We Gotta Get Out of this Place
Winner of the 2000 Pennsylvania State University Katey Lehman Award for Poetry
When my father was skinny and nineteen he sat
in open-air bars west of Saigon and rolled long
bones that went everywhere with him and
hi boys. The tripped on psychedelic sacks
of cobra venom drifting like jellyfish through
The U.S. Army let him live
as a vet. tech instead of a front-line man. He healed
animals for Vietnamese tribes high in the humid
mountains. In thanks, the amber men
gave him bronze bracelets carved with their language.
Now, the bracelets dig red trenches
in his arms gone plump.
I am nineteen and I watch the History Channel
with obsession. I want to know if you can see a bullet
screaming through the air as it tears towards you lungs. Can you tell
the directions you flesh pieces move to after the mortar round?
I want to know if the second shot
of morphine–one for the pain, two for
In Vietname the olive fronds of the we jungle
combed my father’s damn skin. The smell of
python and ginger sang in the air, and the boys
kept mongoose to weed out the snakes
that did not note who was a Communist and who was not.
My father hummed “All Along the Watchtower,”
and “Lay Lady Lay.” He kept to cassette
Nashville Skyline in his breast pocket
beneath his ID papers and a letter from my mother.
In the steaming air of green Vietnam,
maybe my father thought of his own father freezing
in France in ’44. Maybe my grandfather sang
Lili Marlene your lips are close to mine as the metal
entered his leg and he lunged for the shot men
drowning in a Norman river. Red, white, and blue
what does it mean to you?*
When my father was nineteen his best friend,
two muddy steps to the left, caught
an exploding bullet in the stomach. My father
collected the soft being intestinal lining
in his hands and sang “Born On the Bayou”
to the hissing snakes coiling into his hands.
One for the pain, two for eternity.
*excerpt from the song “There’ll Always Be an England”