Our first day out, on the streets, the loudspeaker call
to prayer did not draw attention, like the first voice
ears ever heard must have — we did not stop,
stare at the minaret.
Those faceless, gown-covered women that walk
behind a husband, their trailing line, are expected —
that they should bow their heads, be suddenly struck
by a cane for some unpardonable liberty, obvious.
Sudden explosions on roadways do not cause panic,
burn from shrapnel finding an unarmored place
does not hurt, scar the skin — the dead still see life,
their eyes reflecting our unbelieving image.
Entering, weapons drawn, dark of night, the house
of a bomb-maker, we have no feeling of self-loathing
as the collateral shrieks, crying of children sound —
through the rooms, into the legs of mothers.
Walking the souq along a dirty river, gibber of animals,
dusty stacks of carpets, baskets of vegetables, hanging,
half-carved goats of smiling vendor, his legs crossed over
slaughterhouse sand — just like our muzak-tranced malls.
The simulacra distortions of Skype are the same as being
in the living room at home.
I halt suddenly, the dust of its movement blowing now
past my armored carrier: a dead dog lies in the road
20 meters ahead. Stopped in the road noise, I tell Sergeant Lewis
over the quiet of the headset that talks to the whole convoy, too,
“I don’t like it. I don’t see any wires, but I just don’t like it” –
any object in this land can be cover for a bomb. No wires, then
no criteria to call it up – no three hour wait for EOD — and we hope
to set up our observation position outside of Husseinia before
dark anyway. The voice of the convoy commander says,
“Go around.” I pull on the steering levers, with a boat-like motion
climb the berm that separates north and south-bound MSR Tampa.
The line of oncoming traffic swerves way off the road, slams brakes –
we’ve skipped so many warning shots over these roads,
shot into so many cars that with bad intention or inattention
would not stop, this is the instant reaction to us, to US,
all over Baghdad. Later, in the dusk of the Husseinia suburb –
while we unload our infantry to point rifles into the darkness,
killing whatever comes too fast – the major says “our dog”
is on the brigade frequency: it just struck an Army MP convoy —
with a Vonnegut character’s feeling of guilt, I ask him,
“How many dead?”
Beauty Moves Away the Pall
The clear, intense blue sky through a square
of bulletproof glass in this iron Humvee door, I am not
in the gun turret today – its vigilance, its instant return
of fire on aggressors, is the soldier standing up beside me
through the open turret above our four seats. I am not the driver,
today, on these crowded, dangerous Iraqi roads. Today
I am a passenger free to think beyond this protective iron
of the world I knew before. My eye catches a young woman’s
arms move by the road, lifting her blue headscarf
as we pass. I wonder at her hair’s dark beauty.
On a last walk of the neighborhood, I turn into
the Little League ballpark I pass every day,
because I want to see everything now. Staring
at each tree I’ve slowly walked evening streets.
Through the chain-link, young basemen crouch
to the aluminum clinks of a coach’s bat, and I want
to stay, hang from the fence and smell the clay,
new-cut grass, wait for popcorn and hot dogs
to float invisible in the air of dusk as warm-ups end,
bleachers fill, banks of lights on the high poles
blink on, erase growing shadows, just stay and feel
each inning crawl, on its cheers and moans, further
into the warm night.
But the dryer is off by now. Time to turn back,
stuff newly washed clothes into a duffel, say
a soldier’s goodbyes, head to Fort Stewart
for a midnight formation. Tomorrow we stand
in the parade field’s sun for a Senator’s send-off,
feel the last embraces of family as we board
buses for the airfield, for Afghanistan.
I long to stay here with headlights, streetlights
that buzz and power up. At the corner, the Lutheran
Church, my breathing is a muttered regret of leaving.
In the Christ window, lit by a ground light, Jesus,
among heaven’s clouds, blesses my longing
with scarred hands.
Those Who Will Save the World
At fifteen I watched a man drown
off a Marseille beach, drawn to sit up
from a spread out towel by yells at the sea,
finding the blue Mediterranean day distorted
by a swimmer’s flailing arms, seeing the two-seater
pedal boat that rode up to him pedal back
from his violent but weakening panic.
We, the crowded beach, caught in a momentary
apraxia, some tortured by what to do, I want
the elderly couple to pedal forward, the only
chance — until a man in a business suit races
across the beach, throwing tie, shirt, leaving
his pants, diving into the sea, swimming
like an arrow. Minutes later he carries
the limp swimmer out, starting mouth
to mouth, his confident actions reaching
in to grasp the loss of everything, pull it
to the surface. Only when the body convulses,
coughs water, does he allow the hands
of the men with yellow vests, who have
carried up a gurney, in to take over.
This courage was not a sudden manic surge
in an unwitting savior. I watch him step
into sandy slacks, collect brown dress shoes,
and walk away shirtless, not looking back
and wanting nothing in return.
The Last Radio Image of Voyager 1
Our idée fixe among the planets for so many years,
its 22 watt signal, slow but reliable as the camel
Marco Polo rode across the Gobi, reporting back —
Jupiter’s red eye roiling like the Devil’s iris, razor-sharp
spinning of Saturn’s rings — a final portrait, February 21,
2013, from the National Radio Observatory: tiny electron
blue fingernail piercing, opening, the farthest
fingerprint ever, a single point
in the vast black grotto
of interstellar space.