Saturday night, the Fall of Kabul, the Choppers of Cong, the mendacity of “Why didn’t we see this coming?” All I can think about is a poem I heard by chance on KPFK seventeen or eighteen years ago. Haunted then as I am now, remembering little, I wrote to the writer, Los Angeles poet Jan Wesley, asking for a copy.
Upon receiving it I replied:
I’m often surprised by poems and films upon second reading. Memory can be cruel, or sweet when it’s on the mark. And when it’s merely patchy, delightfully brutal.
I was terribly brutal during an earlier war, I don’t even remember which one. Blaming kids for enlisting, I was chastened by a coworker for my advantaged vantage.
We need these expressions even if only they begin to scratch the surface of our brutality.
Just imagine. The first beautiful boy I ever
knew was a strawberry blonde, paleness
peppered in brown freckles, skin and hair
singed with salmon red. The blue in his eyes
ran all the way to the back of his head,
and how those eyes must have shone
amazement as the plane lifted up and over
unfamiliar breadth of water, jagged outlines
of the Alps and Pyrenees, the transporter
guzzling oil by the Red Sea, over Himalayas,
the Bay of Bengal, nosing its way to
misprounceable landscapes at the end
of the world, wide aura of shock around him,
running man swept up in gales of a hurricane,
pheasant strutting center country-road lines
in our Pennsylvania town. Poolside on our patch
of lawn we liked to watch him lift barbells
made in the factory downtown—and imagine
how we felt as the iron hit his chest, then
dipped back to cement, sometimes 50 times
before someone’s mother picked us up at five.
Knowing young girls could ruin him,
he’d say “bahbye,” neck inclined to one side,
maybe to have a closer look. And just
imagine the look he had as he was hit and spit
into the air, that first boy I ever knew to die
in Vietnam, fear-scorched skin opening beyond
what one should ever be allowed to feel.