RECURRING NIGHTMARES OF RETURNING SOLDIERS
from the archives of the Lewis Stokes V.A. Hospital, Cleveland, Ohio
He’s upside down and turning clockwise
the same slow way Torres did
when he found him hanging in the garage.
A steel cable connects a house-arrest ankle bracelet
to a puppeteer beyond the clouds.
His head is three feet above the Swat Valley.
He knows there’s a helicopter up there somewhere
dangling him like a cherry
over the mouth of hell.
He’s naked, but he’s got his M27.
The valley crackles awake on all sides.
The dirt pops like a pond tossing
raindrops back at heaven.
He’s a bait goat.
“I can’t decide where to fire my weapon, Doc.
At the guys firing at me from the mountains,
or the chopper I know is up there somewhere.
So I curl myself up—
Torres used to work his abs that way,
knees hooked on the pull-up bar—
I curl myself up and start chewing through the cable.
Like a rat. Front teeth, like a rat.
I feel it fraying.
These little metal threads tickle my beard.
They’re shooting wild, but they’re getting tighter.
Think of dragonflies crisscrossing
less than a foot from your ears.
I think I bit my tongue last Tuesday,
though I still don’t know
where. I should feel it, right, Doc?
In the morning? If I bit
my tongue in my sleep? All I know is
I spat out a mouthful of blood on the sheets,
and I’ve got this chipped tooth right here
and no money for the dentist.
Got an edge like a skinning knife.
I’d slit my finger open if I stroked it.
He’s the one who discovered Torres—
the three were housemates,
dropped from a height, trying
to seal each other’s cracked skulls with gold.
So when he falls asleep
he goes from room to room
discovering his whole platoon.
Trumbull in the kitchen
with a mouthful of blackberry jam.
Behind him, on the wall, a Rorschach blot
in the shape of kissing sharks.
Wyatt in the bathtub
he’s filled up by himself.
Look right: ants bristle a toothbrush. Look
left: black mold spatters the shower curtain,
Braille orders that he cannot read.
Jenks on the couch, his hand on his own head
asleep like a cat in his lap.
Diaz in the bedroom
with a giant stinkhorn rising
from his navel, death mask locked in awe
of what is growing out of him.
Every room is someone else
until he opens a door
and it’s his old room at his mom’s house.
No one in the closet, no one on the bed.
So he kneels and checks beneath the bed.
He says his own name, coos it, sings it
as he thumbs the safety,
Nicky, Nicky, where you at …
He’d always wanted a husky, growing up.
Now he had one—on a leash
crusted with bits of glass
like the rock salt rimming a margarita.
He kept switching hands.
He was in fatigues; the street was scared of him.
And no wonder—the husky kept growing.
“Or maybe I was shrinking?
I thought I saw a sniper on the terrace.
Turned out to be a crow, but that was worse—
the husky took off after it. I lost my footing
and after getting scraped along the road
a while, I just let go—
I had to let go, sir. My palms were mush,
fatigues all torn up, pebbles
bedded in my raw thigh.
Whole town is screaming. It’s not Kabul;
smaller, residential. I go looking for him—
God knows what all he’s doing—
and I see bodies in the street.
And then I see a woman, an American.
She’s taking pictures. I’m like,
‘Don’t—this isn’t real, I can explain,
this isn’t what really happened.’
And she’s like, ‘Stop me.’
I say, ‘Don’t make me whistle.’
And she says, ‘Thought you said it’s not
your dog.’ So then I whistle. And he comes.”
At this point in the telling, he breaks
eye contact. “When he’s done with her,
he licks my hands. I let him lick my hands.
And when he’s done with them,
I turn them to my face like Muslims do at prayer,
and Doc, my hands are healed.”
is trapped on a hospital boat in hostile waters.
He wants to wash up
but they say the scab is a blanket the blood weaves.
“Thing is, it’s not my blood. I’m fine.
It’s all somebody else’s blood on me—
someone I shot—it’s like acid on my skin.
Though how the blood got on me—
I’m a sniper. There’s no way. The guys I killed—
I was a quarter mile away sometimes.
I kept clean. That’s the one good thing about it.
You keep clean.” The only way
to wash it off is jump.
He splashes down in solid jellyfish,
the water mucusy with them, its surface
tension just enough to drop and drown him.
He’s screaming with the pain now—hydrochloric
blood and jellyfish tentacles
wrapping down his legs. (In waking
hours, this is his sciatica.)
A doctor flings something on the water
and gestures at him like she’s putting on
a crown. He swims to it.
It’s not a ring buoy, much less a crown.
It’s a loop of rope
he must thread with his neck
to survive to die.
He’s waiting on the steps of a jail
in handcuffs. Women
billow in black from top to toe.
The street is full of them. Each one peeks out
through her mourning,
through an eye-slit in her portable cell door.
They’re screaming, pointing, weeping at him.
“I’m like, ‘Hustle me out through the back!
Get me in a jeep!’ The Afghan cops are making
phone calls, trying not to look at me.
‘You can keep me in cuffs if you want,’ I say,
‘but you’ve got to protect me. Guys, I trained you.’
I did, in Kabul, in ’07. Teenage kids
in khaki costumes. Three weeks just to teach them
how to clean and reassemble a handgun—
warrior race my ass.
They should’ve been in art school, med school,
something. Those days? Either
go grow opium in the valley,
or sign on with the Americans. They didn’t
hate us, or at least I didn’t think they did.
These women at the jail, though—
in the dream, I mean—they surge to the foot of the steps.
I feel them tugging my fatigues.
So I’m all, ‘Why’ve you got me on display?
Take me inside, for fuck’s sake.’ Sorry, Doc.
God’s sake, I should’ve said. I should’ve said
I’ve got a lot of blood on me. It’s even crusted up
my hair. A kid who’s maybe sixteen
wearing the Sharpie badge I made him
raises a handgun to my temple.
The mob gets even louder. He lowers the gun
and shoves me from behind.
I’m on their hands now, crowdsurfing at a concert,
weightless …” He shakes his head. “I’m waiting
for all these women to drop me to the pavement,
stomp me, stab me, run off with my dog tags.
But I don’t wake up with a gasp just then,
they set me down. Safe. On the other side.”
I ask, “The other side of what, Tim?”
He shakes his head. “Of everything.”
“So they were demonstrating for you?”
The sobs break through. “They were there to break me
Night in Chicago. All the streetlights shattered.
He takes a premature right to avoid an invasion
of ambulances. He can’t quite tell
if that’s a dog or a child weaving
in front of his car. His headlights go out.
Whatever it is, he’s hit it. He kills
the engine. All the houses have metal fences,
choke-chains that have lost their Dobermans.
He tries to find the body.
There’s a crowd marching up the street.
Even if he hasn’t killed
someone’s dog or someone’s son here,
he’s got an ARMY STRONG sticker
on his rear windshield that’s going to be
the death of him. He’s on it,
scraping frantically. His nails break off
and bleed. The mob is getting
closer. Someone rushes
out of hiding. “This’ll get the stain out.”
It’s a hammer. As the people stream past,
he’s on the hood of his own car
smashing his own windshield.
Sobbing as they cheer him on.
—from Poets Respond
September 12, 2021
Amit Majmudar: “This poem is about the veterans who have returned and will be returning from our foreign wars. I remember working with many during my training, since we rotated through the Cleveland V.A. hospital. Killing kills something in the killer.” (web)
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