In some earlier war
we advance on all fronts.
Have matured: no longer believe
it will be over by Christmas.
Maybe next, or the next. But we advance,
we’re winning, and the insult
of every moment is joined by the thought
of dying a day, an hour before
peace. Or a pale real image
of how we will live if we do –
wife or none, job or none,
decades of dreams and silence –
before we force it back into
the homogeneous golden glow of home.
The enemy is locally a gentleman:
if we’re captured he’ll feed us.
And should another training film
without the usual priest/sportscaster voice
show men in filthy foreign rags with good
machine-guns, bomb-making skills,
and total disdain for life
killing guys like us in deserts,
we would stare at fat body armor,
smart helmets, beautiful tanks,
fast-summoned jets, and think, That isn’t us.
Grandkids perhaps, but not us.
And, turning in sleep – a soldier’s sleep,
brief, welcome, dreamless –
ponder the future term “learning experience,”
which isn’t actually school and can be ignored.
Notes from the Last to Leave
After a month, there was a pidgin.
Mostly English, but it could have gone
beyond English, I think, in ways
that can’t be expressed in English.
Similar fusion occurred
in the kitchens and, later, even
in clothes. During the days
the child, as per an old slogan,
went to the motherly. Rooms, schoolrooms
took shape. Men and boys
learned; one thing they learned,
alarming some, was that women and girls
could also, and would. All spaces
began to be regularly cleaned.
Men who had been special elsewhere
found pride ignored and sometimes replaced it
with competence. We hammered, installed;
stood at whiteboards diagramming
language, nature, history, facts,
and lies. Allowed prayer,
and customs that didn’t mutilate. Identified
the hot-eyed who on whatever grounds
demanded more for themselves or god;
made them generally regarded
as mad, and neutralized them.
If I say, I helped, is it pride?
One who helps should be lost
in helping, measure time by task and pressure,
not mood. And I was
that way. Cleared drains, taught,
held the crying, found the lost.
Was liked or, better, seen as human.
Now I tour the empty rooms
and hallways, picking up
a crust, a ballpoint, an abandoned shawl
that could just as well be left.
Some will scatter, some perhaps
in new tribes based no more on ancient grudges,
into a world prepared for them; some
may remember us, even invite us
to weddings ... But now
the self deferred by helpfulness
reoccupies me, feeling
as alien as they did, here,
at first, as I did
in the world, as the world does … I lift
my pack and go. Above the gate,
a helicopter. Mine?
More likely it’s surveying
this place, preparing to demolish.
Which time must do, even when its project
isn’t greed but kindness,
and even with the best will in the world.