With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Sometimes when you say goodbye you know it’s goodbye for keeps.
You touch your lips to her cheek, or you squeeze his hand & walk off.
What else can you do? Out on the street, the light has never
been so intense, so luminous, so intolerably bright.
But mostly we don’t know when it’s that final goodbye.
Who would have thought that perfectly casual “Hey, Steve, take care”
would be the last? Years later someone mentions that Greg is living
in Spain or Rebecca got married in Ecuador or Don
is in Shreveport. Or you hear through the grapevine
that Kenny has died, someone you once loved, someone with whom
you spent endless hours laughing back in those feverish days
on that other coast, in that other life. One morning you turn
the page of the Union-Tribune, & among the obits there’s a picture of Larry,
from the old coalition, & you read that small notice beneath it,
& your heart stops. One afternoon, at Dennis’s bookshop up on Girard,
some guy you don’t quite remember starts shaking
your hand & tells you that Susan died of stomach cancer
five years ago now. “I wasn’t sure that you knew.” & in fact
you didn’t know. & Eliot, swallowed by time. Was that the last
goodbye, there in the narrow hallway of that sixth-floor walk-up of mine,
all those decades ago? Eliot grinning that edgy, cherubic grin & turning
to leave, & me with my hand on the tarnished knob of that door, watching
him make his way down the stairs in the dusty, fluorescent semidark
of that place fifty years back, that door which hasn’t yet quite shut for good.
After I’d sent the Army my letter of resignation, two beefy Intelligence types
showed up at my place in the Fillmore with a huge reel-to-reel tape recorder,
& without mincing words I tore into America’s despicable agenda:
the circle of hell reserved for our savage carpet-bombing campaign
against the people of Vietnam & the puppet state the U.S. was trying
to force down their throats. Which was why, I explained, I wouldn’t put
on their fucking uniform ever again & why, if I had to fight, it would be
for the other side.
Quiet, courteous, polite, they sat there listening
to my ferocious rant till, after two hours, I asked what exactly it was they
needed to know, & one of them said they had really been sent to find out if
I was planning to shoot President Johnson, or do something else of that sort,
& I laughed & said no, & we shook hands & they packed up & left.
But a month later, when the Army sent me the transcript to sign & return,
I brought it instead to a young San Francisco attorney whose family firm
did pro bono work for resisters, & Josh Callihan read that whole eighteen-
page harangue & looked up & told me how much he liked what I’d said,
& when I asked him what to do next, he advised me to get the hell out of town
as fast as I could. Which I did. I ran for my life & for the lives of all those
they were trying to get me to kill, & of nothing I’ve done in this world
have I ever been prouder.
Listen, if you’re reading this poem & you’re young
or desperate enough to think of enlisting, or have already been suckered in,
understand that all those self-righteous fairy tales about freedom
& peace are meant to convince young men & women like you to massacre,
city by city & village by village, America’s villain du jour, adding, every few years,
another small state that stepped out of line to its necklace of skulls.
& for those of you who will march to your own graves in so doing,
the powers that sent you will bow their heads & present to your folks
the flag that was draped on the box they carted you home in.
Friend, find any way that you can to resist
or escape. If you have to run for your life, for chrissake, run for your life.
Up before dawn to meditate all day with a saffron-robed Thai
Theravada Buddhist monk who explains the incomprehensible
dharma in all but incomprehensible English, then jabs a finger in
the air & nods triumphantly, & at the bell, propped upon my purple zafu
in half lotus, I set grimly to the task of reining in the hyperactive
& incorrigible mind, that screaming brat who’s flying up & down
the supermarket aisles, flinging from the shelves everything in sight.
I liked Mount Baldy & the zendo there, & Theravada mindfulness practice,
& that grinning sensei with his fractured English. & I liked as well
that shapely, dark, lubricious fellow meditator three zafus down:
her lovely face & arched, cross-legged body. Lust,
longing, random fragmentary thoughts & drowsy bits of memories
& momentary bouts of wakeful consciousness & sudden
bursts of joy: one moment quiet ecstasy & utter peace, the next
the wish this weekend-long retreat were long since over with.
My back felt stiff, my knees ached. Then Sunday, after lunch,
with an hour’s freedom for myself, I wandered off
alone & scrambled up a nearby hill & found a perfect rock
to sit upon & looked around, unburdened & relaxed, amazed
by everything: those few spare pines, the sky’s soul-wrenching blue,
& at my feet a tribe of ants systematically upending grains of sand,
& far away that winding strip of highway with its antlike string
of trucks & cars, & then I saw her: in a clearing some fifty-odd feet below
where I was perched, that gorgeous raven-haired young
meditator, that seductive bodhisattva, wielding
a long crescent sword & practicing her katas, cutting thru desire,
the hundred thousand permutations of the wobbling mind — wonder,
pleasure, dreams, desires, & memories. I simply watch & let
them be: they, too, luminous, transparent, perfectly apparent, perfectly
themselves. That all things rise, abide, are changed, & pass away.
Mindfulness practice at the zendo at Mount Baldy, six thousand
feet above the sea. Exquisite world of craving & delusion.
Here is a note concerning my military career in response to Steve Kowit’s “A Note Concerning My Military Career”:
Imagine you were a peaceful eighteen-year-old kid just out of high school, and you got a draft notice in the mail. And maybe you looked at that draft notice, and you knew where you would end up, and you wanted nothing to do with that damn war you had been watching on the evening news for years.
Then maybe you looked at your father, a World War II veteran, and your next-door neighbor, and his next-door neighbor, and his — veterans all. And just maybe you made the only decision that your teenage heart and brain could come up with, and you ended up in Vietnam.
In the February 2014 Correspondence, Steve Kowit writes that the only war in which the U.S. has fought on the side of justice was World War II. Despite my left-leaning political views and my hatred of the Iraq War, I’ve seen enough of the world to know that Kowit’s statement is false. Has he traveled to Croatia and been given a liberator’s welcome? Would he tell African American civil-rights leaders that the Civil War had no thread of justice? Has he seen the difference between South and North Korea: freedom and prosperity in one, death camps and starvation in the other? Was the war this nation fought for its citizens’ freedom and self-determination unjust?
War is horrible, and the U.S. frequently abuses its military power abroad to satisfy the greed of its citizens. But Kowit’s naive exaggeration gives liberal ideals a bad name.
Steve Kowit’s poem “A Note Concerning My Military Career” [October 2013] spoke to me. I work on a high-school campus, and every time I see uniformed military recruiters talking to the students, I think, Leave my kids alone!
Maybe I should hand out copies of Kowit’s poem at recess.
I think Ken K. has nicely summed up the difficulty an eighteen-year-old might have resisting the military draft when his parents and neighbors are fully convinced that military service is a patriotic and noble obligation of citizenship. The underlying belief of those fathers and neighbors, of course, is that the United States fights on the side of justice. Unfortunately, with the possible exception of the Second World War, that has never been the case.
But not all eighteen-year-olds in the early 1960s were as naive as the fathers and neighbors Ken K. describes. Back then, in large measure due to the flourishing civil-rights movement, millions of young Americans had come to understand that their country was not the bastion of democracy that it pretended to be.
Though the American peace movement today is embarrassingly timid, in the 1960s the resistance to the Vietnam War, especially among young people, was passionate, vociferous, and widespread. Back then I was not the only one to tell the U.S. Army that if I were forced to fight, it would be for the other side.
Our destruction of Korea and our slaughter of millions of Korean and Chinese people, most of them civilians, had nothing to do with America’s putative love of freedom or justice. I would recommend Matt Eggers read Bruce Cumings’s The Korean War. It will disabuse him of his triumphalist notions about that genocide.
U.S. wars and counterinsurgency operations have almost always been waged for the purpose of propping up dictatorships, creating new ones, and either destroying nations or turning them into U.S. client states. Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars reveals the real goals and methods of U.S. foreign policy.
As for the American Civil War, had President Lincoln permitted the South to secede but boycotted the import of all goods produced in that new Confederate slaveholding nation, it would have brought an end to the slave system rather quickly and saved the lives of the 750,000 men who died in that monstrous bloodbath.