After Veterans Day

Castiglione di Fiorentino, 2007

Our men called them “crunchies” for the sound they made
when our tanks caught up with them in the desert. Snug
in tanks, we buried their retreat alive, under dazzling,
smoky sky, as boys will stamp remorselessly on bugs.
Stateside, in darkened rumpus rooms shot through
with pale TV light, we rooted or cursed, prayed,
puked. They once were allies, if dubious ones.

Shoulder to shoulder, the evening crush waited
for the Paris underground to carry them back home.
Tunnels converged and disappeared in all directions,
transepts in an endless cathedral of withdrawal.
We heard the glossolalia of wheels, and deep
down a serpentine throat, light sprang, like a votive
someone’s lit in hope; grew, stopped for us, delivered

us to Notre Dame. Beside chestnut vendors, the penniless.
Inside those stone lobes clustered nebulae of saints
and angels, faceless in the dark heights, their abstract
architectural heaven. Earthly penitents lit creamy
candles, tiny suns in all that space, for their dead,
their dying. The vast, close darkness a mind
agleam with synaptic sparks, with cares.
    We jolt gently awake on the night train to Pisa.
    The dim lamps in the car cut wholly out. Stopped
    dead on the tracks. An hour we watch the window,
    thinking terrorists, coups, trainloads of refugees,
    boxcars detoured to Auschwitz. We see nothing.
    Except far star-like lights, pinpricks coolly
    tattooing the night’s flesh. We wait for news.

We’d descended to the dim white apse of the Holocaust
Memorial. Impressionistic doorless cells, off a room
without a window—ironic antiseptic underworld.
Through slits in the roof, bayonets of day punched
in. Like memories. Shrapnel. Outside, the Seine
this steadfast island pushes against, saint
fretting at the changeless flood of temptation.

And through tight Tuscan streets, villagers carried
into moonblue hills candles and torches, muttering
prayers and cursing the Centurions. Ageless
Good Friday. At the lead, the man with a cross
whom we never saw. In the pharmacy, girlie mags
shone out, breasts like headlamps, bright incisors,
while outside, the righteous, shoulder to shoulder

wove their way into the shroud of the night.
On the train, students on holiday with guitars
unevenly had sung “imagine there’s no heaven….”
Even as they sang, Kurds were fleeing the angels
of death into mountains bordering Iraq,
America slunk to a murky nave of alibi, petty
gods quibbling in their whitewashed clubhouse.
    An hour the maps pulse on and off, like a last systole,
    diastole of a dying country. At length the engine
    starts, backs sullenly a mile up the tracks, stops
    beside a station house. We see, before we finally go,
    a doctor return to the depot, his bag black as the dead
    of night he rejoins. Our recessional continues on
    toward dawn less one acolyte. We wait for news.

--"After the Gulf War," from my collection Grace & Desolation, available from Cune Press.

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