Fighting words

War fails; words never do

Photo Illustration by Don Button

See Notes on the poets in the Arts sidebar

SN&R invited a number of poets with national reputations and local ties to contribute poems on the subject of war. It’s been done before, of course; poet and editor Sam Hamill’s call for poets to respond to the invasion of Iraq three years ago spawned readings and anthologies across the country. But as the war—as all war—continues, so do the poems. We offer these poems by some of Sacramento’s best poets—meditations on the connection of past wars to the present, rants about the lies of war, elegies for the dead, and lyrics about living in the time of war.

Recalling the Past at T’ung Pass
        Chang Yang-Hao, Yuan dynasty;
        “made new” by C.H. Kwock & G.G. Gach,
        “made old again” by Gary Snyder, fall 2005

Bunched and ranging       peaks of the mountains.
Raging, the whitewater      in the gorge.
Snaking along through     mountains & canyons
The trail to T’ung Pass.

I look west,    think back,    grieve:
Armies here      once passed through.
Palaces of their rulers     now but dust.

Empires rise      the people suffer,
Empires fall         they suffer again.

—Gary Snyder

every woman
                              is a country

          on the West Bank
          squats the mother of four
boys all under ten     she’s
          polishing the barrel
              of a gun

                                            she knows the issue
                                            is not God, is not oil

Egypt alone
brings in
                a million
                new mouths
                              a year

knows the petro bucks
are all but gone

that the weapons
her sons will use
will be subtle      biological

knows the new trade
                                            will be water
                            for blood

—Julia Connor

The Home of the Brave
                    —after the Nick Berg decapitation video

The home of the brave is a small room.
At first, it mimics us.
Armed men stand side by side.
They are aware of their power,
and they have concealed their identities.
Only their leader speaks,
and he speaks at length,
reading from a prepared statement,
foregrounding their intentions
with unintelligible rhetoric,
belief in God.
His comrades fidget and remain silent.
When the screaming begins,
the camera shakes with a new honesty—
                          mimicry is done with.
The men bear down,
without rhetoric,
and the home of the brave,
is what we cannot understand,
what we cannot endure,
so long as we are free.

—Joe Wenderoth

January meadow,
whistles and simmers in the low, south-sliding
California sun, clack of crows
in hedgerows, bristle of grasses still abiding
winter pallor, silence of cypresses
upholding sheaves of needles—here they are!—
like gifts of darkness to a sky whose light’s
so fierce and clear it arches like forever
in the tiny shine of noontime minutes.
The tree guy’s dragged and dumped the tree that toppled
last week (when the power failed). Let’s gather
sunshine now, lounge in the hot tub, tipple
a little, watch the twelve o’clock news together—
(peace marchers shouting in the city
under a sky like this, so blue, so pretty……)

—Sandra M. Gilbert

Post Hoc
In the saddest cities, the farthest flung
              reaches of Rome, the wisdom was
that certain vermin sprang from waste:
              maggots from rotting meat,
frogs from marshlands’ putrid fumes,
              mice from moldering husks of wheat.
Though the battlefield urged other,
              the open eyes of the dead saw too late
the truth of it. Those bodies bloating
              in the sun bespoke their loss
in the tongueless tongue of death, time-
              honored unto dust, unheeded as their armor,
whether leather, bronze, or steel, succumbed
              to weather and to rust. As a foul scent
in a gale, their soundings passed, leaving
              corruption born of no union, many
out of none, an inversion of raw
              beauty, its true cause obscured
by a sudden detonation of flies.

—Joshua McKinney

The War at Home
      It’s Tuesday, nearly Christmas,
      and the kids have gone to school.
      It’s the day I work at home, the day
      we’ve planned to set aside
      some time, a few hours, to talk,
      to touch, to take a walk around the block
      among the falling leaves, and then
      beneath the quilts to feel the chill
      go out of us. Perhaps to say
      some soft and secret thing unplanned,
      perhaps to doze—if only to wake
      still holding one another—and then
      to rise again, to carry the glow
      of union through the day.

      We sit down to read the news
      and by the second cup of coffee,
      stop. The specters of the daily dead
      assert themselves, and I can read
      the disappointment in her face,
      and worse, the shadow of a tired resolve
      that looms up now, a merciful distraction:
      there are goods to buy, and the car needs
      gas. And I, too, in the mood now
      only to be intimate with my anger at
      the world. What used to come so easily
      to us is now the victim of our broader view,
      which narrows like this season
      and its sun, like our grim smiles
      as we tell each other, silently,
      that we will make no time for love.

—Joshua McKinney

awake at 4 a.m. listening
      to the cry of the brow-beaten
      in their low-ceiling’d rooms of
      never-a-word; the pacing
      of those, igneous-skinned,
      employed to torture:
      the strut of the old European
      wolf, robed in treachery
      (old Fr.: trichier, to trick);

      wind in boughs of cedar
      the hushed drip of history’s pitch

—Julia Connor

Indian Penance Day
Today is July 4th—two zero zero five,
        Dia de la independencia!

Oh, for that it was real, like independence
        Is supposed to be real! Not here!
        Aqui, nel! It is July, and the lies you
        Lie ’bout never stop. Your theories
        Never end.

I served during the domino lies of Korea
        Long ago. I know vets of that lie who
        Left frozen toes there still hurting and
        Those chosen few have been
        Forsaken and the V.A. is broke.

No money for the aging warriors—jaguars
        And eagles among them, from barrios
        And the rez. Reminds me, growing
        Up, there was this elder in my village
        They’d call San Alegre—St. Happy.

Drank Tokay wine and toked with a happy
        Smirk he brought back from France.
        He had a valid reason for his idiocy—
        What’s this cowboy’s excuse? Patriotism
        Or the price of gas? The economy?

It’s Tom Mix shoot-em-up economix ’cause there
        Seems to be plenty for guns yet none for
        Poetry—guns to arm ’em and no eulogies to
        Bury ’em young like that—so, so young,
        Merely children, boys and girls!

And them grinning, smirking, cara chueca cowboys
        From Crawford—Waco Whackos, really,
        Gum slingers all—slinging feces at us and
        Screaming, God mit orrem, God mit orrem!
        His God is with ’em and he has God mit orrem
        Tattooed on his bald, sans foreskin maiden
        Head and etched on his long horn belt buckle
        To boot—slinging feces at us then slinking
        Behind a white house on the prairie like the
        Texas rinches hid behind white sheets. Why, we
        Knew they had Mexican blood—on the tip of
        Their boots.

El Cuatro de Julio—the Fourth of July—an’ us happy
        At the park con Bar-B-Q, y que? With apple pie
        And cold Coronas crowing and crowning the
        Happy Fourth sending boys and girls—penitentes
        Pendejos—to play war in the Bushes and die in the
        Desert sand for the lies that you lie on the Fourth
        Of July.

Independence Day, tu, zero, zero, cinco.

—Jose Montoya