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Poems from the Vietnam War

CHRISTMAS ‘68

Flares lit the night like a sky
Full of Bethlehem stars.
Dark wings against a darker sky
Laid down red ribbons and bars
Of bright crashing metal
To warn of the on-coming
Assault of men, the long battle
Filled with cries of “in-coming,”
That sent them crawling about
Into the pocked earth, waiting for the promise
Of thudding hosannas, like a gathering of devout
Moths, aching for the flames, but frozen by the hiss
And whistle of mortars and rockets sliding
Down their air pews in a choiring of dying.

MOURNING THE DEATH, BY HEMORRHAGE, OF A CHILD FROM HONAI*

Always the children are included
In these battles for the body politic.
Prefaced with mortars and rockets
The Year of the Monkey was preluded
By the mephitic
Stench of blasted bodies sullenly drifting from the pocket

Of refugee hootches at Honai.
The enemy patriots knew the young
Would be glad to die for the revolution.
The allies were certain the vox populi
Called a mandate for flag-strung
Counter attack and awful retribution.

The majesty of the annihilation of the city
Could be heard clearly in the background,
I could only wonder what ideology
The child carried in her left arm—necessity
Must have dictated an M-16 round
Should cut it off, and her gaining the roll of martyrology,

Her dying in my arms, this daughter
Weaned on war, was for the greater
Glory of all concerned.
There was no time to mourn your slaughter
Small, denuded, one-armed thing, I too was violator,
And after the first death, the many must go unmourned.

A RIDE HOME ON HIS FINAL LEAVE

Bus windows are huge sunglasses,
No need of them, it is raining
And they tint the grey sky green.
Stalks of corn in passing Jersey fields
Are passing brown
Down to the earth in rain.
Few still wear
The gold-capped grins of August,
When their wetted leaves
Seemed sensuous lips.

A lonely brindled Jersey,
Hideous in her dapple of greenish-white and black,
Is mulling over the taste of autumn,
Her pale green breasts unattended.
Cudding up a mouthful of greens,
Her jaws unhinge as if in a scream,
Her bell swings in the wind,
Yet only the sound of her eyes
Reaches me as we near Newark,
Then fades with night and New York.

The green of my uniform turns black,
My gold eagle buttons seem fierce
In the passing lights of the docks,
Then their brilliance flies them
As the highway stretches into blackness.
Occasionally they hatch in brief golden flight
At the green-lamped exits.
I am relieved at the darkness,
And think only of the camouflage of greens,
The lie of youth, of my body—I am going to die.

GROUP SHOT

So they passed,
Days of hollow cadence
When each passing day
Seemed an album of daguerrotypes,
Camera-caught, anachronistic.
Puffed-up, pigeon-breasted,
As in Brady’s day
We strutted to a distant
Very insistent drum.

I have photos of us all together,
Polished boots and brass
In front of whitewashed barracks.
There, hanging on the parlor wall,
We are as once we were,
The wholeness of our limbs,
Two eyes blinking at the sun,
When all had all needed
To woo the world.

MORNING—A DEATH

Argument

Dawn light, dispersing through the plastic windows of the quonset, comes rippled, slatternly marbling and mottling the flesh already stippled and tabby with lividity. The blues and purples of collecting pools shadow upwards, the new day downward, and south moves the shade from right to left.

Turn—Character 1

I’ve blown up your chest for thirty minutes
And crushed it down an equal time,
And still you won’t warm to my kisses.
I’ve sucked and puffed on your
Metal #8 throat for so long,
And twice you’ve moaned under my thrusts
On your breastbone. I’ve worn off
Those sparse hairs you counted noble on your chest,
And twice you defibrillated,
And twice blew back my breath.
I’ve scanned the rhythms of your living,
Forced half-rhymes in your silent pulse
Sprung brief spondees in your lungs,
And the cesura’s called mid-line, half-time,
Incomplete, but with certain finality.
The bullet barks apocalyptic
And you don’t unzip your sepulchral
Canvas bag in three days.
No rearticulation of nucleics, no phoenix,
No novae, just an arbitrary of one-way bangs
Flowing out to interstitial calms,
The required canonical wait for demotion
To lower order, and you wash out pure chemical.
You are dead just as finally
As your mucosity dries on my lips
In this morning sun.
I have thumped and blown into your kind too often,
I grow tired of kissing the dead.

Counterturn—Character 2

I’d sooner be a fallen pine cone this winter
In a cradle of cold New England rock,
Less hurt in it than nineteen years.
What an exit! Stage left, fronds waving,
Cut down running my ass off at a tree line.
I’m thinking, as I hear my chest
Sucking air through its brand new nipple,
I bought the ticket, I hope I drown fast,
The pain is all in living.

Stand—Character 1

I grow so tired of jostled litters
Filling the racks, and taking off
Your tags and rings, pulling out
Your metal throats and washing
Your spittle down with warm beer at night,
So tired of tucking you all in,
And smelling you all on me for hours.
I’d sooner be in New England this winter
With pine pitch on my hands than your blood,
Lightly fondling breasts and kissing
Women’s warm mouths than thumping
Your shattered chests and huffing
In your broken lips or aluminum windpipes,
Sooner lift a straying hair from her wet mouth
Than a tear of elephant grass from your slack lips.
I’d so much rather be making children,
Than tucking so many in.

  1. *

    The village of Honai lies between Bien Hoa and the Post of Long Binh. It is a village of North Vietnamese refugees, and was known as “Sniper’s Village.” After the Têt Offensive of 1968 it was known as “Widow’s Village.” During the Post-Têt Offensive of 1969 the village was again infiltrated by NVA and VC forces, and again recaptured by US and ARVN forces after heavy fighting. Both forces seemed to have had equally little regard for the civilian populace of the village.

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