Since I came home limping, another unknown soldier,
I’ve lived behind enemy lines.
I guard my homeland now from the front porch
of a house overgrown with undergrowth.

It’s jungleā€hot and crowded in my mind.
Even cold showers respray the Mekong
in a monsoon of water shadows and attacking waves.
The tub fills with floating bodies,
and the ears fill with bullets thumping flesh.

I want to know if death is victory,
if life is just something you take.
A drunk private, I never heard the war was over.
Fully loaded, my safety is off. A finger curls
around the trigger pulse; the heart beats hard
in the crater of my temple. But I stay on guard,
one eye spotting helicopters, the other hummingbirds;
one ear listening to the sweet work of bees,
the other to the gurgling cries for help.

Old flower children walk by, bent over
and wilted, slow now to remember or care.
Tattoos on bikes pass without mufflers,
their backfires breaking the ceasefire,
my heart backfiring burning blood.
Somehow I go on sweating out my honorably
discharged life, go on in a lukewarm sweat
of shame and honor, a hero who killed for country,
a coward who asked not why his country killed.

I own this house, but I never made it
all the way home. I wander in the mind’s wasteland
where the dead are immortal. I watch the leaves
turn orange and burn, watch crows
of black smoke dogfight the hawks.
I march as a blade in a field of grass,
soldiers in formation,
waiting to be mowed down.

Robert S. King lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia. His poems have appeared in The Kenyon
Review, Southern Poetry Review, Lullwater Review, The Innisfree Poetry Journal, Chariton Review, Main
Street Rag, and many others. His latest books are The Hunted River and The Gravedigger’s Roots, both
from Shared Roads Press, 2009. He is director of FutureCycle Press, and also
President of the Georgia Poetry Society,

I wrote this poem while sitting on my front porch recently at my mountain home. Nature’s activities that day - crows diving at other birds, wind gusts bending and twisting a grass field, the smoke from a distant neighbor’s burning trash pile - all set off memories and images of 1968, one of the worst years in American history. The Vietnam War, assassinations (Kennedy and King), civil unrest and riots, marches on Washington and other protest events seemed to sum up a sad decade (1964-1974).
All of that only served as background for this poem, however. The real inspiration was remembering how many military friends and acquaintances came back from Vietnam all lost both mentally and physically. Unlike the heroes of WWII, these guys came back reviled or at least ignored for having participated in an unpopular war, often against their wills. Their story is still being told today, largely unheard, by the homeless veterans living in alleys, eating out of dumpsters, sleeping with rats. Perhaps they think wrongly in their wounded minds that this is still better than the other war, even though for them war never ends.



Copyright 2009