Category Archives: poetry

six years on, we are all conscientious objectors

A month or so since I posted and I’m still speechless. More soon, I promise.
Meanwhile, there are all sorts of important things to say on the sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, but for now I think I’ll just let a poet say it, again. In 2003 I quoted Yeats, but now let’s let Edna say it. (Above is one of the guys whose story is still trapping mine. Like LBJ, I seem to be unable to get out of that war.)

Conscientious Objector

I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.

I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

Edna St. Vincent Millayedna_st_vincent_millay


call it love or call it reason

More flotsam from my life-on-Mars phase:

I didn’t know this video existed, until now. I wish I had a clip of Ochs’ performance at the first Winter Soldier (two years later than this TV appearance) but this is good enough  for now. Knowing that the vets in Detroit heard Ochs’ anthem, just before four days of hearings on war crimes, makes me feel more certain than ever that I chose the right title for the book.

can you hear me major tom?

So I’ve been of late calling myself “Billy Pilgrim,” when people ask me how I am; digging tenaciously through those mad years we call “the Vietnam era,” which I subtitle as “When Everything Blew Up and Everything Grew.” What, she’s not done yet? Not yet, not when I spent thompsonnearly three weeks with the likes of Hugh Thompson (left) Ron Ridenhour (right) ron5 and the ubiquitous Tod Ensign,  as well a the guy below (hidden three rows behind Jane Fonda) who hasn’t yet talked to me about what I still think of as his proudest hour. (Also buds like Steve Morse, Bill Perry, and Susan Schnall, who’ve given me so much of their time…)  The whole thing makes me weirder than usual. I’m boring to be around: scattered, listening constantly to Hanoi Hannah on to get in the mood, etc. etc.


But this week, I realized that Vonnegut is far too noble an antecedent to call on here: better that  TV show “Life on Mars,” (thus the David Bowie above). So now, when people ask me “How’s the book??” I won’t say I’m Billy Pilgrim. This week, at least, I’m Sam Tyler – a 21st-century creature who keeps thinking they’ve moved on, only to be dragged right back to 1973, one more time.

my only valentine’s day poem

cummingsI loved this poem long before the author became one of my book’s guys (“i sing of olaf,” The Enormous Room et al.). I once asked my students, as their midterm, to explain to me how someone can write a love poem without ever using the word. Can you tell me?

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look will easily unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

waiting for the blessed break.

So I’m reading excerpts of Norman Mailer’s testimony in the trial of the Chicago Eight, trying to get a sense of the WWII-vet cabal that was supporting the protesters at the  Convention, when I get to this line: ” I was in my hotel room with Robert Lowell and David Dellinger and Rennie Davis.”  And no, I didn’t immediately jump to Mailer’s Armies of the Night, to search for signs of dialogue betweenDellinger, who co-edited pacifist magazines with Bayard Rustin before putting his energies to stopping the Vietnam War, and Army-vet Mailer. No, it was Lowell’s name that jumped out at me, because I’d just last night told a friend that he should revisit Lowell’s For the Union Dead. And yes, there’s a sign of the Lowell who got arrested with Mailer at the Pentagon and roomed with him in Chicago:

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statutes for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the “Rock of Ages”
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
when I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

But  my mind was blown already, suddenly understanding with all my reading of the past year or so:

Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son’s body was thrown
and lost with his “niggers.”

rgshaw1Shaw is Col. Robert Gould Shaw of the Massachusetts 54th (yes, the one played by Matthew Broderick in that movie.) Shaw’s “niggers” included lewisdouglassthe remarkable Lewis H. Douglass (left), and he likely knew another of my characters, poor Charles Garrison of the 55th. All of it placing Lowell, with his meditation on Shaw, and I in funhouse parallel universes.

Below is a clip from that film that envisions the night before the assault on Fort Wagner of which Lewis wrote to his girlfriend,”I escaped unhurt from amidst that perfect hail of shot and shell. It was terrible….”

But  I raise my virtual wineglass to Lowell, and savor how he envisions the hero in afterlife, quietly counting on justice’s long arc:
Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessed break.

studying with truman

Sometimes things happen in the right order. If I had been a conscientious student at Hunter High School, I’d have read this book under Jack McNeil, my very first Creative Writing instructor. At the very least, you might think I’d have taken it 20 years later, as a narrative-obsessed journalist. But the true-crime genre it spawned had persuaded me I didn’t need to; who needed to read about a grisly murder? I care about trauma, but didn’t I already admire, and praise in my teaching,  My Dark Places, James Ellroy’s account of the murder of his mother and his search for their killer? And I certainly never saw the 1976 film made from the book.

Even seeing the two recent “Capote movies” back to back didn’t drive me to the book. The more famous of the two, Capote, was most interesting for its portrayal of Capote’s erotic attachment to accused killer Perry Smith (played above by Robert Blake in the 1967 flick). And seeing Infamous (trailer below) I was taken by Capote’s close partnership with Harper Lee, who did a lot of the reporting Capote ultimately claimed was his own.

It wasn’t till I came across the book here in Philadelphia that I decided it was time to read it — that would be a good lesson in the writing of narrative nonfiction. Now, I’m kind of stunned.

Six years it took for Capote to combine it all — to dream the dream properly till it was, as my old sensei John Gardner  demands of fiction, both vivid and continuous. And I’m thankful that I went in with *exactly* the amount of information I had.  I was simultaneously swept up in the dream and, on every page, nodding admiringly at how the story of that Kansas morning was woven from soft conversations with farm folk and stubborn cops.

I sit here persuaded of two things:

  1. That the story it tells is both profound and rather slight, as I’d long suspected.
  2. That I have to find the scholars who’ve looked at Capote’s summary of the psychiatric testimony, and see those psychiatrists ooked at Smith’s military experiences in detail.
  3. That as long as I live as a writer, I can study all I like, but it’s unlikely that I’ll ever write any prose that comes ten percent within Capote’s.

None of which stops me from writing: and it’s dourly appropriate to read this as I construct snapshots from the tales told by veterans.  I’ll just hope that some of the fairy dust clings to my fingers, so that the ten percent range is still achievable.

hanoi hannah in philadelphia

Still CRAZY deadlined. Spent much of the weekend in 1968, when — as Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan put it in their 1984 Who Spoke Up?: American Protest Against the War in Vietnam — “events happened so quickly, hammer blow after hammer blow, that in retrospect it seems astonishing that the national psyche survived intact. Perhaps it did not. ”  I didn’t even make it to the NYC re-release of the film above, though I’m being told about it by enough others who were there when it was first filmed. I’ll write more about them later, but in the meantime, here’s a glimpse of why I started my journey into this book in the first place. (Hanoi Hannah is a Pandora radio station that I didn’t start, but is giving me a soundtrack right now).

when elephants walk

Last time I posted a poem by this guy it was after having heard his voice for the first time in a while. Below, now, is the moment when, instead of traveling on a poetry fellowship, he shipped out for Vietnam. I’m not sure it’s the best way to start writing about that fact, but it seems only fair to him to keep his work shimmering in the back and front of my mind.

Elephants Walking


Curled in a window seat, level with wind-swayed oak,

aching on a green vinyl pad,

I think of the fortunes spent on the hardwood, wainscot

study, and the slates fitted

for the arbor walkways, the labor it took to lug bricks out

to each overly articulated

corner, in which nook a child of fortune, cushion- tassel

between his fingers, might

look up from his reading to see in heat waves rising

over the pale, shimmering

delphinium, a plot miracle perhaps, the sudden death

by spontaneous combustion

and the child wondering how, why, and could it have been?


My childhood bedroom, summer night, one hand marking

the book, the others palm

and fingers printing moist, disappearing shadows on the wall.

brownuniversity-harknesshouseThen the college library,

Harkness Hall, and aged, white-cowled Father Benilde

smelling of coffee, muscatel,

and Old Spice as he opened the doors at 7:30. First in line

I was all business, heading

straight to my end of a long, immovable table, to my first

reading of Dante, a paperback

infernociardicopy of Ciardi, with its cover of red, grinning, cartoon

Devils, which I in a fit

of verisimilitude (which word I had just learned)

add chard with a lighter.


My first lines that year: “Butt, butt, bale beast.

I fear your horns not

in the least! My intended tone was courtly love

but the words were

apostrophe to a buffalo in Roger Williams Park,

one that had leaned

hard into a sagging hurricane fence near my date.

The lines came to me

as I woke after a nap in the library. I still love

to sleep in libraries

whenever I can. I fix my head sideways over

my folded hands

and make room for the little puddle of drool

I’ll quickly wipe away.

I wake into a barely believable clarity

throughout my body.

I’m ready to grapple with fate, love, sex,

the stirrings within.

Over readers and sleepers alike hovers a mist

or a pollen, and in it

I see words shuttling back and forth like birds.

In the darkness or dream

something hugely important had been freed,

to roam. Grateful,

I say to myself, “Elephants have been walking.”


“Son, we must give this country great poetry!”

decreed the older poet

to my nodding head, as he shook my hand after

the Crystal Room reading.

Later, as I walked back to my dormitory, sleet

failed to cool me,

I turned his pronoun over and over, thinking,

yes, we do, we do.

On the news there was familiar footage:

a Phantom run

ending in a hypnotic burst of a lift yellow napalm.

I knew the war

was wrong, but that was why, I claimed, I should go,

to sing the song

of high lament, to get it into the books. Like Ishmael

I would sign on

for a three-year voyage under a madman captain.

Frissons to be had

instantly, a pity-the-youth-soon-dying look in the eyes.

“Are you crazy?”

said my girlfriend. But I was filled with vibrant life

and felt neither suicidal

nor confused when I dialed the Marine recruiter: “Yes,

I look forward to reporting.”

Phone in my lap, I sat sideways, my legs dangling

over the arms of my red

leather reading chair. A warm spring wind was

melting the snow

down to bright medallions of ice. I felt clear-headed

and refreshed.

I just hoped the war would last until I got there.

Elephants were walking.

I do think I forgot the crucial question of the interview, after Marchant quoted this poem. As he packed for boot camp, did he bring a moleskin notebook? And in his heart was he following Homer, Hemingway or just Randall Jarrell?