February 26, 2009

Timothy David Shea

LOOKING AT A PHOTOGRAPH FROMWAR TIME
I WILL BE THE NEXT HIT BY FIRE

There is the one with his boot sole propped on a frame of sandbags, and the
                    one holding a baseball glove,
lips puckered in conversation. There is the lucky one on one knee who still
                    smiles like a building of light,
and the one, palms to hips, whose father crouched in this photograph thirty
                    years ago and whose son will soon.
But where the eye is drawn, and where the picture will tell its story this time,
                    is to the silent one
moored in the doorway, and above his head, the faint trace of road running
                    to Long Binh. Aphasic and alone,
the young MP, whose eyes are two wet stars dripping in the barracks
                    shadow, wears monochrome fatigues
darkened with sweat, shirt open at the chest. Were it two years earlier you
                    would find him shooting jump shots
below the raftered silence of a New York City gymnasium, but it is 1969, and
                    he cannot think of basketball.

Only of the rains that will come, how they will puddle and slow everything—
                    the furrows in the terraced hills, the flames
that step, like rivers, down their sides—and how he is part now, of it all: he
                    is part of the rain and the smoke;
part of the story the Vietnamese man beside him will never tell—the one
                    about trading whispers from both sides
for cash to save his children. How, one by one, he swam them half a mile to
                    the rescue boats, under fire.
How the men on the boat dropped the motherless infant, twice, back into
                    the water, and how one hungry woman,
then the next, breastfed him on the three-week crossing to San Francisco. But
                    this father, whose crisp, white shirt sleeves
are rolled to his elbows, and whose hair, today, is wet and combed in a style
                    of dignity, has about him
the calm air of understanding. He understands that the young MP he has
                    befriended, who plans to marry
a girl called Eileen, will drive tonight and will be the first one hit by fire from
                    a cemetery to the right of the road,
and he understands an informant’s fate—two brothers and one uncle
                    dropped from helicopters—
so he finds it necessary to be photographed one last time, to appear
                    memorable and worthy.

Each morning, on my way to work, I see a young girl of about thirteen in her
                    front yard. She listens
to her headphones and glides, first toward my car, then away from it, on a
                    rope swing suspended from a tall oak tree.
At first I thought this boring. Then, that she must keep a quiet census of the
                    neighbourhood.
These days, when I turn left around the exhausted corn and pass the girl, I
                    see the Vietnamese man
dangling from the helicopter braces before his twine is cut, and I say out
                    loud, I would have done the same thing.
Then I think of the photographer, a Texan named Steve who swore this
                    blunt image of six strangers
he would never again see, into time, who was not injured in the accident but
                    was shot and killed in the crossfire,
and of the young MP who works, now, with vending machine contracts, who
                    someday soon,
will read this poem, fold it, as always, in half, and claim he does not
                    understand.

from Rattle #29, Summer 2008