I may have posted this poem before. I may post it again next year. It’s based on an actual encounter with a WWI survivor, in a VA hospital. After meeting him the event stuck in my mind until I finally wrote the following:
Old soldiers from all our modern wars
crowd into the same slice of time,
-in Veteran’s Hospitals,
mutely bonded by losses,
-empty spaces that surround
and define us.
Sitting on an uncomfortable island of vinyl
awash in a surf-rolling susurrus of voices,
cocooned inside my silence,
untouched by misery and despair
swirling in the crowded air like cigarette smoke,
stinging exposed nerves.
I felt the touch of ancient eyes
like a man afraid to look in a mirror
after long, dark nightmares.
How big a man he was, I’ll never know.
He stared out at me from the hillock
his loose white shirt and brown suit made,
stuffed into the seat of a wheelchair,
blue eyes flickering about the ward
like a sparrow watching from a nest of rags.
The woman stood behind him,
thin arms circling the chair,
holding his shoulders
as if he might roll away
He wanted to talk.
Asked which war was mine,
and, without an answer,
told me I would never know real war.
The kind he knew in the Meuse-Argonne,
where artillery stormed
through nights when rain was steel.
The earth, ploughed,
and sown with exploded metal
a treacherous place for man to walk.
They sprinted along trenches
splashing through partly-frozen mud,
and huddled in bunkers,
-fear of crashing shells almost lost
until the silence;
when the big guns stopped.
Ears groped through underground darkness
stretching to know
when slow, soft mortar plops
signaled sliding yellow death
feeling its way over broken ground,
finding edges of the earth where men hid.
Mustard gas, like a living predator,
seemed to find them by sensing their fear
and clawed bare skin,
prying at protecting seals of rubber masks.
held by more than soldier’s courtesy,
due an older warrior.
His images of war,
the Great War,
-pinched in my vision,
superimposed over silent, jerky, black-and-white films
whose soldiers in wool uniforms,
puttees and greatcoats
look vaguely ridiculous;
always smiling, waving to the camera,
holding long, bolt-action rifles.
What did he see,
when TV specials showed his war?
Did the gait of those old films move
with smooth, strong strides of young heroes?
How did that mirror,
those old moving pictures, reflect the man
now shrunken inside a pile of old clothes?
As he held me with his stories,
I was seeing pictures of my war;
old nightly news clips from Vietnam,
color TV with sound,
projected against the back of my brain.
Though these mirrors,
-constant reflections stuck in time,
now begin to look archaic,
looking into them, I find myself again
chilled with the immediate fear
that swirled in battle like morning fog
and coalesced into rage,
forging a weapon
more lethal than simple tools of killing.
But at war’s end, survivors return,
with eyes of old soldiers,
-to insults or parades.
Apparitions that were young warriors
burned in mind’s retina
like lingering persistence of vision;
-portraits stamped on the face of a mirror,
forever the age of those whose names
old veterans read in monument stone.
Like fragments from a looking glass,
slowly shattered by the warp of changing seasons,
these broken pieces of a dead war’s face,
-shards of incomplete reality,
reflect all that my sons will know,
looking back on a father’s war.