In November 2009 I learned that I had won the War Poetry Prize for the second time since 2004. A year earlier, in 2003, when Iraq invasion was a  foregone certainty, I had decided to spend part of my writing time and publication efforts on works about victims, survivors, collateral damage here and abroad. Although none of the recent works have been collected in a book–or rather, none of the MSS containing a substantial number of these works has been accepted by a publisher–, enough have been published in journals (paper/silicon) to merit archiving them and their related links here.

First, a link to the 11/09 War Poetry Prize announcement. This leads to the texts of the 3 poems, “Wolverine and White Crow,” “Motivations,” and “Insurrection and Resurrection,” as well as to a YouTube link of me reading the poems. Scroll down to read the texts of those poems (as well as the works linked in the following paragraphs).

“Reveille and Taps,” about homeless veterans in my part of the Northwest was published in 2007 War Poetry portfolio: http://www.winningwriters.com/contests/war/2007/wa07_long.php. From 2006, there’s “Abu Golgotha,” which conflates a well-known Abu Ghraib torture scene, crucifixion, and Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” and “The Red and the Green,” about a homeless PTSD vet who has decided to starve himself to death: http://www.winningwriters.com/contests/war/2006/wa06_long.php. From 2004, “Gulf War News Sign-off, with Video Tricks:” http://www.winningwriters.com/contests/war/2004/wa04_long.php.

I want to acknowledge Adam Cohen and Jendi Reiter of Winning Writers for devoting much of their website and energy to providing a forum for those of us who are compelled to bear witness to the cycles of civic destruction and demoralization that war brings. Truth is the first casualty when war comes, and its death corrupts and kills the souls of those who lie and deny and sanctify what war really is. WW’s War Poetry competition, however, is a site for witness, lament, shame, grief, indignation, empathy, remembrance, love, and above all, truth about war.

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I am also beginning to deposit copies of published war works in the University of Oregon’s open access repository, the Scholars Bank: http://bit.ly/5O4hAK will link you to .doc copies of several war works that have been published in Sentence 5 (“What Bleeds Leads”), Del Sol Review 15 (“The Pier and the Bridge”), Green Mountains Review (“Infrastructure and Fracture”) and the 9/16/01 Eugene Register-Guard (“911”). I will keep adding to this open access collection as long as I’m part of  the University of Oregon. (If you use the Scholars Bank  search bar, type “Long, Robert Hill.) These works are also published further down this page.

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http://www.arabesques-editions.com/journal/robert_hill_long/48128302.html links you to “American Idyll,” a satire where my alter ego Robinson indulges violent fantasies while watching the premier unreality show of the Iraq war years.

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Three works from Winning Writers’ War Poetry Prize 2009:

    WOLVERINE AND WHITE CROW

Piss-legged, drag-assed khakis tucked into jump-boots,
a sleeping-bag coat torn by river-bank blackberries—
parks himself across on the bench opposite the man
writing at a riverside picnic table. Clears his throat:

Asking you a favor—guess my age. Close enough.
Thirty-eight this year, okay. Ask me a question,
any question. Know I’m Indian, yeah? Cheyenne,
Montana. Damn Indians, all they know is how
to do one thing: drink. Okay, here’s the joke.
How do you track an Indian? Go on, guess—
I’m listening. No? Put your ear to the wind
for the sound of the guy crying,
Hey bro, I’m thirsty.

He unstraps a sweaty watchband, pushes the watch
across the table. Digs one pocket for change—nickels,
pennies, a dime—pours them around the watch.
Three knuckles are bloody, the forearm protruding
from his sweatshirt scored with long cuts, some scabbed,
some fresh. He parts the midnight hair over his eyes:

Hey bro—another favor: drink with me? Take
that watch for a dollar or two, go up to Hop Sing’s
and get us a beer. You got to get it, bro,
Hop Sing won’t dispense to me, damn Indian.
So ask me a question, I’m listening.
Name’s Wolverine.
Only know how to do one damn thing—

He raises two fingers, points at a clutch of children
in a wading pool. Cocks his thumb, cradles one arm
like a gunstock, squints through an invisible scope.
The neck tightens, pulling his lip into wolverine snarl;
then rifle-recoil. Then the benign gaze of a full-time drunk.

My first rifle? Pellet gun. Plinking quail. Plink
the rancher’s chickens when they strayed. One day
saw this hippie thumbing on the highway
while I was beating through sagebrush. Thought,
Why not? Just a bigger sort of target. Didn’t guess
I’d score at that distance, but
plink—he claps
his leg like a big horsefly nailed him,
Ow!
Goddam Ow! No idea who ambushed him.
So I see I got a gift to sell to Uncle Sam.

Groomed as a marksman, flown to Kuwait. Sniper duty
plinking Saddam’s waterboys wading the dunes. Their hair
black as his, heads poking out at sunrise in the crosshairs.
They don’t fall to be found, pocketed like quail, they fall
away behind dunes, unconfirmed kills. He can hear
their water-cans leaking through the sand of his dreams.

Push the shirt up my arm. Farther. You got
to push, bro, this other arm’s broke. Yeah,
see that? Dog soldier. That’s the mark,
like a crosshair, north east south west,
grandfather’s four directions. Cut it myself.
I’m a killer and I’m hurting. I can see you’re scared,
a quail in the sage—don’t know which way
to run. No fear, bro, my woman outranks me.
Traded my rifle for Uncle Sam beans and cheese.
He’s got a warehouse in Montana where
our women line up to change bullets into beans.

He wants the white man to rouse himself, take coins
and wristwatch, raise him by his good arm to see Hop Sing
about a canister of eight percent oblivion. He wants
the invisible woman to trade him back one bullet full
of all the water telescoped in the desert to plant
beneath his wolverine chin. He wants a quail to claw
his eyes, a mother to say No, a grandfather to sing
West South East North, raising burnt sage in his palm.

Hop Sing’s is two blocks south. Drink a beer
with me or walk me home, I’m hurting.
This park’s a graveyard where clouds bury
old water. Don’t turn round, bro,
the black and whites are talking about us—guess
Hop Sing told them I was on the way, damn Indian.

A police cruiser idles across the street. It’s a good day
to walk away, the white man thinks. Then hands back
the watch he has bought, and helps Wolverine to his feet.

My woman outranks me. Should I snipe her?
Yes or no. Tell me my mother says No, tell me.
Can you feel the shotgun pellets in my shoulder?
Like stars in the river of grandfathers. Go on
and touch them, bro, keep your hand there—

When their feet reach the edge of the park, jump-boot
and sandal, black and whites bracket them. “Hold up,
chief,” one blueshirt says. Another bends to his shoulder-radio,
hand on holster. “Hands out of pockets. Sit on the curb.
Name?” The white man expects to hear Wolverine;
the answer is White Crow, Leroy. Date of birth? 1967.
Home? The riverbank. The blueshirts ask the white man
the same questions; the radio pronounces him free to go.
“Walk away, professor,” the blueshirt advises. It’s sunny,
mayflies unregulated as a drunk sniper’s thoughts blow east.
The writer walks north to his car, the black and whites
separate, east and west, and Leroy White Crow,

a fresh ten in his pocket, alone again on legs
too thin for his jump boots, wobbles south.
His father is jailed two counties south for stabbing
a logger in the cheek; he could use a visit.
Somehow Leroy must get there—burrowing
through roadside nights like Wolverine, or floating
just above Interstate 5 fog like White Crow—
and he will. Even if his good arm breaks
against some windshield, even if he’s knocked
out of piss-legged khakis by a logging truck
and reduced to a cloud of mayflies over a ditch,
he will go south to bring drink to his father’s lips.

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    MOTIVATIONS

In the room where life turns into books
he  singles out the word motive. Now
that nothing moves but his head, this noun

thumbs his neck where nerves are fused,
circular pressure each evening that asks,
Where did you hope to end up, if not here?

His eyes stall over text where the sooty young
of Heerman’s gulls are distinguished from
their ashen cousins the ringbilled gulls—

Look, he’s back in that Army Recruiting Office
on two legs, look, his right hand signs his name:
contracted to the service of his country a wink

past boyhood: pushups, the rope course,
wrestling a machinegun tripod onto his back,
rewarded with the ballet of nine-ball played off-base,

some nights a girl’s blue-jeaned buttocks against
his belt buckle, sway and grind. Motive enough
for the next step up the gangway of a cargo jet

to apply his gift for raking fire at a map coordinate
twenty hours east in the night where a friendly regime
required rapid deployment to contain a desert

insurgency. Insurgent: one more word that plummets
down his unfeeling spine. Tomorrow the nurse
will roll the skin-wrapped freight of his body

off its pressure sores: sponge bath, leg work,
joint massage, toward the moment she pours him,
clothed, into the mobile chair for his walk.

Her breasts, bound in white, infuse him
with a surge that stiffens only his tongue.
When will you open your booby hatch?  he jokes

and she answers, When the dead rise, baby—
and zips his pants. Some nights he could outline,
with fifty caliber tracers, a clay rooftop

where insurgents set up mortars: silhouette them
against Baghdad’s clay skyline for artillery to zero in,
reduce roof and hostiles to martyr rubble.

He let his long barrel relax toward a sky
shot through with the phosphorous of stars,
immoveable, migratory, white eyes

studying this firefight where he’d connected
what was and what might have been
and interdicted it. He had not yet seen how

the same stars examine the faces of the dead
and the living; he was hale, young, half-deafened
by love of his weapon’s mobile power.

On outings in the chair he studies
the motions of postmen—postcards home here,
junk mail there, bills everywhere—and the squads

of small birds: chickadees anting twig and limb
while nuthatches stutter (nyuk nyuk) comic relief
and downy woodpeckers machine-gun the trunk

to stun pale grubs to light. A logical
choreography, pleasing the dartof his eye—
leaf-shiver, grass-ripple—traceries

over the stillness radiating wherever
his immobility is parked. The woman hired
to wheel him outdoors respects his wish

to watch birds, mailmen, kids on swings
without comment, alone. With a wave
she strolls off, with cell phone and smokes

until the flocks have flown and swingchains
are slack and whatever can be delivered
has been delivered. He doesn’t tell her he lives

for her return—the sole upright thing moving
toward him, a long-skirted sway, as though propelled
by a reason beyond wages. Her motives are his

to imagine, and he never wants to know more,
because no woman will touch her tongue to his
now for nothing, or undress to glory his eyes

for less than ninety dollars. When she wheels him
home on the rootcrazed sidewalk, the world
is a zigzag waltz, and the boy in him calls out

Faster! Hit the bumps faster! to make her laugh
and risk spilling him. If he did, she’d have to struggle
up close with his cargo weight, and that might look

like love—her hair in his face, arms locked
around his back in a power lift he remembers
not from her  or the nurse who handles him day/night

but the instant his vehicle tripped piano wire
that triggered the bomb that launched him
from the rooftop gun hatch in a slo-mo somersault

beyond the fireball  toward that tablet of stone
Moses broke in half at the sight of such dancing.
Do not kill, the stone read, but he had, and lay

broken from the neck down. Back in the room
of motionless books, he’s parked amidst
the consolations of dead philosophers,

field guides of birds drawn as still lifes, atlases
and dictionaries designed to answer nothing
or everything. Alone with a darkening interior

screen that projects a father in a mortared bazaar
crying Allah akbar! over the bloodied rag of a boy,
and the magnesium sprint of his tracers catching

a group of leadfooted gunmen in an alley,
he says, I signed my hand to it and it was done.
He says, Fuck me, I’m a star goneg nowhere

in everywhere’s black. A webpage on the rivers
of the west lies open on his eye-level stand;
with a stylus between his teeth he clicks plasma

to a topographic view of the last one undammed.
If he had an ounce of reserve power he’d strap himself
to a backboard and launch headfirst into it

and the eddy would spin him like a compass needle
before settling steadily southwest. Ospreys overhead,
kingfishers, fresh cold dousing his eyes, baptism

after baptism until whitewater cadences
go beyond alleluia or goodbye and reduce all
he was to the speed of summer snowmelt

shouldering glacial boulders and hemlock snags
toward the Pacific. He does not need books
to picture the knots binding him, wrist and ankle,

to the fluent board. Does not need a woman’s tongue
to recite how the river flooding each inch
of his body will keep it pointed downstream

toward the ocean they all mistook for earthly peace.

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    INSURRECTION AND RESURRECTION

In the shoulders and haunches of horses, there’s meat
and an autumn without meat
justifies the pistol that made the mare’s ear flick.
The young man who was
the boy the mare carried (high summer forests:
they made charcoal and raki
and carved madonnas to barter for sacks of coffee
and bandoliers of bullets)
whispered, Remember? then fired and backed away
from the black scarves and skirts
with skinning knives, toward the fire where a glass
of white heat was his reward.

Listen to the flames, said a toothless beard who lit
his cigarette: You can hear her
gallop away. He put head between knees to erase
the hoofbeat. Behind him
the women’s voices rose, and men recited
the ragged annals of invasion—
Mongol, Turk, Hapsburg, Nazi—named heads on pikes,
numbered all doused with oil
and set afire to run to the forest where women hid children.
Always the stories came back
to one man, one rifle, one bullet, the dead rising up
to win back forest and hill,
horse-pasture and springs to prepare the choral moment
when winter dictates they kill

their last horse once more. How strange to survive beneath
the palms of California
in linen and fedora among bettors who never saw
a man felled in a shallow grave,
much less eat the soul who carried him, boy and man,
from forest to market
where so many were beheaded or shot it was impossible
they lived long enough
to coax cheese from cream or grind beans for coffee.
Here, it’s the seventh race
at Del Mar, the form in his lap guarantees someone
happiness against odds. Here

he bets and sometimes wins, here the hooves
pound the message
that horses, at last, have command of the earth
and their pleasure carries men
in a circle dance until men see the earth is a pasture
without barbed wire.
He closes eyes to grandstand shouts and ticket confetti.
The dry air concentrates
a liquor he tips his head back to receive in a snore
while losers shuffle past
to execute their dreams in roadside taverns.
His hat falls behind the seat—

lost bets, crushed cups—and a hand shakes him:
Sir? You can’t stay here,
go home. He stoops into the taxi’s cushioned dark
to be sped to a room
where a glass of white fire sits on the bedside table
like a boy in saddle.
In its depths, the keening of women is transmuted—
black trains in the night,
trumpeting at intersections more and more distant.
On the blind muscle
of his bed he lies back, trusting its sense of direction
—no rider, no horse,

just this rhythm bearing him into the forest on fire.

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from Winning Writers/War Poetry 2007:

    REVEILLE AND TAPS

All beards, this crew, lank hair that hasn’t been barber-shopped
since the last war or two. Their outpost,
this shady three-way intersection off the milltown bridge,

their drill, to rotate cardboard signs each rainless day:
Why Lie? We Need Bucks for Beer.
Sign display, that’s a wheelchair-sergeant job.

The K9 job, heads on paws, is to make motorists sorry
for their masters. When a dollar flutters
from a car window, Youngest Beard has legs to fetch it

before the light changes. We May Be Wasted,
But Beer’s to Be Tasted.
Their mottoes
beat boot-camp cadence: The Hounds Need Chow,

We’re a Quart Low. What’s their strength?
two wheelchair sergeants, three
bike-mounted beer-store specialists, four drowsy dogs

plus a carton of cigarettes and a mound of brown bottles
the world calls dead soldiers.
Daily they’re probed by a mobile enemy whose pennant

is a mortgage payment. By the river’s cottonwood banks,
their siege camp: blue tarps, Army surplus
mummy bags. They face three roads going nowhere

better than this tollbooth-post for whoever might salute
their stand with a dollar’s neutrality.
If you stop the car to ask the beards, Where? they wax exotic:

Ia Drang, Addis Ababa, Persian Gulf. Ask, What happened?
you might glimpse a best buddy
delegged by RPG, a headless child necklaced with sandflies.

But your unasked question, Why, why the smokes,
the cardboard jokes, the diabetes
and phantom limbs, night-sweat shouts the river swallows—

Why war left them refugees from peace—that’s not for you
to know. They’d like a ten.
For a ten, they can get oiled on a case of Colt .45

and sing you a reveille—We Can’t Get It Up, Can’t Get It Up,
Can’t Get It Up in the Morning

and punch each other’s tattooed knuckles while you tap cadence

on your car-horn. Honk farewell to your cheap green flag
flapping like a truce in their hands,
shift their beards into your rearview mirror. They know

the vets hospital waits a hundred miles south,
its helpline number gouged
in the barroom wall in their skulls beside the troop carrier

that keeps burning to the refrain I’m So Lonesome
I Could Cry
. The hospital beds stay full,
stories like theirs occupy each waiting room and hall.

They play Taps nightly, the cemetery mowed smooth
as a billiard table’s baize.
They’ll engrave a man, name and dates entire—

the best black lettering on a white stone.
What can’t be written there
the river ferries in eddy and swirl, in the commingling

of silt and salmon scale, gravel and snag, carries it out,
part of a deepening undersong
gone west in waters fallen and gathered, pushing toward

utterance at its Pacific mouth, where war dissolves
in depths black and cold as heaven.

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2 works from Winning Writers/War Poetry 2006:

    ABU GOLGOTHA

By the river of Babylon, main battle tanks doze like hippos in dust. Centurions in desert camo and flak jackets play poker on a sandbag. Boys in reed-shallows fill gasoline cans with water. A robed man vends ices, cherry, lemon, lime, a rifled cohort slowhands each car edging forward to stop, be identified, turn back or be destroyed. Clusters of women

trail each other’s feet, pomegranates, figs, eggplants in baskets, honeycakes oozing through muslin, and the week is over, God is great, goats bleat in line to the butcher stall. Mutton-smoke drifts up from cauldron and grill. Idle artillery ticks in the heat. How near, the walled compound where Christ

is crowned by a canvas blind-bag. His cross a food-service pail white as his underwear, upside down in a Crayola-blue wading pool. No need for crosspiece or nails. In familiar surrender his arms stretch, wrists rosaried with telephone wire. In the pool fighting fish twist and spasm, pixels of stained glass at his feet. He’s tied

to the current that displays how the world plays Pilate: the kill switch is in your hands. So put his hands to your chest and ask, Whose heart is this? Whose hands? How long have you stared at the world through honeyed muslin, lord of the remote?

What suffuses his torso enough to blacken the screen of your eyelids? How does he silhouette each wall that compounds you—living room, bath-mirror, windshield, rearview mirror—unless he’s the horizon, the beacon? In this way

disciples are summoned, betrayers identified. This is how battle tanks are dismantled, how men throw off helmets beneath the sun. The pomegranate’s farewell to grenades, the fig’s valediction to cluster bombs.

You get there by trailing veiled women: keep your eyes lowered, trust their feet. How long he has kept balance, waiting, the room where he tries not to be killed brother to the room

where you sit imagining how to live. Step into the water, prepare for a shock: only you can help him down.

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THE RED AND THE GREEN


The town sprawled beneath its highest hill is shot through
with clatter of jackhammer and nailgun, clatter
of scrub jay, canyon jay. Of lawn machinery
and street machinery diminishing, feathery
echoes in valley haze. On this hill, wind is overlord,
high judge whose silent deliberations impose
silence on the ones who come by foot from the river.
Lord, consider one who ate nothing all day so
his dog could eat and make this hike with him to lay
by the concrete acres of the reservoir, who believes
there’s no reason to be alive but here, where oaks
and cottonwoods amplify your breath which quiets
the valley, which makes your dry, perpetual surf.
If hehas to go without food another day, better
here by the silence of hoarded water, this slope
that is your shore. Most days he’s beneath everything
beneath you. Here, a blackberry runner extends
its five-fingered leaves and green nubbin-fruits.
How many days would he have to lie still to see
green ripen to sour red? As many days as red
takes to blacken. Lord, drop black in his mouth. By then
he will be cuffed and wrapped in bramble, light almost
as the clothing that slides and slips from his frame,
a cotton husk. And that might be the enlightenment
he hears nothing about in the gospel mission,
in the church shelter where hunger and fatigue led him
to soup and a cot, to endure watching a fat man
with bible in one hand and broom in the other drive
his dog away from the entrance. So he would endure
another Sermon on the Mount and clean his table
to pocket two potatoes for the one he ate
to locate his dog the next morning, for the dog
is the last way he can see his own soul, and keep it
moving some days, like this, ascending where the wind,
if it fails, fails only a minute. No matter
how high he hikes above town, he’s headed steadily
down, Lord, through remaining babyfat, through muscle
and belief, down to the lank-haired helmet of skull,
white armor of bone. When part of the machinery
last, he carried a belt of grenades, oversized
green fruit with power to ripen black and red at once.
The boy who broke from a cluster of boys advanced
at him chattering like a jay, holding a red can,
and red means gasoline, means fireball. Red meant stop,
so he yelled, Stop, pushing outward with his hands, Stop!
and the boy stopped chattering, turned to face friends
with a shrug. They pushed hands in the air, too, meaning
Go. As though the small, forbidding wind he made
with his hands was contested by their bigger wind
of encouragement, in which the boy spun round, raised
the gas can, and began to trot forward with an odd
canine grin. He was only following protocol
to release the grenade’s pin, lob, count, and crouch
behind his sandbagged checkpoint. When the smoke cleared
all boys were gone except the one who lay in the road
staring at his legs, sheared off at the knee. The man stood
over him, rifle aimed at his chest. The boy shook
his head, amazed, touched his lips with two fingers, then
pointed out the canteen on the man’s belt. They had both
gotten it wrong. The man slung the rifle, unhooked
his canteen, knelt to place it in the boy’s hands. Not wrong
to thirst, Lord, if the one vessel he could scrounge to beg
American water was red, red was the right color.
The boy’s tongue of want had been harmless as birdsong
and now he was failing at the man’s feet, failing fast.
As he drank, the man scooped him up. Medic! he shouted
and began to trot. Medic, murmured the boy in his arms,
Abba,
light-boned as a fallen fledgling. How long,
Lord, has he borne that boy’s deadweight within? When
did he choose to give that boy his own legs and eyes?
Let the boy listen, then, to invisible surf
at this remove, since he has been shown the cardboard
camps along the river where many became men
without bed or family, packing home on their backs,
who lie tipped over in the alley like a red can
leaking. Let the boy see the man’s soul before him,
a speckled animal who guards his footsteps and waits.
There is less and less difference among them where
they lie beside this high monument to water.
Break the lock, Lord, open the water’s door.
Already they know the wind is your surf.
Until they die of thirst let them watch it pour down
upon the city at your feet. Cover them both
in five-fingered leaf, in protective thorn, and hide
the black fruit of your name in their mouths, and let
the dog go back, following a dependable scent
down as far as the river where longlegged boys
shirtless for August, up to their thighs in the current,
stand launching great splashes at each other’s face,
windmilling the surface with the flat of their palms,
drenched with explosions of laughter and water.

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from Sentence: a Journal of Prose Poetics, #5:

    WHAT BLEEDS LEADS

The woman at the lectern is not wry, not hysterical, but remains veiled. In her hand, a white stone the size her government specifies for stoning women. This is a workshop, not a tribunal or trial. She lists stonable offenses: adultery, childbirth without benefit of marriage, stealing from a father, a husband, a son. The audience, mostly women, mostly European, hands around a photo of a naked body boiled alive.

Fliers in the corridor detail procedures for removing a toenail, a clitoris, a hand that offends. At a touch, a monitor screen lights up with comfort women, videotaped inside their cribs. Click the mouse, the screen changes: a main battle tank, plastered with Playboy centerfolds, acned soldiers petting the images, laughing, their Kalashnikovs shouldered.

* * *

The woman who lectures changes—darker, lighter; more veiled, less; her language changes but the evidence needs no translation. There are shreds of cotton panty around the victim’s ankles, her thighs and knees splay invitingly outward from posthumous gas, her belly mimics a pregnancy. Her teeth are whiter than ever. The pictures arrive by fax, on the Web, unfolded by fingernails black with cooking oil.

Children on the monitor with one leg or none. Children without hands open their mouths for a spoonful of clammy millet. Stick limbs, kwashiorkor bellies, unwieldy heads. Heads like solar systems for the infinite black stars of flies. Some must be dead by now, brains too big for their own good. Somalia, Albania, Chechnya, Afghanistan.

This is not a woman shopping for attention. This is not an audition, but a recital of facts—the least durable, least endurable things. The facts seem to strike at her voice strike like a folded hand, one cheek, the other. Faces redden, the tears come unbidden. Love is not an abstraction, it’s a disruption of the usual beat of the universal heart which is more like a hand beating hard against another skin.

The world takes shape in our bellies, she says, we give it suck, we let it milk us. When it’s big enough to think it can think, it wants to pay back that milk. Some of that original stuff. No, we say, we gave it for keeps—that’s what love is. But the soldier boys are full of the white stuff, it turns to stone inside them and it’s so heavy they have to give it back. And if they have to use real stones to open our arms and legs, they will.

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from the South Carolina Review 2006:

    WALKING WOUNDED

Strapped with a boy’s lipstick-red guitar, this whitebeard
plays a last set for tips in a near-empty joint.
His longhair-boy band used to play Camp LeJeune, Fort Bragg—
head-shaved kids, beer-drunk, gung-ho, Saigon-bound. He fired

    airbursts of feedback to shake them up, they yelled Fag
    but sang along. Four hoarse hours later, pacified,
    they called him Brother, packed his amp, shared killer weed,
    girlfriend pics. Then flew off to join the body count,

      or the amputees, or the ones with no visible scar
      who zipped the war in their skin like a body bag
      and came home to long nights, bunkered in the corner bar.
      That’s their whitehaired brother Orpheus who points

        his red weapon at shadows, and sings, We were all gods
        once.
        And fires the last note into the back of their heads.

          :: :: :: :: ::
          From Iron Horse (2007), a more than usually satirical take on generational war-damage (the title is meant to explain the tone):

          SOUTHERN GOTHIC

        He was quick out of Troy after the fire,
        with just enough of the classics in him
        to know the next fated stop was Carthage
        —that’s counties, from Montgomery to Moore,
        North Carolina. His daddy had picked
        Aeneas as his middle name. Nothing
        toughens a boy like a name he has to
        defend in the schoolyard, and those hard knocks
        ready him for what’s awaiting the man
        with less fortune than wit. Fine, but where’s Dido?
        Now he’s perched on a carved-up courthouse bench
        in Carthage with no clasp-knife to whittle
        his name, much less a portable kingdom;
        with trouble one town behind him, one step
        ahead. Yes, there’s even a wooden horse—
        two wooden horses, in fact, the stick horse
        he rode on his own legs, plus a relic
        from a carousel Daddy repainted
        and hung as a backyard swing on the oak.
        The forensic term for both horses is
        accelerant. In classic terms they were
        part of a pyre, attendant animals
        bearing the dead to the underworld.
        Insurance underwriters would call this
        a scam if they knew the whole story, but
        he’s hoping they’ll write him a check for the house
        since the will is clear, if Daddy wasn’t.
        Guess I had way too much fun with napalm
        in Nam, he’d joke, once lupus and shingles
        were burning him up: I never saw one
        single enemy I set on fire, but
        this has got to be payback. Last orders:
        to help pile Daddy’s bedroom with items
        that burn clean and hot, that incinerate
        evidence of suicide assistance.
        He didn’t want the disease to slowly
        roast him in a VA hospital ward; a man
        should die at home, make sure the job’s done right.
        Thus the wooden horses, the stacks of newsprint,
        luggage packed with clothes, like he was planning
        to leave for the Vets Home—which he had arranged,
        along with letting the electricity
        get shut off for nonpayment of past due,
        so there’d be a reason for the kerosene
        to power the lantern beside his bed.
        Any fool with bad dreams can knock over
        a lantern in the middle of the night.
        As for the cigarettes to start it all,
        hell, it’s a Carolinian’s duty
        to smoke over breakfast, on the john, in bed
        until his metamorphosis into one more stat
        for the National Institute of Health.
        Once the pyre was set up, they drank bourbon.
        Your momma’s people settled in Carthage,
        he was told, plus the facts of elopement,
        the sundry hellraising circumstances
        that preceded his birth and followed it—
        he was twenty-one now, he ought to hear—
        the war, the domestic betrayals, why
        the momma he barely remembered fled
        west with a third-rate lounge musician
        who had a day job in an auto parts store
        headquartered in southern California.
        Admittedly, bourbon helped Daddy swell
        his small-town Troy story into myth:
        what else do you have when the day is done?
        A quart of Jim Beam, a lantern to read
        the classics by until the cigarette
        falls from your hand. Tragic and comic both.
        If everything goes as planned, the ashes
        of his progenitor will arrive taped
        to a settlement check for a half million
        after taxes, general delivery,
        Carthage, N.C. The courthouse here has
        the deeds and plats and names of his Momma’s
        people, he can look them up, make amends
        or mayhem: either all those schoolyard fights
        are behind him or the best are to come.
        Learn golf, Daddy suggested, they like golf
        over there in Pinehurst and Southern Pines.
        Might find yourself a queen of the fairways.
        They do all their business on the golf course,
        I hear. Funny how a father can give
        advice on love and sport and work one day
        and accomplish his inferno the next.
        If there’s no queen in Carthage, the atlas
        has provided several Romes for him
        to consider—Rome, Georgia, Rome, New York,
        Rome, Mississippi. There’s a Romeo,
        Michigan, too, but maybe that’s cheating.
        Wherever he goes, there will be women
        waiting to be transformed, queen for a day,
        a year, a lifetime. Why else is his name
        LeRoy Aeneas King but to locate
        his kingdom and set a woman on fire?
        He knows how to fight to defend his name.
        He understands how the wooden horse works.
        He’s packing fresh Trojans in his wallet.

          :: :: :: :: ::
          From Del Sol Review, a poem about an amputee/former Africa-aid-worker’s meditation on race, slavery, belief, and the possibility of redemption.

          THE PIER AND THE BRIDGE

        If he could cease seeing the pier
        where he spends nights bottom-fishing
        as a failed bridge, he might get somewhere

          during the day. But after each day
          is finished with sleep, it’s night,
          and the causeway’s string of light points

            to the pier, strung with incandescent bulbs
            to the end, where he ends up
            dropping a lead-weighted question

            baited with live fish, fish-heads, pigs’ feet.
            When idlers—teen gropers on dates, farm families
            getting a gawk at the Atlantic—get past

              his odd beat-up electric golf cart parked
              with a driver-side view of Africa
              they ask: What are you fishing for?

                Hicks and hormone-lust amuse him. He says,
                A Russian sub with one warhead intact.
                The bones of Robert E. Lee guarding the drowned

                  stash of Confederate bullion. If he feels mean
                  he says: Moby Fucking Dick. He plays their questions
                  better than he plays the line, which most nights

                    drifts a little with the current, depending
                    how long his live bait tugs at its leader.
                    As far as he knows, he’s simply feeding

                      something bigger than himself, something
                      made up of infinitely smaller parts
                      that flash and dart in narcosis depths:

                        a sunken body politic; a drowned childhood;
                        a bridge back to Ghana or Senegal
                        whence cameth whatever strength brought him here

                          around the time the Liberty Bell cracked.
                          Speculations for no one, least of all him. What about
                          the bones of his fathers and mothers? Not there

                            to be trawled up, since they survived
                            first and middle passage to produce the line
                            that ends in him. But plenty more bones lobsterwalk

                              the Atlantic bottom. One night shy of Apocalypse
                              maybe a chalky hand will clasp his treble hook
                              and give three strong yanks to say, Come hither—

                                come down where we were thrown off the slaver
                                to feed the fish that Jesus didn’t divide.
                                His last mission was in Eritrea, supervising division of millet

                                  into child-sized meals, dividing dried milk, dried fruit,
                                  seeing that aid trucks unloaded this much
                                  and no more, that church volunteers ladled no more

                                    than each client had earned according to calculations
                                    of drought, age, optimal weight, time served in the camp.
                                    He could thank God, then, he was no doctor

                                      to triage terminally malnourished cases,
                                      or the death-tent nurses required to search themselves
                                      in those obsidian eyes until the eyes clouded

                                        like mackerels laid out on planks of salt wood.
                                        His exit visa was stamped one night in a rocket attack
                                        on a convoy loading at the airfield.

                                          A hundred-pound sack of dried milk, his shield:
                                          the leg that poked out got seeded with shrapnel
                                          from buttock to bootlace. The same night

                                            an opposing warlord mortared the camp
                                            as punishment for taking American handouts.
                                            The mission got the message, folded tents, flew away.

                                              His leg was buried among two hundred refugees.
                                              With the end of walking, the end of faith. The end
                                              of faith is a golf cart parked at the end of the pier.

                                                Are you happy now, have you heard enough?
                                                Turn back, search for that hallelujah budding
                                                beneath her bra, till tobacco until you’re green

                                                  in the face, you’re not ready for what drowned
                                                  in this ocean—Bill of Rights, Fugitive Slave Act,
                                                  Sermon on the Mount, twenty-five million obsidian eyes.

                                                    His list of grievances is long as Job’s beard,
                                                    twice as black, ten times more intemperate.
                                                    The gawkers never hear this, shamed away

                                                      by Moby Fucking Dick. Any rant concerning warlords,
                                                      warheads, the bullion stowed in West African bones
                                                      for safekeeping under Ahab’s night watch—

                                                        that’s a dialogue composed of silence:
                                                        conducted with the night in place of God,
                                                        with the Atlantic in place of Jesus,

                                                          and days when he can’t sleep, with the TV
                                                          surrogating for good old Holy Ghost.
                                                          TV shows a red cloud big as Sahara

                                                            pluming west toward Topsail Beach. Click.
                                                            Suits more expensive than ten thousand
                                                            portions of millet announce sharp upturns

                                                              in armor production, troop shipments. Click.
                                                              The Houston Astrodome’s conversion to
                                                              a superchurch with fountains, ferns, not a cross in sight,

                                                                a preacher with perfect teeth plus twelve baskets
                                                                of cash at his feet. He keeps audio muted,
                                                                captions on, orthography like glossolalia.

                                                                  Each dead channel’s static gray hiss of snow
                                                                  translates as [Nothing], the porn channel’s
                                                                  mimes of the act of love are captioned [*].

                                                                    And sleep, when it comes, is no refuge: there,
                                                                    a recurring dream-child mounts a sunken scaffold
                                                                    of bones wide as Sahara, tangled as sargassum;

                                                                      his lips swell like a trombone’s embouchure to utter
                                                                      a note that’s half lighthouse beam, half ambulance siren.
                                                                      Then he morphs into a sheepshead—zebra-striped fish

                                                                        of pilings and piers—and swims away. Sleep
                                                                        is the wrong end of death’s telescope.
                                                                        That fish-headed child, was he thrown off the slaver’s deck,

                                                                          mortared in his cot, or triaged by kwashiorkor?
                                                                          That’s the answer he’ll never catch. Once his bait
                                                                          array goes over the rail, seeing stops:

                                                                            nothing but the second-by-second nudge, live wave,
                                                                            dead wood. No horizon but night. A high place,
                                                                            a pulpit. Jesus could feed five billion here

                                                                              if he started walking the wavery path
                                                                              of the rising moon. Starting out now from Galilee,
                                                                              across the Mediterranean. He’d better walk fast,

                                                                                the night’s a Gethsemane wink, all those bones
                                                                                reaching up from the bottom in his wake
                                                                                like lepers wanting one touch of the hem

                                                                                  of his Atlantic garment. Come on, the man says.
                                                                                  He leans his rod against the rail, shifts
                                                                                  the good leg in his golf cart: Come all the way here

                                                                                    this time, come prove me wrong.
                                                                                    The beer’s cold if you hurry, but I’m not
                                                                                    anchoring this end of the bridge forever.

                                                                                      :: :: :: :: ::

                                                                                    From Green Mountains Review’s American Apocalypse issue, a poem juxtaposing accidental deaths in Iraq and at home, and how they fail to register in a culture of total consumer infotainment.

                                                                                      INFRASTRUCTURE AND FRACTURE

                                                                                    Long after the war has settled into an overseas industry,
                                                                                    it’s revealed: they dedicated a printing plant
                                                                                    to forge evidence why war was required.

                                                                                      The news is greeted with lines at fast food franchises.
                                                                                      People chat about the feeble-minded boy
                                                                                      who talked two younger boys into a car trunk—

                                                                                        all three smothered in the heat while rescuers searched
                                                                                        wider and wider circles, sure it was a kidnapping:
                                                                                        a dark-complexioned man in a white van,

                                                                                          or an albino skinhead in a black van. People
                                                                                          separate to eat, guarding their food,
                                                                                          elbows fencing it in: chew and say nothing.

                                                                                            The music is sprightly, piped in twenty-four hours.
                                                                                            One car nudges another in the drive-through.
                                                                                            The electric plants they bombed flat are being rebuilt,

                                                                                              of course, better than before. Also police stations,
                                                                                              sewers, barracks, railroads, airfields, prisons.
                                                                                              As with any enterprise, industrial accidents occur:

                                                                                                a van full of contractors detonates a mine, troops
                                                                                                delivering water and sherbet to a village school
                                                                                                are menaced by starving dogs, provoking response

                                                                                                  in which the mayor is met by a stray bullet,
                                                                                                  still clutching the ceremonial wreath woven by
                                                                                                  his daughters. The fast food franchises empty

                                                                                                    all at once—tremendous sale at the big-box store,
                                                                                                    a sudden desire for summer dresses, flowering
                                                                                                    shrubs, picnic tables, a new swing set. For all

                                                                                                      this stuff, what’s needed is a roomy van:
                                                                                                      everyone converges on the automobile superstore
                                                                                                      to test-drive the biggest solution on sale.

                                                                                                        When the father of the two younger boys
                                                                                                        unlocked his mother’s car-trunk, it was simply
                                                                                                        to locate a more powerful flashlight.

                                                                                                          At Golgotha, too, the good thief and the bad
                                                                                                          had a father. Perhaps the same father, who sat
                                                                                                          with his head covered beneath an olive tree

                                                                                                            until the hour appointed to retrieve the bodies
                                                                                                            and wash them. The feebleminded boy had no father
                                                                                                            to take part in the search. This was old news.

                                                                                                              The other one, though, had quit shouting
                                                                                                              by the time the neighbors and rescuers ran up.
                                                                                                              He had taken a freshly washed queen sheet

                                                                                                                from the laundry line, laid both boys out,
                                                                                                                then a cover sheet, and crawled in, pulling it
                                                                                                                over their heads and his. From the outside

                                                                                                                  it looked like he was reciting a favorite
                                                                                                                  bedtime story—the urgent whisper, and beneath
                                                                                                                  the still-damp sheet, the flashlight’s muted beam,

                                                                                                                    shifting left to right, right to left again.

                                                                                                                        :: :: :: :: ::

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