After Long Restorative Poses… by Dewitt Clinton

After Long Restorative Poses in a Morning Yoga Class, I Go Back,
Again, to Vietnam, with Sung Tung P’o’s “At Gold Hill Monastery”

I don’t ever want to return
To what I could call home
In the Song Chang River valley.
From there I directed cannon
Fire on wandering NVA or VC
A few klicks from the South
China Sea. On a South Florida beach
I told my wife how much
A trip back would do me good.
Old vets have made their way
There, building schools and clinics
To make something that was not
There. If I ever
Did go back, and won’t, I’d have
A terrible time just trying
To find which Hill it was
Not ever having taken tours
Unless you’d call a walk
From one bunker to
The next with helmet
And flak jacket as a stroll.
We looked to the mountains
Just inside Laos
So every sunset we’d climb up
High onto our roofs
And gaze far out into postcard vistas
So peaceful we thought monks might
Find a place to chant some
Peace that we all
Wished would find its way past
Here to somewhere
Where those who knew how to
Converse could find something
Each side knew how to agree
Around some dignitary’s Parisian table
Despite all the tons of napalm
Dropped low for great despair
Making who were all below
Glow like melting shining light
Or Agent Orange which ruined every
Range of trees so we
Could simply see who’s on the Trail.
I haven’t slept too well
Though all the ghosts have come
To rest somewhere in the back part
Of what’s left of what’s up there.
Old movies bring this all back
Even though I keep loading
Old howitzers as if I’d never left.
I may not ever
Think of landing again at this old
Miserable monastery of men as nothing
Good every came from there.
I have, though, thought of travelling
To visit those still chanting monks.
Soldier to Soldier Outside the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Where Arabs hawk postcards,
and tired pilgrims rest
after prayers to the Christ child,
I walk over to a soldier
who dozes in the Bethlehem heat,
ask if his rifle is an M16.

He’s surprised a tourist
would know such things.
I tell him I carried
a rifle like his
outside Chu Lai
in the Song Chang River Valley,
words I’ve never wanted to say
except now, with this kid.

He looks at me to make sure.
Did I shoot any VC?
Did I walk the boonies?
Did I get any poontang?
Then something he said,
as if his lips, tongue,
teeth, throat moved into slow motion
like tracers drawing a bead
on the enemy—

You’re a hero, he says.

Not really, I try to tell him.
He says Yes, Yes, you’re a hero,
and he smiles, happy to stand next to one,
happy to tell his mother,
everyone at dinner tonight,
who he met today
outside the Church of the Nativity.

What does he know
of the battalion of NVA,
slaughtered with seven batteries
of heavy ground artillery,
a crap shoot, Capt. Willis bragged,
a fucking crap shoot,
we waited and waited
and waited all fucking afternoon
no one had ever
seen that many gooks in the open before.

Another pilgrim in our tour steps
into the bright piazza,
wonders whatever in the world
could we be talking about,
walks over, asks to shoot
a picture of both of us,
one soldier standing next to a hero.

His weapon is in lock and load.
The boy soldier will protect us
from liberators, bombs, random stabbings,
even a stone thrown over a Wall.
Next to him, I smell the stench
all over again,
round after round
pummeling good soldiers
into the soft Asian ground.

I smile for a close up.
He welcomes me home,
my very own parade
my very own hero’s parade.

A few others in our tour
want a picture, too,
a victory parade
here on this tour of the Holy Land
lucky, fucking lucky,
to still have arms, legs,
the summer heat
rising like the stench
of all those boys
their bones lost and forgotten
revived with pilgrimages
back to downed planes
rusting metal parts
quick easy graves
for the useless dead
who always come back
on occasions
where small crowds
gather
for honor and glory.
____________

DeWitt Clinton is the author of two books of historical poetry, and six chapbooks. His poems and essays have recently appeared in Storytelling Sociology: Narrative as Social Inquiry (Lynn Rienner Publishers), And What Rough Beast: Poems at the End of the Century (Ashland Poetry Press) and Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry (Oxford University Press). He has a new article on ancient Buddhist and Jewish texts in the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and lives with his wife, Jacqueline, and Zac the Cat in Milwaukee.