Nor Yet a Dream of War

For Kevin, the former Defense Secretary’s son

From Rattle (Winter 2009, #32). Visit Rattle for an audio version of the poem:

We were sixth-graders at middle school camp,
conscripts in an old regime of the masculine,

privates third-class,
dreading the common shower,

the inevitable comparisons—
my own genital region like an unplanted field

far from a forest.
We didn’t much care for our unit,

especially the bigger boys, lords of the rise
they got out of you,

bullies snapping their towels,
giving someone a wedgie.

Two hours into the trip and you were miserable:
a sullen lump on the rope swing.

The second night, after the ghost stories
and guitar, after the game

of capture the flag,
after the Walton family imitations

(“Night, John Boy. Night, Mary Ellen”),
you showed up at my bed—unannounced,

shivering, distraught.
“I’m cold,” you whispered, tapping me

on the shoulder. “I’m cold.”
And I, drowsy with sleep,

thinking you were my baby sister
scared of a thunderstorm,

or not thinking at all, told you
to crawl in.

* * *

And that’s how, the next morning,
the gym teacher found us:

in the same zipped-up sleeping bag,
the same sweaty, blue cocoon of dreams.

Remember trying to scramble back to consciousness?
Suddenly, a voice loud enough to wake

the other boys:

Like a street urchin flushed from an underground city,
you maneuvered through winding

passageways and inky, muck-filled sewers
to locate a manhole.

Then lifting the cumbersome lid,
you rose into shame—I right behind you.

* * *

Say we were two boys together clinging
(that’s how Whitman once put it),

two boys wrapped in goose-feather affection,
our skulls propped against one another

like pick-up sticks, sunlight
pouring into the musty cabin, splashing

on the walls—dawn once again at it
with her water canon.

All that muscle-crowned gym teacher
could talk about was sex

and a word (sodomy) we didn’t understand.
His fellow chaperone, the guidance counselor,

insisted on phoning our fathers.
“What they need is a good man-to-man.”

Yours was hysterical—let us say,
representatively so.

Three tears for the moderate Republican
from Maine, that toupee-ed paradox!

He saw the future as a carpet at last unrolled,
a red one ruined by moths.

So much for ever being President…
Mine, the corporate lawyer,

made a motion
to hold me in contempt.

* * *

Must a boy swim upstream for miles and then
like a salmon agreeably die?

What has become of you,
my disconsolate bedmate?

Are you able to follow the federal guidelines
on loneliness,

that preposterous compromise?
You can be lonely,

but you can’t tell anyone,
nor can anyone ask.

If I had to guess: you’re probably married now
with children,

an amiable enough, country-club sort
of citizen, a lobbyist or defense contractor

preaching the gospel of national security
while taking advantage of Pop’s

incomparable connections.
(The old man like a base-runner

stranded at third,
having made it to congressman, then senator,

then the loyal opposition’s
Pentagon head.)

* * *

Last night I saw your father,
the now former Secretary, on television.

He’s been hired as a commentator
for the upcoming war.

“Soon, a squadron of bombers will swoop down
over Baghdad,” he reported, “dropping

their loads, doing their dirty business
in the dark.” Well,

he didn’t say that exactly,
though his enthusiasm was nearly sexual.

America has begun its chant;
outside, even the cicadas are preparing

for combat, pounding their thoraxes.
In the first Gulf conflict,

pilots were given pornographic materials
as a motivational tool.

“Go out and give it to her,” the men joked
as they climbed up to their cockpits.

Then lifting the cumbersome lids,
they rose into shame—

the entire country behind them.
So many miles, so much distance.

Look, the dead crawl into their body bags
alone. Remember playing

beneath the streets? Remember the warmth
of my breath on your shoulder?

There wasn’t a girl between us
nor yet a dream of war.