Stopping the War
The most I ever did to stop it
was walk through Chicago carrying a comet
on a piece of cardboard.
It was winter; our grim procession flowed
through the frozen city.
And under the spark and arc
of the comet’s flaking tail
was Nelson Mandela’s face,
so tears streamed from his cheekbones
in the colors of the flag.
Is it possible I wanted peace?
I was sixteen—joysticked missiles
I kept the sign
because I liked the comet.
I stayed up late
watching night-vision raids.
I wanted us to win.
More than lying to our parents,
more than Saturday nights
in the lot behind Allied
down the lengths of metal sheeting,
better than tequila and Spanish Audrey
pulling me towards her
onto her older sister's foldout bed,
were Fridays, 3 p.m.,
Ian, me and Ryan
in the Demon Dog parking lot,
and a half-pint of Seagrams on the dash.
I liked how Ryan drove—fast,
but I trusted it,
like the car was a part of him—
I liked how he’d be halfway through the Seagrams
while me and Ian
still had a half-period left of Geometry.
We’d eat Polishes in the parking lot
with our backpacks stashed in his car.
We’d watch the sparks shatter
from the tracks of the Elevated
each time the Red Line
At the dinner table
my mother passed out pins
with the image of a gas-masked soldier
locked behind a peace sign—
in room 402
I was put on trial for war crimes
in a history class imagined
as the Tanzanian courtroom
used in 1995
for the UN tribunal
Sundays I walked the path past
to the stone atrium
overlooking the lake.
Geese screamed. Crushed cans
drifted by the inlet.
I came for the way the line
between water and sky just
collapsed as the light fell to one
pale wall of pewter and blue;
to see the beacons glow red
on the stone shoulders
of the grey intake tower standing
like a stanchion in the deep.
There’s a poem where the protesters know each other
by their missing little fingers, sawed off in dissent
and mailed to the president.
I like that thought: hoses, marches, leashes and teeth,
ten thousand pinkies piled on a desk—
then years later, two strangers
meeting in Michigan or Warsaw
or the fog of a lakeside park: pine in winter,
hand on a bench-back, hand brushing back
a strand of hair: no wars for forty years.
Two ex-dissidents flashing their gaps in recognition.
Late spring we won State.
On television, tanks
with chain-wrapped wheels
under giant crossing sabers
in Grand Festivities Square,
At home I clicked through pictures
of those 1960s Saigon monks—bone thin
in sunlight, in saffron
robes, in the center of an intersection,
their friends pouring petrol on their heads
before the men pressed their foreheads to the pavement,
then struck and touched their bodies with a match.
The swirling shapes of flame
around their torsos made me think
how ice cream twists from a machine
into a waiting cone.
They pinned their robes so closely
they became impossible to save.
And they didn't want saving,
they wanted to make a point,
like my mother, in 1968,
lacing seventy-five nails
through a tennis ball
and placing it
beneath a cop car's
Khe Sanh. Kent State. Daley
in the Mayor’s Hall. She had chopped black hair
and plain white sneakers.
Ninh Binh. Blue water
and bombers coming off the shore.
My mother kneeling beside the wheel. Bang
when it rolled.
You can go to war and come back
missing half a face.
You can send a drone to Pakistan
and open up the insides of a hospital
full of children. You might return alive
but with a stripe of film strip in your brain
shining with something living
while it burns.
Nevertheless, when Ryan enlisted I was excited.
A friend in the army. I liked how it sounded.
I liked the world I pictured it building
in the mind of anyone I'd tell—gunfire and winter,
childhoods of trashcan barbecues,
fake metal of a Remington replica swapped
for the grip and raised block script
of a handgun
hanging easy from a muscled waist,
some imagined toughness reflected back to me.
I shaved my head.
He went through basic.
I went to college.
He landed in Afghanistan.
I carried a duffel,
I let a woman in an airport shake my hand
and thank me for my service.
Some days I ride the El
all evening through Chicago’s downtown
loop, past the campuses and stone
lions and libraries and fire-proofed brick-
backed dominions where inside
the business of the city
spins like a turnstile. There’s the fountain
where kids toss pennies
for a wish. There’s the convention center
where the Democrats gathered in 1968.
There’s the park where my mother was billy-clubbed
and tear-gassed with the rest of them.
There’s that strip
off the Kennedy Expressway
which meant nothing
until I read that activist
Malachi Ritscher burned himself to death in protest,
circa November, 2006.
To which the newspapers said,
“with all great respect,
his last gesture on this planet
was his saddest, and most futile.”
How does a war end? With airlifts and crowds
amassing at the gate; elsewhere soldiers
stripping gear from their shoulders and diving
headlong star-splayed Geronimo down
into Ha Long Bay. With a banner
on an airship claiming victory,
the war still going. In Buffalo,
Gary, south Chicago, with kids
doing benzos in the alley
outside the strip mall; in emerald green
on the day of the parade;
with the outline of Illinois
tattooed on Ryan’s bicep
the summer he came back, a red star
inked inside the center of the state.
Honor to the writers of the Great Manifestos,
the pens of the addled visionaries
scribbling missives for peace.
Honor to my mother,
who fights for the long arc, believing it bends
Honor to Ryan, who knows the patterns
cast on a sandstone wall
when the head of a leaping dog
opens for a bullet—
I am thankful he came back.
And honor to Chicago, the steel blue
of the lake one winter afternoon
glimpsed from the window of a train—
where I angled my posterboard Mandela
so everyone could see what I stood for;
the city passed in a scramble
of ductwork and water-holds
and rusted metal mushroom turbines
turning with the wind;
and a vacant lot
where someone had spray-painted a bomber
inside a giant circle: red wings, black tail
spread to the circle’s edge,
making the sign for peace.
Which I looked at. Which I put here
because I thought it pretty,
and because it felt significant,
and because I remember.
On my eleventh birthday my sister gave me a pin.
It was small—light in weight as a charm
on a child’s neck—and so thin
as to be indiscernible.
That was the year Mrs. Bergen explained to me
a penny dropped from the tallest building in the city
could split open a sidewalk. My sister had slipped
and snapped her arm falling from the jungle gym
and this was, I suppose,
the teacher’s way of trying to comfort me.
It didn’t. It snowed. I worried. I pictured the bone
being pulled from her arm like an arrow
from a sheath, a new one
slid into its place. I noticed the new attention
she received at school and tracked it back
to the day she fell: a circle of boys
had huddled over something
on the ground. I’d pushed through
to where she lay, curled up
and covered in woodchips,
like they’d been burying her.
It was in those months that I began to wear the pin.
When I couldn’t sleep, I held it
like a talisman. I told it everything
that scared me.
There was a time, of course,
when the events I have just described
were more or less forgotten: the bone healed,
then lengthened. We grew up. She moved
to a different city. Pictures of her life
flashed across my screen: a skyline
seen from a balcony; someone’s shadow
overlapping her own. A country road,
a fire pit, a horse, the ocean. She felt far from me,
Perhaps it is that distance that brought it back,
the day the saw peeled off the cast
like a skin, the new arm emerging
thin and sickly, paler
than the other. It seemed a part of her
that hadn’t been there before.
What I can say is that the fixed year between us
seemed to grow. A letter was passed to me
by a high school boy
to give to her. The tank top
we used to share was left folded
on my pillow. My own behavior became
peculiar to me. I crushed a bird
beneath the wheel of my bicycle.
I called my sister over to watch it
drag itself into the garden.
What it was I didn’t know, but I saw it
in the flushed soft faces of the girls ascending
from the basement showers
after gym glass, damp stains
where their wet braids had fallen
on their shoulders. I saw it in Assembly,
the way Sasha Lavotnick's hand would drift
and trace the outline of the straps
showing through the shirt of the girl beside her.
It was so delicate I understood
a boy would never be allowed
to touch a girl in that way,
and wouldn't think to.
Noon meant recess. On the huge field, drained
by winter, we stood like tribes:
girls circled together with girls;
the boys drew lines for games.
In our corner, a centerfold of a famous actress
passed between our hands. One night, Bobby Richmond
asked me to mimic the woman’s position
on the edge of his bed. I lay down;
his mother was asleep.
After, we stood at his window
watching traffic pass
on the road below. We spoke,
I remember, about wanting to be older.
I live now in two small rooms—a kitchen
and a place to sleep. Outside: the yard,
a high blank wall, a small section of sky.
The pin, always fragile,
bent some time ago.
I have made a place for it
on scraps of old fabric
on the stand beside my bed.
I think of a city; my sister disappearing
down the subway steps.
Holding her umbrella; the wind
of the train lifting her hair.
The winter the bone broke
we found a trunk of shawls
in the attic, the fabric thin and worn, almost weightless.
When our mother came to find us,
we sat with our backs turned,
wrapped in the cold dark silks,
pretending we were very old women
who had lived there all along.
She asked our names. We’d forgotten.
Stiff beneath the cloak, in its cast,
my sister's arm looked thick as a statue's.
When our mother asked us
where her children were,
we stifled our laughter.
We said, You have none.
The weather turned bad and I got happy.
That’s wrong—I mean the morning sky
was ash blue, birds on the ground. I mean
not happy but good, not good
but fastened, steady, like every train in the city
was running late, but no one minded.
On 12th street, tarpaulin swelled
and bowed in wind. Rain drove straight
through a woman’s dress. And again
on Hollis, that slowness: damp black
trees, the line of streetlights
paced like breath. I pulled over. Leaves
dripped like rinsed hands.
A girl held her mother
by the shoulders on a porch.
-from North American Stadiums, Milkweed (2018)
GRADY CHAMBERS is the author of North American Stadiums (Milkweed, 2018) selected by Henri Cole as the winner of the inaugural Max Ritvo Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review Online, Prairie Schooner, Boulevard, and elsewhere. Grady was a 2015-2017 Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He lives in Philadelphia.