking the sled weeks later 
and pounding to beat the iron flat, 

but it stayed there bent 
and stacked in the barn by the anvil, 
and I can't bring him back. 
223 A soldier's life
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Before the Deployment
Jehanne Dubrow
He kisses me before he goes. While I,
still dozing, half-asleep, laugh and rub my face

against the sueded surface of the sheets,
thinking it’s him I touch, his skin beneath

my hands, my body curving in to meet
his body there. I never hear him leave.

But I believe he shuts the bedroom door,
as though unsure if he should change his mind,

pull off his boots, crawl beneath the blankets
left behind, his hand a heat against my breast,

our heart rates slowing into rest. Perhaps
all good-byes should whisper like a piece of silk—

and then the quick surprise of waking, alone
except for the citrus ghost of his cologne.
223 A soldier's life
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I Have a Rendezvous with Death
Alan Seeger
I have a rendezvous with Death   
At some disputed barricade,   
When Spring comes back with rustling shade   
And apple-blossoms fill the air—   
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.   
   
It may be he shall take my hand   
And lead me into his dark land   
And close my eyes and quench my breath—   
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death   
On some scarred slope of battered hill,   
When Spring comes round again this year   
And the first meadow-flowers appear.   
   
God knows 'twere better to be deep 
Pillowed in silk and scented down,   
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,   
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,   
Where hushed awakenings are dear...   
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,   
When Spring trips north again this year,   
And I to my pledged word am true,   
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
223 A soldier's life
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The War Works Hard
Dunya Mikhail
How magnificent the war is!

How eager

and efficient!

Early in the morning

it wakes up the sirens

and dispatches ambulances

to various places

swings corpses through the air

rolls stretchers to the wounded

summons rain

from the eyes of mothers

digs into the earth

dislodging many things

from under the ruins...

Some are lifeless and glistening

others are pale and still throbbing...

It produces the most questions

in the minds of children

entertains the gods

by shooting fireworks and missiles

into the sky

sows mines in the fields

and reaps punctures and blisters

urges families to emigrate

stands beside the clergymen

as they curse the devil

(poor devil, he remains

with one hand in the searing fire)...

The war continues working, day and night.

It inspires tyrants

to deliver long speeches

awards medals to generals

and themes to poets

it contributes to the industry

of artificial limbs

provides food for flies

adds pages to the history books

achieves equality

between killer and killed

teaches lovers to write letters

accustoms young women to waiting

fills the newspapers

with articles and pictures

builds new houses

for the orphans

invigorates the coffin makers

gives grave diggers

a pat on the back

and paints a smile on the leader's face.

It works with unparalleled diligence!

Yet no one gives it

a word of praise.
223 A soldier's life
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Spoken From the Hedgerows
Jorie Graham, 1950
To bring back a time and place.
A feeling. As in "we are all in this
together." Or "the United States and her allies

fought for Freedom." To bring back.
The experience of killing and getting killed.
Get missed. Get hit. Sun—is it with us. Holiday,

are you with us on this beach today.
Hemisphere of one, my soul, paratrooper,
greatness I house in my body, deepset, my

hands on these triggers—who once could outrun
his brother—consumed with fellow-feeling like a madness that does not
                                                           must not,
lower its pitch—going to the meeting place,

the spire of the church in Vierville, seen on aerial maps, visible from
                                                  eighteen miles out,
if it weren't for fog, and smoke, and groundmist,
the meeting place, the appointed time surging in me,

needing to be pierced—but not me—not me—

only those to the left and right of me—

permit me to let you see me—

Me. Driven half mad but still in biography.
By the shared misery of. Hatred. Training. Trust. Fear.
Listening to the chatter each night of those who survived the day.

There is no other human relationship like it.
At its heart comradeship is an ecstasy.
You will die for an other. You will not consider it a personal

loss. Private Kurt Gabel, 513 Parachute Infantry Regiment—
"The three of us Jake, Joe and I became an entity.
An entity—never to be relinquished, never to be

repeated. An entity is where a man literally insists
on going hungry for another. A man insists on dying for
an other. Protect. Bail out. No regard to

consequence. A mystical concoction." A last piece
of bread. And gladly. You must understand what is meant by
gladly. All armies throughout history have tried

to create this bond among their men. Few succeeded as well
as  the paratroop infantry of the U.S. Army,
Rifle Company E, 506th.

Fussell: It can't happen to me. It can happen to me. It is
going to happen to me. Nothing
is going to prevent it.

Webster (to his parents): I am living on borrowed time—
I do not think I shall live through the next jump.
If I don't come back, try not to take it too hard.

I wish I could persuade you to regard  death
as casually as we do over here. In the heat of it
you expect it, you are expecting it, you are not surprised

by anything anymore, not surprised when your friend
is machine-gunned in the face. It's not like your life, at home,
where death is so unexpected. (And to mother):

would you prefer for someone else's son to die in the mud?
And there is no way out short of the end of war or the loss
of limb. Any other wound is patched up and you're sent back

to the front. This wound which almost killed him
healed up as well and he went back.
He never volunteered. One cannot volunteer.

If death comes, friend, let it come quick.
And don't play the hero, there is no past or future. Don't play
the hero. Ok. Let's go. Move out. Say goodbye.
223 A soldier's life
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Phantom Noise
Brian Turner
There is this ringing hum  this
bullet-borne language  ringing
shell-fall and static this  late-night
ringing of threadwork and carpet  ringing
hiss and steam  this wing-beat
of rotors and tanks  broken
bodies ringing in steel  humming these
voices of dust  these years ringing
rifles in Babylon  rifles in Sumer
ringing these children their gravestones
and candy  their limbs gone missing  their
static-borne television  their ringing
this eardrum  this rifled symphonic  this
ringing of midnight in gunpowder and oil this
brake pad gone useless  this muzzle-flash singing  this
threading of bullets in muscle and bone  this ringing
hum  this ringing hum  this
ringing
223 A soldier's life
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Memorial Day for the War Dead
Yehuda Amichai, 1924 - 2000
Memorial day for the war dead.  Add now
the grief of all your losses to their grief,
even of a woman that has left you.  Mix
sorrow with sorrow, like time-saving history,
which stacks holiday and sacrifice and mourning
on one day for easy, convenient memory.

Oh, sweet world soaked, like bread,
in sweet milk for the terrible toothless God.
"Behind all this some great happiness is hiding."
No use to weep inside and to scream outside.
Behind all this perhaps some great happiness is hiding.

Memorial day.  Bitter salt is dressed up
as a little girl with flowers.
The streets are cordoned off with ropes,
for the marching together of the living and the dead.
Children with a grief not their own march slowly,
like stepping over broken glass.

The flautist's mouth will stay like that for many days.
A dead soldier swims above little heads
with the swimming movements of the dead,
with the ancient error the dead have
about the place of the living water.

A flag loses contact with reality and flies off.
A shopwindow is decorated with
dresses of beautiful women, in blue and white.
And everything in three languages:
Hebrew, Arabic, and Death.

A great and royal animal is dying 
all through the night under the jasmine 
tree with a constant stare at the world.

A man whose son died in the war walks in the street
like a woman with a dead embryo in her womb.
"Behind all this some great happiness is hiding."