by Fred Marchant
Late blue light, the East
China Sea, a half-mile out. . .
masked, snorkeled, finned,
rising for air, longing for it,
and in love with the green
knife-edged hillsides, the thick
aromatic forests, and not ready
for the line of B-52’s coming in
low on the horizon, three airplanes
at a time, bomb-empty after
the all-day run to Viet Nam.
Long, shuddering wings, and predatory,
dorsal tail-fins, underbelly
in white camouflage, the rest
jungle-green, saural, as if a gecko had
grown wings, a tail-fin, and
nightmare proportions. Chest deep,
on the reef-edge, I think of the war smell
which makes it back here:
damp red clay, cordite, and fear-salts
woven into the fabric of everything not
metal: tarps, webbed-belts,
and especially the jungle “utes,”
the utilities, the fatigue blouses
and trousers which were not
supposed to rip, but breathe,
and breathe they do—not so much
of death—but rather the long
living with it, sleeping in it,
not ever washing your body free of it.
A corporal asked me if he still stank.
I told him no, and he said,
“With all due respect, Lieutenant,
I don’t believe you.” A sea snake,
habu, slips among the corals,
and I hover while it slowly passes.
My blue surf mat wraps its rope
around me, tugs inland
at my hips while I drift over ranges
of thick, branching elkhorn,
over lilac-pale anemones,
over the crown-of-thorns starfish,
and urchins spinier than naval
mines, over mottled slugs,
half-buried clams, iridescent angelfish.
The commanding general said,
“Every man has a tipping point,
a place where his principles give way.”
I told him I did not belong
to any nation on earth, but
a chill shift of wind, its hint of squall
beyond the mountain tells me
no matter what I said or how,
it will be a long swim back,
my complicities in tow.
Copyright © 1993 by Fred Marchant.
From Tipping Point, winner of the 1993 Washington Prize and published by The Word Works, Inc., 1994.