Poetry Porch: Poetry


Tipping Point
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.