Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Richard Levine: Disturbing the Peace

  1.  

“We were talking about Afghanistan, too,”

one of the young women at the bar said.

They knew facts, news, analysis,

some important names and dates;

history – we knew what we lived.

They weren’t even born when we fought

in Vietnam.

“Do you want to know what war is about?”

Jake asked the talkative one. 

“Don’t say it, Jake,” I said.  My hand added

insistence on his arm. 

“Did you ever kill anyone?” he asked her.

She did not know where to look.

“That’s what war is about, sweetie!  Not fucking

politics!  You help with the killing and the killing

helps you.  Then, you go home!  Case closed!”

“Shut up, Jake!” 

“Don’t shut me up, Richard!  I’m warning you,

don’t shut me up!”

We were sitting at one end, and along

the bar people looked up, not at Jake and me,

but at shouting stereotypes, at headlines:

Viet Vets In Drunken Brawl:

BANG!  BANG!  BANG! 

Jake raised a hand to the bartender,

I shook my hand to wave him off. 

“Who the fuck are you!”  Jake slurred,

leaning in too close, no less loud.   

“Did you ever kill anyone?” 

“You know, Jake,” I said, “but I’ll send

you my resume, again.” 

“Don’t fuck with me!  I’m warning you,

don’t fuck with me!”

“Back us all up, here, Steve,” he shouted,

pushing a fist of cash forward,

and turning back to the women.

“Did you ever wake up in a rice paddy

and shoot a fifteen-year-old kid?  You

ever have to do that?” 

“Let’s go out and smoke, Jake.”

He looked at me knowing I didn’t

smoke.  Fighting did not find words,

but spoke in us like the name

of something we both wanted.  He placed

a coaster over the rim of his glass

so the bartender would know he’d be back. 

I pulled on my coat and walked out,

Jake and eyes following.

2.

Here I will ask for the privacy you’d extend

to lovers, because a complicated intimacy

is at the heart of what passed between us

out there; decades and allegiances carried to

and laid upon that altar.  And I ask, too,

for the forgiveness reserved for those

who deserve but cannot forgive themselves

or relieve the burden of carrying

more than their own time.

3.

There is a feral loneliness you carry

from war to your grave.  That isolation

is why Jake and I were outside the Inn,

forty years after.

4.

I am just an old soldier, like all the others

going back to Odysseus, his story being

the enlistment of all those before and after,

all of us forever bound to brothers.

If we stood on each others’ shoulders,

to reach beyond the screams of red flares,

the moon could roll down our rolled up sleeves

to light fields of fire for a young sentry fighting

anywhere to stay awake in the dark far

from a home he’ll never return to,

even if he comes back.

5.

So Jake and I were not alone on the outside

of the Brooklyn Inn, late, on that cold winter night.

Divisions from the expanding Afghan war

and from battles we had fought and survived

roiled awake and moved out with us,

securing the losses we had carried

to stand here, under a streetlamp that can

no more bring to light the pain of witness,

than bare the roots under stubborn curbside trees,

stripped to winter bones and dormancy,

and always, especially at night,

alive with their own shadows.

6.

Though there are no flares – only flare-ups –

to mark this spot for a medevac, I tell you this:

a brother is down here.  You have only my piss

poor triage to go by: but I’d say no one is coming

for us anymore.  It’s just us out here, just us.

“C’mon in, Jake.  I’ll buy the next round.”

  7.

Inside, in silence, Jake finished the beer he’d left

and with no more than a nod walked out. 

The round I’d bought him sat sweating, even

after the young women took their leave, smiling

shyly and averting their eyes as they went.  Then,

it was just Steve and me, the jukebox jazz,

and the barroom full of people

with their own stories to tell, a few, no doubt,

fueled by drink, going beyond what can be said

without disturbing the peace.


Copyright 2021 Richard Levine

Richard Levine is a retired NYC teacher and the author of Richard Levine: Selected Poems (FutureCycle Press, 2019). He served in Vietnam (1967-68, USMC).

5 comments on “Richard Levine: Disturbing the Peace

  1. Barbara Huntington
    May 31, 2021

    These are the men from my era. This is why war needs to stop, but also why we need to attempt to understand their pain without judgement. A powerful poem. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • carter7878
      May 31, 2021

      Barbara, I disagree. We absolutely need to JUDGE them and ourselves for allowing such pointless, immoral cluster-fucks as the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts to happen. My Vietnam heroes were those young men who left the country or went to jail. “What if they gave a war and no one came?”

      Liked by 2 people

      • Barbara Huntington
        May 31, 2021

        Mine are , too. But a lot of men were broken doing what they thought was right. Why punish them now? I marched against the war, but I didn’t have to worry about being conscripted. We all could have done more. That’s why we have to speak up against war now ( still).

        Liked by 1 person

        • carter7878
          May 31, 2021

          Yes, I agree. I feel sorry for all those victims. Still, by 1967 even in Tucson, anti-war sentiment was strong. Hard to believe those who allowed themselves to be drafted were “doing what they thought was right,” more like allowing themselves to be cogs in the mindless war machine. But knowing your sacrifices meant NOTHING seems punishment enough.

          Liked by 1 person

          • carter7878
            May 31, 2021

            DON’T GET ME STARTED

            Last night at yoga
            I listened to Elliot breathing
            next to me like a patient
            on a respirator. What if
            there really is a soul?
            Something the color
            of duct tape or transparent
            as plastic sheeting?
            “Think about it,” I say
            at breakfast. My wife glares
            & tries to hide behind the classifieds.
            She’s tired of my negative bullshit.
            “Duct tape! Plastic sheeting!
            Gee, I wonder why they’re
            pushing petroleum products?”
            She leaves the table, her toast
            untouched. Remember
            chanting One! Two!
            Three! Four! we don’t
            want your fucking war?
            Remember that poster, girls say
            yes to boys who say no?
            I said to a girl across the room
            what if they gave a war
            & nobody came? I meant it,
            it wasn’t bullshit, but she untied
            her macrame halter top anyway.
            I like that slogan, no blood
            for oil. Maybe I’ll record it
            on our answering machine or
            shout it from our porch.
            “You know,” calls my wife
            from the other room, “if you were
            happier, you’d be happier.”

            Liked by 1 person

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