4-21-2020

Grady Chambers

 

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,

digitally shifted

 

so tears streamed from his cheekbones

in the colors of the flag.

 

Is it possible I wanted peace?

I was sixteen—joysticked missiles

flashed greenly

into Baghdad.

 

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

 

doing moon-bounds

down the lengths of metal sheeting,

better than tequila and Spanish Audrey

 

pulling me towards her

downward

onto her older sister's foldout bed,

 

were Fridays, 3 p.m.,

Ian, me and Ryan

in the Demon Dog parking lot,

 

soft-pack Parliaments

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

screamed past.

 

*

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 Rwanda

in a history class imagined

as the Tanzanian courtroom

used in 1995

for the UN tribunal

on Genocide—

 

Sundays I walked the path past

Belmont Harbor

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,

Baghdad.

 

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

front wheel.

 

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

towards justice.

 

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;

where outside

 

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.

 

Pin

 

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,

and was.

 

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.

 

 

Sunday Morning

 

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.