American Ghazals

1.

Three men who look like Bedouin, but are not, pause with their camels in the snow—
Photo shot through a bus window, twenty-nine years ago on the Khyber Pass.

On the radio I thought they said: ‘The way the war is disinfected,’
So I turned the page over and found it blank.

Was. Was. Was. Was, the mad poet said. But the president says no,
That poet wasn’t mad. That poet understood the rent collector.

Rats run closely along a wall, the wall and body always touching.
If you tear the wall down, rats run closely along the wall’s memory.

Flight here uneventful, homicide movie in the main cabin.
A soldier is writing a story about a soldier writing a story.

Who is afraid? An axe cuts branches, can’t cut leaves.
Wild strawberry not yet bloomed, wild geranium tangled in the monkshood.

In all the photographs, something particular lies in the lower foreground:
A bare foot or a water jug, a soldier’s pocket a cell phone a gun.

Something is red on the floor, I can’t see what. A bit of sunlight crosses a prisoner’s arm.
‘The other truth has disappeared, as if it didn’t exist.’

Strange headlights in the driveway, and the father of the first dead soldier says,
‘Dog barking three a.m.; there they are.’

2.

The guards wear helmets with plastic shields drawn down over their faces.
The prisoners wear white hoods with black circles drawn to replace their faces.

On the cover of a glossy book, a soldier from my home town uses his rifle to push a crowd
Farther away from the camera. Street noise used as a painter uses paint.

My ancestors were prisoners of war, transported to a colony where half died in the first year.
Their children bought black slaves and became white.

In the foreground, bodies half wrapped in cloth, in shadow. And farther back,
Behind the black figure of the grieving woman, a pile of white bundles in the sun.

In a sandy ditch, army scouts found the body of a Sioux woman. Shot in the throat,
She had bled so much her foot looked to them like the foot of a white man.

Oil is black. Salt is white. Unless we unwrap the bodies it doesn’t matter.
Once we unwrap the bodies it doesn’t matter.

He identified the dead because he had to, then he zipped them back into their bags.
For thirty years that zip so loud he couldn’t piss in a public place.

Between the words man held captive and the words stands bound
Are twelve words of army-speak and a lot of white paint worn off the wall.

When refugees ask directions, say yes. Clean salt from shoes. White paint
Over red paint. Conventional forms of lions and the bridge burns all night.

3.

Because I was trying to eat less, I woke up hungry in the middle of the night.
Distant, bloody, tedious, my radio said, and in that order.

Exhibit of work by photographers killed in the war. It is black and white, Hanoi is rainy,
Our plane is leaving and one of the dead has a daughter here wiping her eyes.

When they interviewed a soldier, he said: ‘I didn’t think anything.’
A rocket slammed into the sixth floor, out of a helicopter or out of a donkey cart.

Simple black shape of a woman stands posed between a camera and a tank,
Well-dressed children artfully framed by a soldier’s elbow and his gun.

Some of the dead were mercenaries. Helmeted soldiers cry in the street.
Mad poet stamps and whirls, says every death is one, one, one, one, one.

Open a book. Watch harbor turn to harry, army, barrow, borough,
A fortified town, a room with a closed door.

I am buying bread when the war begins. The baker, who has never talked to me before,
Teaches me the word for oppose. He says: ‘Is this how you feel?’

The girders are green, the sky is clear, the burned bodies hang from orange cords.
In barracks, soldiers play video games and bang their fists on the air conditioners.

Sleep is a cure for wakefulness, I’m told. My first night home I don’t go in.
I lie down between the cactus and the pines.

4.

Beaver-cut trees in an aspen grove. Cutthroat trout in pond shadow.
Listening to lies on the radio all morning.

There’s a grammar for those who are in the room, and a grammar for those who aren’t.
When a tank shoots through a brick wall, a little piano riff in a minor key.

On a shelf above the television, one toy cyclo cut from a beer can, red and white 33.
Training jets in pairs buzz low, stampede horses through the barbed-wire fences.

In Hanoi I bought no souvenirs. In Saigon I bought a white stone dragon
Packed in a box with a pool of red ink.

Five cans of gasoline, two small boys, riding together in a blue cart.
If you fire shots into the air the boy in the green shirt winces.

In a notebook, my list of belongings: I wanted to leave each thing to its rightful heir.
When you walk against wind in a sandstorm, shield your eyes and cover your teeth.

The man with the gun is standing up. The man without a gun is lying down.
The car is red and white the sky is blue the building brown.

I asked what the woman in black was searching for. She said
For scissors, with which to cut one lock of his precious hair.

When the tree fell, we were lying asleep in grass near the beaver ponds.
This is why I can say that we were spared.

Susan Tichy’s most recent book, Bone Pagoda (Ahsahta Press, 2007), is an extended meditation on Vietnam