Poetry from John Hicks

 Family
  
 When you graduated, no one  
 hired draft bait.  You lived at home.  
 Waited for the hungry nation’s letter.  
  
 Collected in October.  Bus 
 full of strangers.  One, his pockets 
 full of candy.  Another, cigarettes.  
 No one shared.  Guy behind you 
 was reading Psychology Today.  
  
 Now, after four months of training,
 you’re trying to use every minute 
 of this twelve-hour pass slipping
 through your fingers.  Last freedom 
 before new orders.  Fog cold.  
  
 Can’t pull your collar close enough.  
 Head-down walking.  The light without edges.  
 Can’t see the city through suffocating gray.
 No idea how far from the Greyhound depot.  
 Looking for a place that won’t shun a soldier.  
 To be among civilians a few hours.  But 
 you’ve wandered into a warehouse district.  
  
 The Draft, a law for world war—now part 
 of the country’s character—has sent you 
 to learn automatic weapons and explosives;
 to build strength to march with heavy packs; 
 equipment, and ammunition; to carry 
 an injured comrade out of harm’s way; 
 to dress wounds; to dig for shelter in the dirt.  
 It’s taken you for your country’s hardest work.  
  
 At the bus depot you bought a San Francisco Chronicle.  
 First newspaper in four months, now limp in the fog.  
  
 Training’s over for your platoon.  No longer strangers
 uncertain about each other or the Army.  
 Comrades waiting for orders: 
 Vietnam on everyone’s mind.  
  
 Among steel and concrete buildings, a single light
 caved in mist above a store front’s faded letters,  
 EAT.  
  
 Looks like a place out of Jack London.  A place 
 for bearded men in pea jackets, wool caps, heavy boots.  
 And cheap enough for a $100-a-month Army private. 
 Brass door handle’s wet, cold.  Thumb the latch.  Push.  
  
 Almost empty.  Air heavy with grease.  
 Cook, with stained apron and tattooed arms,
 has spread the classifieds on a table.  
 Doesn’t look up.  Radiator clicks by the door; 
 coffee urn grumbles.  Murmured slap of cards
 from the far end of the counter.  Her uniform 
  
 is faded pink; hair in a bun, pencil stuck in it.  
 You’re too late for breakfast, she declares.  
 We got pie and coffee.  
 Take the seat by the register.  
  
 The cup is heavy china; kind that holds blistering heat.  
 Slip your fingers around it; one through the handle.  
  
 She returns to the game.  Takes her cards 
 from her apron pocket.  Other players 
 are pink-faced—gray hair slicked back on one, 
 fluffy gray ring above the other’s ears.  
 Black industrial shoes with gym socks.  
 Their backs toward me.
  
 Students are protesting.  San Francisco 
 wants to build the world’s tallest building.  
 Nixon has a plan.  Crossword, horoscope, 
 Goren on Bridge, Ask Abby, sports, want ads.  
 Pages of another world.  
  
 Pay for the coffee.  Leave the paper.  
 Fog’s unchanged.  Pull your neck 
 into your collar.  Back to the bus depot.  
 Back to your platoon.  Back to wait for orders.  
 Unspoken:  You’ll be split up.
 
  
 Singing in the Dark
  
 Few things weight your heart
 like men’s voices lifting 
  
 in the relief of camp songs, 
 songs that echo back 
  
 from a grove of trees 
 taller than their sound.  
  
 Nothing is more terrible 
 than men’s voices lifting 
  
 to branches leaning down, 
 keeping to themselves 
 what lies ahead.  
 
  
 Pride
  
 On the plaza, the Marine Band 
 struck up the national anthem, 
  
 and in the awareness of a ten-year old, 
 you noticed the changed posture
  
 of the man standing next to you; 
 how he pulled his feet together, 
  
 how he squared his shoulders, 
 and took the cigarette from his mouth; 
  
 how both sleeves ended 
 in stainless steel hooks.
 
  
 Bus to the Weekend Market
 Hot. 
 Sun off the concrete so intense, 
 I have to squint.  Digs through
 the bottom of my shoes.  
  
 No taxis on Sunday—so a bus.
 Alone at the stop on Sukhumvit Road, 
 I’m moving with the shade splatter
 under this flaming jacaranda.  
  
 Tomorrow, the young woman 
 with white blouse and blue sarong, 
 will set her baskets down in the shade, 
 lean her bamboo pole against the fence, 
  
 and roast banana slices on a brazier 
 for customers waiting for the bus.  
 She’ll wrap their breakfast 
 in fresh banana leaf before it arrives.  
 _______________
  
 Still my first month in Bangkok.  Today, 
 I’m going to the old part of the city.  
 Have heard of Sanam Luang, 
 the Weekend Market on the royal public grounds.  
  
 I want to see where the food comes in 
 from the countryside.  I’ve heard 
 you can buy almost anything there:  
 brass woks, boars’ heads, horseshoe crabs, 
  
 and temple offerings—like small birds in cages, 
 or Siamese fighting fish in plastic bags 
 of canal water—small animals for making merit 
 by setting them free.  
 _______________
  
 A bus at last!  
  
 As we pull away, I hand my coin 
 to the attendant in his khaki uniform.  
 Can’t be more than ten years old.  
  
 With a practiced gesture, he flips back 
 the hinged lid of the aluminum tube, 
 drops my fare into its compartment, 
 and tears my ticket from the tiny roll.  
 He stays close to me and,
  
 looking up with a shy smile, 
 touches the top of his crew cut 
 with the flat of his hand, compares 
 to its level on my shirt—something
 I did at that age.  I smile back.
  
 Ah, luck!  A seat on the shady side 
 and an open window with breeze from 
 our movement.  The young mother 
 in the seat ahead holds her baby up 
  
 to look over her shoulder at the farang.  
 A surprise of black hair spouts up through 
 a pink bow.  I look down a moment, 
 then up; wiggling my eyebrows.  
  
 A giggling reward. Like all babies, 
 she can’t stop staring.  I’m guessing 
 she’s going to visit grandparents.  
 They get off at Soi Nana Nua—
 just before Ploenchit Road where 
 we begin heading west.  
  
 Near Erawan Shrine, I hear whispers
 behind me in a dialect I don’t understand.  
 I pick out the word American.  
 A gray-haired woman leans forward 
 and raises her voice to get my attention.    
 Her hair is cut short, sarong folded 
 in the old style.  I can’t make out
 what she’s saying until she offers me 
 a kaffir leaf and a scoop from her jar 
 of betel nut paste.  Her daughter, 
 in western dress and sunglasses, tugs 
 at her arm, an effort she pulls away from—
 eyes bright above her betel-red mouth.  
 In a country that esteems its elderly, 
 she’s being generous with her attention.  
 Respectfully, I decline with a modest 
 lowering of my head, then a wink and 
 smile.  Her laugh lines are for me.  
 We ignore daughter.  
  
             _______________
  
 As we pass Emerald Buddha Temple, 
 people start gathering their belongings.  
 The attendant stands next to the driver 
 to look out the front.  We pull over, 
 and everyone gets off.  So I do, too.  
  
 The street stews with weaving vehicles.  Taxis, 
 bicycles, samlors, small trucks, motor bikes and
 scooters weave, beep, honk and puff exhaust.  
 Everyone seems to be unloading baskets or crates 
 or dropping someone off.  
 Sanam Luang itself is an uproar of tarps
 in all shapes, colors and patterns—
 all with their backs to me—obscuring 
 thirty grass-sparse acres of the royal public grounds.  
 I retreat to shade beneath the tamarind trees planted 
 by King Rama V.  
  
 How do I get into the Market?  There seems 
 to be no entrance, and everyone’s too busy to ask.  
 As I watch, a woman with a basket of duck eggs 
 resting on her hip gets off the back of a motorbike, 
 and dodging through the traffic, disappears 
 behind a canopy.  Staying under the trees, 
 I follow and find the opening where she entered. 
             ______________
  
 A path on the battered grass wanders vendor-to-vendor. 
 I turn left, dodging tent poles and tie-downs, 
 duck under tarps sagging with the weight of sun, 
 and stop at crowd around a table 
 where someone sells small birds 
 from a tall wire cage.  A boy and his father 
 have made a selection and are watching 
 the vendor trying to catch it without losing 
 the others.  The birds make small clicking sounds 
 as they flick perch to perch.  Each grab
 inspires laughter and encouragement 
 from surrounding children and adults.  
  
 Home has become far away, 
 
  
 New Car
                         
 Pattaya Beach,
                         Thailand
                         Hot Season
  
 I parked my new car last night in a grove of royal jacaranda 
 for shade over our beach weekend.  Tomorrow we’ll walk 
 to the water through coconut palms rustling in the sea breeze.  
  
 At noon, we’ll move into the shade for steamed rice in banana leaf cups, 
 and chicken satay roasted with a local curry sauce, 
 drink Amarit or Singha from a chipped-ice cooler.  
  
 This morning I find I’d parked in a photographer’s dream—
 a theater setting of clustered orange trumpets, 
 regal fanfare deafening polished metallic blue.
  
 But trees only talk with trees.  
 They whisper to each other 
 what pride cannot hear, 
  
 I’ve brought a painted toy into paradise.
  
   

2 thoughts on “Poetry from John Hicks

  1. Pingback: Synchronized Chaos October 2021: After Some Thought | SYNCHRONIZED CHAOS

  2. Hello John, these poems are very viviid, like they happened yesterday and not many years ago. They are alive with the people and places, and behind all description, I feel the angst distilled through the vision of everything playing out in the daily life of the times and places beautifully described, a rich palette. A sadness pervades, a haunted reverie and yet, a deep appreciation for the people who are seen through eyes that understand the paradox of life on earth.

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