Saturday, April 28, 2007

...and so we march

I read the following poem in the March 2007 issue of The Sun magazine and it stopped me dead in my tracks. “Basic” appeared originally in The Dumbbell Nebula (Heyday Books, 2000), by Steve Kowit. It appears again here with very kind permission of the author.

by Steve Kowit

The first thing that they do is shave your head
& scream into your face until you drop
the pleasant fiction that had been your life.
More quickly than you would have guessed
you learn obedience: to shut your mouth
& do what you are told; that you survive
by virtue of compliance, shutting down.
When they scream, “Drop for twenty,” then you drop.
If, wobbly from lack of sleep,
you’re told to sit up half the night & strip
your M-1 down, that’s what you do. You strip it down.
The only insubordination’s in your eyes, which can’t
accept the order not to close. Your combat boots
kept so compulsively spit-shined
you see your face in both hard toes – skinned
to the scalp, pathetically distorted,
not unrecognizable but not quite you – a self
that marches dutifully through sleet & has perfected
the low crawl.
One gray morning in the second week
of basic training, lacing up his boots,
that shy, phlegmatic, red-haired boy who bunked
above me whispered,
I don’t believe I’m gonna make it…”
“No way, man! You’re doing fine! Hey, look, c’mon,
we’re late,”
& shrugged him off to race out just in time
to make formation in the mist
of that Kentucky morning.
- He was right. He didn’t. He took a razor blade that night,
& crawling underneath the barracks slashed his throat.
What little of myself I saved in there
I saved by tiny gestures of defiance:
Instead of screaming,
Kill, I’d plunge my bayonet
Into that dummy screaming,
At rifle drill I’d hum the Internationale
& fire fifty feet above the target. I kept Dexedrines
in my fatigues. Took heart from the seditious drollery
of Sergeant May, that LA homeboy
with the black goatee, all hip panache & grace:
that bop salute and smartass version of left face.
& sometimes from his cadre room at night, the wailing
blues of Ray Charles drifted through the barracks,
& I’d lie there in the dark, awake – remembering
that other life that I had left behind.
& it was Sergeant May & Ray Charles
& Dexedrine that got me through.
Had I been more courageous, less the terrified recruit
who did what he was told, I would have hung back
with that boy & argued with him,
said whatever needed saying,
or at least have heard him out, just listened, or let someone
know, or somehow, god knows, saved him.
But I wasn’t. & I didn’t.
I was just a kid myself.
For all my revolutionary rhetoric, I shut my eyes
& ears when shutting of the eyes & ears was politic.
When they said strip your M-1 down, I stripped it down.
When they said march, I marched.

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Anonymous wendy said...


I'm still behind on my Suns, so hadn't seen this.


12:36 PM  
Anonymous Jan said...

Powerful stuff! Thanks for posting this, Danny.

1:19 PM  

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