Poetry April 2009

Memory

When I was twelve years old I climbed into
a tent beside a fire and listened while
two men swapped stories from Korea.
The first was eloquent about the Turks.
At night they sang around their fires
then suddenly went silent. Sunrise,
the Chinese pickets other side were dead.
Men thought this happened once the singing stopped,
but no, the campfires and the songs disguised
approach up to each picket’s back.
“The Turks,” the first man said, “had a wonderful ear.”

And the other man nodded and laughed,
then prodded the coals. He had a stick for that,
and worked it through the fire, back and forth,
back and forth, pausing every time it caught.
The stick would light; he’d lift and watch,
then let it go black out, working its tip
back down into the fire. He did this as
he talked about a truck at night
hit by a mortar shell so that it wrecked,
steering column pinning the driver’s chest,
driver talking fast, truck catching fire.

They used acetylene and had
the steering column almost cut.
And this was just a kid, maybe twenty,
that too, telling them, yes, he understood,
and nodding when they said they’d get him out.
Then there were flames. Not much at first. Then more.
Till everyone was backing from the light.
I mean the man now working the stick,
making it catch and watching it go out,
then pushing it through the fire again,
that man here, and others there, then, backing, watching.

And what they see, I hear him say,
is silhouette and pantomime,
a dance around a wheel until a gun goes off,
the young man’s sergeant walking back.
But now the story isn’t words;
it is a screen that lights itself
around a fire climbing through low voices,
where no one rises from the wheel in which
each waits for who walks out and who walks back
and where the second man, clearing his throat,
prods the fire, starts another story.

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