War fails; words never do
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.
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
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
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,
and the home of the brave,
is what we cannot understand,
what we cannot endure,
so long as we are free.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
Independence Day, tu, zero, zero, cinco.