Like many others, I have been thinking a lot about war, youth, and lost childhoods. Recently I brought out this poem, which I started a few years ago, and began to work on it. All my poems are works in progress. This one is based on memories of basic training in San Francisco during the Viet Nam war. I joined the reserves to avoid the draft. After basic training I went home to serve out my time on once a month weekends and summer camps while I worked as a Child and Youth Care worker. The other kids, mostly poor kids, were sent to the jungles. I can still see some of their faces. I used to lay awake at night in the barracks and think about how we were being brainwashed, and how lucky I was to be going home. One night I got up and snuck out of the barracks and sat by the ocean contemplating swimming away. I remembered how as a boy I had swum “up north” in the warm lakes of Wisconsin.
A few of the kids had died from spinal meningitis. When they got sick someone would come in the barracks and take them away and we would never see them again. It was cold and damp, I remember, because they had to keep the windows open for circulation. The pacific sea breeze would flow over the covers. This all got me thinking about lost childhoods and experiences I have had since those days, and how in many ways little has changed.
I offer the poem as a small contribution to the effort to raise consciousness for peace.
Monks in Training for War
1. hands bled on rungs of overhead ladders script and discipline fed in pills of deceit under the covers shrapnelled ejaculations and shattered solitudes wait for the quiet 2. Such injustice to steal youth into the longing and the sea Of Being Numerous opposition kept afloat in Oppen's Tao stone full of holes through which breath and water flow 3. heads turn up then down then up again submerged in the ripple that stirs close to the mouth beneath the branches the spore is a clavichord of the tree and the tree is lust words stolen on the way to the spearman's light 4. a bullet hole in rivers and canyons of bark a small lake of white sap look into it touch the cold milk 5. low crawlers In the Zen of war moving in place of shadow and light words let go and reclaimed let go and reclaimed 6 in the distance Tres Orejas Abiquu San Francisco red cliffs parks and oil fields cows walking in dry river beds a hacienda almost reachable in the still moonlight 7. dawn and the staccato voices of lingering night the rat tat tat of machine guns tears like mist drying where shadows fall into the rising sun 8. in the barracks of despair the blood letting almost done callused hands loosing bouyency the words grappling in the waves repeated 9. struggling for breath necks stiff another glance at the lights from the night ships on the watery windshields of distant dreams
“There are things we live among
And to see them
Is to know ourselves”
– From George Oppen's Of Being Numerous