Since I came home limping, another unknown soldier,
I’ve lived behind enemy lines.
I guard my homeland now from the front porch
of a house overgrown with undergrowth.
It’s jungle-hot and crowded in my mind.
Even cold showers respray the Mekong
in a monsoon of water shadows and attacking waves.
The tub fills with floating bodies,
and the ears fill with bullets thumping flesh.
I want to know if death is victory,
if life is just something you take.
A drunk private, I never heard the war was over.
Fully loaded, my safety is off. A finger curls
around the trigger pulse; the heart beats hard
in the crater of my temple. But I stay on guard,
one eye spotting helicopters, the other hummingbirds;
one ear listening to the sweet work of bees,
the other to the gurgling cries for help.
Old flower children walk by, bent over
and wilted, slow now to remember or care.
Tattoos on bikes pass without mufflers,
their backfires breaking the ceasefire,
my heart backfiring burning blood.
Somehow I go on sweating out my honorably
discharged life, go on in a lukewarm sweat
of shame and honor, a hero who killed for country,
a coward who asked not why his country killed.
I own this house, but I never made it
all the way home. I wander in the mind’s wasteland
where the dead are immortal. I watch the leaves
turn orange and burn, watch crows
of black smoke dogfight the hawks.
I march as a blade in a field of grass,
soldiers in formation,
waiting to be mowed down.
—Robert S. King. First published in Foundling Review