Dark Halo

People like to say that you can conquer your fears, if you can just manage to face them. I disagree. The more you face your fear, the more you details you collect about what there is to be afraid of. The more certain you become. I had thirty chances – thirty-five, I always forget about jump school – to get over my fear of heights. All I got over was my interest in jumping out of airplanes. I’d do it again if I had to. If I had to.

The trained eye watches that video and sees a few fellas who are going to have a hell of a time getting their affairs in order before the ground comes up to meet them.

There’s no point in trying to avoid the ground, it’s everywhere. Still, your brain tells your body to find a way around it. Your brain screams at you to not let that meeting happen. You are told to look for the treetops and estimate your distance to the ground, but it can’t rightly be done. Like a drunk, you have no idea, really, when you’re going to hit bottom. Hopping off a chair or a platform 5 or 6 feet off the ground gives you the impression that you understand your position relative to it, but it’s not really true. It’s really just something you don’t care about, because you know you’re safe. You aren’t falling long enough to care about how fast it’s happening. From under a parachute, the closer you get to the ground the more you realize that you have no idea – no way of knowing – just how fast you are falling. They tell you it’s twenty-eight feet per second, and that’s a neat thing to say, but screaming it at the ground, in the dark, isn’t going to make things any easier. Besides, you’re only supposed to make noise out there if you are hurt.

You’ve been stuffed in this tiny airplane for the last hour, like tobacco in a cigarette, sweating. Sixty pounds on your lap, forty on your back. Your legs are woven into the legs of the man across from you, because the bird just wasn’t built for this. When it shakes, the dust of all the world’s time zones fall from the exposed wires and tubes. It has about two decades worth of flight hours, and has been doing this since Vietnam. The skin’s so thin that you think you can see right through it, all the way to home and your mom and that day when you thought you needed this, somehow. Even if she didn’t love you then, she loves you in this memory, because this memory wants you to go back. The old plane creaks and settles when it’s sitting still, and then it really lurches and lifts you into the sky.

The noise. Jesus, the noise. A little red light and the commands you echo not because you can hear the jumpmaster shout them, but because you know where and when they belong, even if you haven’t figured that out for yourself yet. Even if figuring out where and when you belong is really why you’re here. The noise, the light, the commands. And the games. You deflect and you distract. Your mind is screaming at you to not do this. To stop. You convince yourself for a moment that you are tough. Then your mind does it again: Stop. You convince yourself for a moment that you are crazy. Then your mind does it again: Stop. You convince yourself that you are screwed. This time your mind doesn’t rebuke.

The light goes from red to green, and finally your instincts are jolted by all your years and you know what to do when lights turn green. Your mind tries one more time: STOP.

There’s a dozen ways to screw this up, and your only comfort comes from knowing that almost none of them will kill you. That’s left to God, so you’d better hope He was there for pre-jump. It’s so dark and loud and your feet are shuffling and really you’re just doing what the other people are doing and all you know for sure is that if you buck this trend you will ruin the night for everyone behind you.

Then it’s silent but for the numbers in your head. Counting because they told you it was important, that if you made it to five there was something going wrong and you had better pull that reserve. But you’re not really doing the counting. They’re just shapes in your mind, a slide show with your eyelids stapled open. Just terror and symbols occupying the same ether, no causality. Somehow you always knew that if you made it to five you would probably make it all the way to nine or eleven or however many it would take before nothing else will take.

Somewhere in there came the yank. When the straps pull tight it is the only burning in the groin you will ever love. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Counting – six, seven…you can stop that now. The chute is open, the night is dead. You might or might not hear the quad props of a fifty year-old airplane trailing off somewhere. Maybe the moon is out and the varied terrain below you is somewhat visible. Varied. It’s mostly flat, and it’s all hard as trigonometry. Maybe the moon is gone and everything is black, except that matronly silk vestment above you, which is the darkest green Creation has ever seen. A perfect circle cut into the nothing overhead. You have a dark halo.

But twenty-eight feet per second isn’t interested in what’s above you.

It’s Friday!

It’s Friday!

It’s Friday! It’s Friday!
The school children shout.
It’s Friday! It’s Friday!
But they won’t let us out!

They dash us through spelling
and draw up the art.
Then they stir up the science
(our least favorite part).

The next problem is math
(which they don’t even know),
before digging up history,
and – what? We can go?

Salvation Army

Who might I have saved?

Who out there might I have saved
If I had joined the fighting?
Who might I have kept alive
and who was dead already?

And which among them would have fought
a dozen battles later?
Which among them would have marched before
adoring mortars and towards
-for fame (for what else?)
all the hell that loved them so?

Which among them would have lasted til
The wheels squealed wet at JFK
and the crying eyes of smiling wives
brightly lit the wasted lives
that were saved for them?

Which among them would forgive me if
I was why they made it home.
Which among them would damn my name
in a silent night beneath the light
-of shame (of what else?)
in a hell that loves them so?

Who out there might I have saved
And who am I to say
that the lives I might have handed out
were better than the grave?

Shrinking

Like the house you grew up in
and the tree that you climbed.
Like the hill that you’d sled down
and the fossils you’d find.

Like the tadpoles you hunted
Like the snakes that you caught
Like the gun that your friend had
Like the birds that you shot

Like the calls from your parents
in the forts that you built.
Like the food you devoured
in the silence you killed.

Like the fists of your brother
Like the hands of your mom
Like the silence from father
Like he knew all along.

Like the speed of your heart
from your crush on that girl.
Like the dreams in your head
from the size of the world

Like the eyes of the teachers
Like the chalk on the board
Like the bell ending recess
Like the run left unscored

Like the patience of mother
let you know you were wrong.
Like the fear of your father
let you know you belonged.

Like the length of the days.
Like the depth of the night.
Like the hope and the dread.
Like the end was in sight.

Like the way looking back
is like slow-going blind.
Like the way it’s all shrinking
from the falling behind.

Bone Oil

Lotsa gold left in the land,
Lotsa blue left in the sky.
My face within your tender hands.
Your fingers and my eyes.

Song as soft as baby feet.
The white-faced dog is home.
Oil rises from the street
The color of our bones.

Lotsa green left in the trees,
Lotsa glitter in the stream.
Trace the place behind your knees
Taste your shoulder’s cream.

Song as soft as baby feet.
The white-faced dog is home.
Oil rises from the street
The color’s in our bones.

Lotsa green beneath the snow
Lotsa blue behind the cloud.
My face within your tender hands
For as long as we’re allowed.

Who Gets the Sun

I smoked cigarettes on the roof every morning
and stared across the China sea.
I had to turn far
so the thin hungry monsters of The North
would not haunt even the corner of my eye.

When I was bold and looked right at it
(the only way to kill a nightmare)
it didn’t look like hell from where I sat.
Open nature and scattered homes
where they say nobody actually lived.
Hell wouldn’t be scary if nobody lived there –
even with the Devil in charge.

Sometimes a flight of fighters
would rage in mathematical rigor
quitting the coast and holding
close to the lolling swells.
And I knew that if I looked at the news
I would see that someone had cast an unannounced missile –
ballistic bait –
fishing across the imaginary line
that nobody bothered to paint on the waves.

I could sit up there and remember
whole lives ago, when I watched the sun
rise and burn the snow and stone up high
and join the fire of the Autumn
leaves on the Rocky Mountains.
I would know without knowing
and say without saying
that this thing that is going to burn me, too
is the Colorado sun.

But I wasn’t so sure
when I smoked on the roof
and watched the light skip from
isle to isle
stone to stone
whose sun this was.

Would a Korean sun speak enough Chinese
to ask the purple water of the Yellow sea
for permission to press ahead?
Would a Chinese sun speak enough Korean
to tell the North why it might not
shine so bright beyond the torpid Han?

When I watched the sun and the sea
and saw how careful they both tried to be
I remembered Colorado
and I knew without knowing
and said without saying
that this is not the sun of the love songs and the poems.

This is not the same sun
that sets on lovers half a world apart.
This is not the same sun
that shines on bodies under battlements
without a stone to say.

If this same sun rose over screaming leaves
in the Autumn of the hard West
it would not know what to do.

With no languid tides
no rice paddies in rectangular certainty
no black river keeping the beasts at bay
it might lose its way.