May 28, 2023

Two Poems

by Richard Levine

The Five Words

If you tell me, Thank you for your service,
and I think you are sincere, especially
if I think you are sincere, I will tell you

some dark particulars of that service,
and once come to light like a stain
on porcelain, say, it will spot your heart

and blot the smile from your child’s face forever.
See, the way it happens, when bad happens,
it’s fast, you’re slow and become its keeper,

carrying it home and to your grave,
and no thanks will bless those deeds.


I thought I saw a friend from Vietnam
passing through the gates into Graceland.
Pointing, I explained this to a guard who asked for my ticket.

One night, we talked music with rockets and 88s
falling near and closer. We were on an airstrip near the DMZ,
feeding wounded
into the belly of a C-130.

We talked music, shouting to be heard above the engine and the rain
popping corn in our helmets; the explosive flash
and force of each blast, near and closer, tore pieces out of the runway,
the wet, and what we were made of.

We talked music to make us brave.

We talked music to distract us from the blood,
the bandages and the IV bottles we tucked between legs or taped to bodies.

We talked music to the rhythm: carry a stretcher
through the rain, up the ramp and back down again
empty-handed. Then, again, the grip and lift
– it’s all in the wrists – and the wounded
weight shooting up your arms to knit the spine to the pain
in the neck and down through the hips to the cable-tight
half-hitch down the back of your legs.

We talked music until we heard small arms fire
running wild along the perimeter. Drunk on a ferment of fear
and adrenaline, we raced our silhouettes into that fire.
Rumors flew before the wounded …
the base was being overrun. Overrun?
The word made flesh meant we might meet the enemy
face-to-face, hand-to-hand.

The guard looked at my ticket, shaking his head,
“Sorry. Not your time.”

With Elvis pouring from every speaker,
I looked at the guard and my friend, again …
Then, I remembered he’d been killed that morning …

There are songs that never fail
to stir or transport us back to where we first heard them;
though common no one knows them the way we do …

I stood there not there,
not waiting in line with the thousands of people waiting.
And, yet, I was.

Someone in line was saying, “Elvis
once said “Ambition is a dream with a V-8 engine.”

We might all be dreaming, or waiting to see Santa,
to sit in the lap of beautiful youth and music, alive and universal as love
and death. And right there,
in front of all those wishful people, a ghost exploded from my chest;

the stuttering chopper that rotored in to take my friend’s poncho-coffin
into its maw, kicking dust up into the face of the sun and the living.
One dangling arm reached through memory,
its fingers, which had frailed banjoes,
trailed four furrows in dirt,
so I tucked it in under his poncho, and backed away,
… and the chopper, too, backed away, spinning up, spinning dust.
What else can you do?

No one noticed, not even my wife.

“It’s going to be a while before our turn, maybe
we should get a coffee.”

Hearing her and Elvis and the treasure of living
I took her hand,
nodding my head, still numbed by the journey
and the shock of returning my friend to the dead.

I looked back for the stranger I mistook for my friend,
but he was out of sight somewhere in Graceland,

and swimming in the beginning of tears no one knew
I knew …

“Yeah, let’s get coffee,” I said, my voice a little thick.
“And let’s buy some Elvis bling.
Let’s slather ourselves in Elvis bling.”

from Contiguous States (Finishing Line Press, 2018)