Frederick Pollack

Retreat

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.

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