On Courageous Poetry, this Veteran’s Day
On a Veteran’s Day many years ago, my dad was supposed to give a speech at a Vietnam War memorial. There were a couple politicians there. Community leaders. The sorts of Democrats that you vote for the mere reason that they aren’t Republican.
My dad’s popularity was dwindling, and his fuck-it-all attitude was at an all-time high.
Peace, so that
every stinking son of a bitch
can come home
You can imagine the crowd. A couple lapels stapled with American flags imported from China, and then everyone else. Young families missing their father. A few dozen Harley Davidson’s parked in a neat line, their back tires kissing the curb.
The real veterans all hung in the same group, their embroidered jackets and cigarettes serving as a protective against a public that still neglects to understand how a country can send their own children to fight in a war over nothing. A country that still does that. A country that will forever do that.
to his lawn mower and rice paddy
every punished son of a bitch
can return to his father’s bedside
These sorts of events are never for the veterans, but they still come. They’re for the millions of us who feel a fleeting guilt every time we see a young boy in fatigues walk past us in the airport. It’s the like button on Facebook. Click and forget. Take off your hat and sing the national anthem. Go to the grocery store on your way home.
My dad didn’t want to make those guys listen to bullshit again. They showed up. They were there. Some of them came back. My dad got a high lottery number in the draft that year, a fact I can’t imagine he doesn’t still feel guilty about.
He addressed the crowd, said hello, and then, “I’m going to read this poem for you all.”
every child of every bastard
every child of every hero of peace
He’s 6’8” and spits when he talks. He kept his head down as he read, his lips flapping wildly when he nearly-screamed, “every stinking, son of a bitch.” His voice lower, “can come home.” Matter of fact, “to his lawn mower and rice paddy.”
This is a great poem on its own, but it’s great because it’s truthful. My dad read it because it’s truthful. People don’t just die in war. Families are broken, cultures tear apart. The lawn mower and the rice paddy. It’s all the same. Whose troops do we support? A child can’t tell the difference between war hero and insurgent. He only sees his father.
every rising of the blood
make love to a woman, a man
every killer have only mirrors
This is one of the many times I saw my dad swear, spit, and sort of cry at a public event. He’s always been embarrassing like that. He’s a sucker for the truth, something that politics tends to obscure.
I can’t imagine anyone else to thank for the man I turned into. My father was spared the terror of war, the daily fear of life and death. And I was spared too, partially because of the sacrifices of soldiers at home and abroad. Despite this, he showed me that God doesn’t grant people courage, but gives us chances to display a courage that’s dormant within us.
every word flung out like a bullet
come back to putrefy the tongue
And there are hundreds of these chances every day. Sure you can write a poem. You can apologize to a friend. But these acts are done so often without thinking, that we forget what makes them important. That it takes courage to own up to your wrongs.
None of the politicians came up to my dad after his speech, but the veterans did. One by one, some smoking, some doe-eyed, came up and thanked him for what he said. They asked him about the poem and a few of them wrote it down.
And we be a long time at this.
And that’s what poetry is for. That’s what real poetry is. Men wrote poetry to change the world and chill the nerves in your spine. It took them courage to write.
Sure you can shake someone’s hand, wear a flag on your chest, and get your picture taken in front of a statue. But sometimes you need to swear, spit, and let the tears fall if they come.