Dusty Shuster served in Vietnam as a member of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, from 1966 to 1968.¬† The poems presented here are from her award winning chapbook: Battle Dressing: Poems about the Journey of a Nurse in Vietnam, produced by the Writer's†League Press.You can read more of Dusty's work at† www.illyria.com.
Mellow in morphine, he smiles and floats
above the stretcher over which I hover.
I snip an annular ligament
and his foot plops unnoticed into the pail,
superfluous as a placenta after labor has ended.
His day was just starting when his hooch disappeared,
along with the foot and at least one friend.
Absently I brush his face,
validating data gathered by sight and intuition,
willing physical contact to fetter soul to earth.
"You're the first white woman ever to touch me."
Too late my heart dodges and weaves, evades the inevitable.
Damn, I'm in love.
Bonded forever by professional intimacies,
unwitting disclosures offered and accepted,
fulfilling a covenant sealed in our chromosomes,
an encounter ephemeral as fireflies on a hot Georgia night
in a place and time too terrible to be real.
But it will shoot flaming tracers through all my dreams
until the time my soul, too, floats unfettered.
When daylight waxes and morphine wanes,
when pain crowds his brain
and phantasms of his footless future bleach the bones of present
our moment together will fade as a fever dream
misty, gossamer, melting from make-believe
all the way into never happen, man--
as I move on to the next stretcher
Watching the geckoes
dancing across the wall
maintaining measured distance
Buddy Holly and
recall high school and home
Rainy season mildews
smells like Houston
Rain on the roof
at 80 drops per minute
like lacerated Ringer's
Clear and steady
by artillery boys
across the road
playing with guns
No dates tonight
for these teen warriors
Harassment and interdiction--
harassing only my rest
interdicting only my dreams
I turn up the radio
and prey or peace
The hands remember what the mind evades:
death's quiet chill creeping from toes toward the heart
the crepitation of pneumothorax
skin becomes pebbly where blasted with shrapnel
the tentative fluttering of terminal shock
The nightmares remember what the hands forget:
blowflies feasting on clotted bandages
the pounding of Hueys counting cadence for pulses
boots sliding and sticking in gore on the floor
the stormy tint of blasted bone
ranks of IV bottles clanking in chorus
temple bells of mindfulness standing as sentinels
vigilant against the next crimson monsoon
The soul remembers what the heart disavows:
Stay out of our tree house! No girls allowed!
young males of the species with simian proclivities
seeking to exclude the secret places and passwords
seeking to define by codes and handshakes
measuring peepees they fancy as peckers.
Well this ole girl is crashing your club
Cause I share your secret passwords and places:
didi mau and dinky dau, KIA and NVA
Ripcord and Phu Bai, Ann-Margret and Chu Lai
Nuoc mam and freedom birds and don't mean nuthin.
I am boocoo tired and have titi patience
with your REMFing No Girls Allowed
You will let me in because you well know
I've lived in your jungle
I've climbed your tree
They must have told her just as
my feet rounded the corner.
The wail broke my stride and my concentration
as I scooted through the ICU
toward my trivial destination
(I think is was Dietary)
as her world shattered,
as the soul of her most beloved
slithered through oscillations of her scream.
Back in 1968
they dies in dustoffs
or on stretchers in the R&E
they died on operating tables
or in post-op ICU
they died amid our hurried silence
and we never
Spending time with Heddy and Eleanor
(they sit high up on panel 31E),
oblivious of the swirling tourists,
I slither through time to a warmer place
where lives were new and faces fresh,
where hopes yet lived and ghosts did not.
The lissome figure and dancing eyes
of the uniformed child suddenly beside me
break my heart as she diffidently requests
the honor of my presence--
me, already a veteran before she was born,
a rusting relic wrinkled and fading,
the war lingering on me like yesterday's garlic:
in front of the women's statue
be so thrilled
mean so much if you
Veterans Day and all.
I'm too cowardly to shout Stop! You don;t know!
and too civilized to refuse:
like loosing her virginity, she'll do it anyway.
My vintage fatigues bear witness
as the major intones the oath:
learned on all-too-active duty
Watch out girlie, don't get stung;
Army Nurses Corps eats her young.
Hair neatly braided, uniform creaseless,
carriage prideful, the ANC's newest officer
receives her first salute,
along with and old nurse's fervent prayer--
Dear Lt. Altman, my wish for you
this Veterans Day--
may you never, ever have