Roger is a geologist with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He has been writing poetry since 1991. Roger served with the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1st Amtrac Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, located in I Corps near Da Nang in 1965 and 1966.
Two young men, silent
in their darkness,
wait in a shallow earthen hole. Now,
I didn't say that they have guns
resting on their knees,
that nearby, in its blue sleep, is a still pond,
glimmering like a cup of silver,
nor did I imply
that overhead, there are flights of waterfowl
sculling the rippled sea of air,
incoming over rumpled mountains.
but you may have guessed:
they do have guns, and,
yes, there are flights above--
the shrill whistling, the heavy landings,
as though dropped pools of mercury,
and the air buzzing like cities of bees
after the quick coming
in of a sharp stick. And
then there are the other noises?
And did I tell you of the smells,
of the flies, of the blue-white flashes.
Did I mention there are no ducks?
Roly-poly Roland James
A bull of a boy
Rode it like a horse
Spurred it in the flanks
Then held on for dear life
Which reared up
All wild-eyed ears laid back
And kicked him in the head
And South Philly Rollie
A sledged steer
A hundred-sixty-grain freight train
Roaring through his brain
Sent him reeling round himself
Boot heels ripping up the ground
Wild-eyed ripped up blood-clabbered
Falling down in a dance of death
A blind-stagger two step
Last chance to dance
So he grabbed it grabbing air
No partner to hold him up
No priest to hold back the done deed
The shadows closing in on him
Corporal Roland James
More or less
Now less than the sum of his parts
The dearly departed heading home early
Bagged and tagged and sent aloft
Dead-weight cargo lashed down
Strapped up in a flying boneyard C-130
With a short delay in Dover
Hung up in a hanger on a set of sawhorses
Draped in Glory
Play the bugle bang the drum
Slowly fold the flag
The Totentanz is done
So hurry up and fire up the hearse
Aim it north along the Delaware
Yo Philly Good-time Rollie's
Young private Campbell may he rest in peace
went AWOL from his unit one stormy day
in September near Sardinia
in a most unusual way
way before going AWOL to get away
from killing or being killed became the choice
of the sadly chosen and inducted
but not fully brainwashed
who like private Campbell R.A. 2080437 USMC
would play at killing in the Mediterranean
where the wine was sweet
and the whores were cheap
or shall we say inexpensive
for young private Campbell Baptist son
of the eternal Confederacy who loved
the cross though he said he'd
burned a few would never judge
a woman's virtue for this he learned
from Jesus and anyway even a whore
had a mother as Campbell had
a mother he must have cried out to
as the sea filled his lungs
but she could not hear him
nor could we who watched him sink
from sight a sight to see
a boy die a man's death
while playing war a year before
some of us who and some of us
were black saw and dived and
came up empty died in shallower
water behind dikes in full view
of water buffalo and with leeches
draining what metal shards
had not fully drained and two weeks
after being swept to death
overboard in full view of those
of us who were about to die
later but did not salute those who
gave the orders he young private Campbell
hater of blacks and all blackness
and his mother's only begotten son
washed up on shore black and
bloated with his face in the
guts of various indifferent crabs
and we who could not save him
and later could not save ourselves
wrote lies to his mother but
Jesus gave her comfort
and forgave us our indiscretions.
Those who had done this before agreed
the waiting was the worst part.
I, who had not, know it will be the killing.
Seven corpsemakers are half-submerged
in shallow water, shouldered in
to paddydikes. Waiting.
The saffron afterglow melts
down the night side of the distant ridge.
The death watch continues in the darkness
of a tiger's mouth, in the stench
and heat of his breath.
The palpable night sucks at our heaving lungs
drawing out our humanity through dry throats.
Now we are not men. Now we are predators
driven by instinct alone.
We know the dread that assassins know
who with measured shallow breaths mark time
awaiting victims they might love.
We are armed with the righteousness
of men who know God guides their actions.
Cutthroats, we lie in wait to steal
from those who carry His gift
within taut sinews and weathered skin
draped on insubstantial frames?
dark-clad phantoms who float dreamlike
along animal trails toward our ambush.
They will come soon.
They will have loved no one.
They will have no families.
We will kill shadowmen.
There will be no pain.
A faint sound! Death draws near.
In owllight, eyeballs dart searching
for him, for them.
We exist without breathing
(to prove we are not human?).
The shape clears the treeline
and steps boldly into the killing zone.
"It must be a deer?O God,
it must be only a deer!"
I found your name today among the
divisions of the dead printed chronologically
as you fell like dominos (benedicamus Domino)
in an unbroken line: 1959 to 1975.
Bloody battalions there for all to see
in the Tibetan Phone Book of the Dead, listed
by panel and line, corresponding to etchings
inscribed on polished diabase.
As I brailed your name with middle-aged
fingers that have pointed, clenched, bled,
caressed countless times in the
three-quarters of a billion seconds
passed by since that one black second
when you passed on, I saw my face thrown
back at me from the dark mirror
that reflects the living and retains the dead.
Why did all those whose names appear
on this desolate wall, like Humpty Dumpty,
have a great fall? Why did each
Jack memorialized here, who slogged up
nameless hills fall back down and break
his crown of thorns? I watched
as others passed by the wall.
Some were on a pilgrimage of grief,
some expiating guilt for surviving
the war, some for marrying another,
and some for forgetting the sound
of his voice, the color of his laugh.
Others just ambled by with the
indifference of browsers
who come into the shopping mall
only for the air conditioning.
Passing the wilted wreaths, oblong
boxes filled with tarnished bronze stars,
yellowing photos of young men
in Dress Blues, and plastic-covered
letters from mothers to dead sons,
I thought how you died along the banks
of the Song Cau Do in a burning vehicle
not in a rocking chair
overlooking the Charles.
The morning air hangs breathless
in the Asian furnace.
The village, slumbering in the wake
of its timelessness,
is gone by noon,
consumed by rage.
And there above the pounded earth,
a sky of fraying clouds
is filling up with smoke
and startled souls in transmigration.
Beyond the flames, a soldier
hunkered down within himself,
his hands holding up his head
as if they held a heavy stone
heaved up through earth
by numbing frost.
His face, that hides him from himself,
that shows him nothing but his skin
and angled shape of bone,
is shrouded in his grip?
unfisted hands, sad parentheses,
holding in a child's dream,
walling out some dreadful truth.
The soldier, tired of being what he is . . .
what he has become,
there, within himself,
darkly moved by some internal music?
out of the carnage mindlessly rocking.
How can I tell you how it was?
in war when I was young
a man lost in a place of madness
and rockets and napalm and rain
as I sit here graying peacefully in the shade of maples
sustained by the slow dance of a monarch
above the poppies hovering
with my life grounded in the everyday
moving seamlessly between
my interior and exterior worlds
the empiricist and the lover
of the imaginative
thirty years a prisoner of memory
silently sorting through the clamor and terror
to find something retrievable
as sharp as the well-honed edge of a blade
to bring back: gleaming from the full brunt of heat
from the murky grass-choked estuaries
the airless shadow-stippled trails
where a crouched figure like a folded knife
still keeps predatory vigil
in a timeless season of violent death
in that spectral landscape of dreams
where the dying hover above themselves
lying opened-eyed in small clutches
in sun-shafted forests
or alone uncoiling from their frail humanity
immersed in the green ruins of paddy rice
always with the outstretched arms
of ghosts gesturing from the far side of the river
what can I tell you of war?
> other than it endures
> in the mind and the marrow
> as regret as fear
> in clots of shame long after the killing
> has drained itself bloodless in some
> land of overarching sorrow well beyond
> the remedy of words.
> June 1999
Do you come from high heaven or from the abyss,
Pinned down beneath the Southern Cross
by our own sundering guns?
155's firing H.E. and Willy Pete?
and he says to me
"you know there's beauty in all things,
if you'll only look for it."
And all the while the choirs of cannon
poured out their fierce dissonancy
from those dark chancels beyond the mountains,
he lay there, calmly,
at the bottom of the swale
gazing up through the thatch
of forest canopy, transfixed
by the night's new resurrection of stars,
between hair and grass,
arms splayed out in frail wings,
as if a molted Archangel
rigged down to earth
on ropes and pulleys
from some far-off heaven
of the absurd.
And when he spoke
the stars went out.
The breathed night air,
sucked from his lungs, ignited
and the startled words
that leaped fiery from the last
of his tongue came to nothing
above the ashes, as black went white
in a shimmering incandescence.
And he became suddenly nothing
but soul lifting from his unmade madness,
drifting amid the withering light
a risen, dark mystery of night.