For a Libyan Militia Member

1

Once I cleared the chopper’s wapwapwap
the airstrip opened up into a treeless drift of sand
where I heard a distant hammer tap against the wind

and smelled scorched concrete wafting from shellholes
in the runway. Then, we were speeding along
in the back of an open truck,

its axles shuddering over hardpan as I rubbernecked 
at burned-out tanks, turrets blown to the roadside
seeming somehow sadder than the men who died.

2

Just a boy who played soccer until the revolution,
he learned, with a bad shoulder, to fire an AK-47,
shoot off a mortar so he didn’t burn his hands, talk away fear—

the radio broadcasting endless hero/victim chatter
sent him racing behind a wall, hiding from the sniper’s crosshairs—
pinwheeling shrapnel sent him to the hospital—

where he suffered as much from boredom as his wound.
Playing with a lizard he holds by the tail,
the panting ribs pulse as he dangles it

head down, his bandaged cheek, crisscrossed with tape, looking
like it aches. The hot breeze dries sweat
from his face as the lizard whiplashes loose, scrambling

across the sheet to disappear under the bed,
one wounded foot leaving pinpricks of blood—
not a trail or code, just the tail left dangling

in the boy’s fingers as he laughs and, swinging
it around, shows it to his mother frowning,
What’s that? and snatches it away.

3

Each time the boy, grown-up now, is forced to flash
ID, his scar tissue’s calligraphy writes on his body
the history of his own scalloped, twisted flesh
shrugging off my pose of objectivity:

shrinking, puckering, the skin grafts on
his burns shine white as phosphorus in the sun:
and whatever I write down, the counter-text
scrawled on his cheek revises itself each time his mouth flexes

into a grin or frown, as year by year whatever’s
written there gets that much harder to decipher,
that much further from the war, until in the mirror
he’ll see and won’t see his own scars.

4

In the shade and sunlight the lizard grows a new tail
that writes in dust over a broken cobble
its slithering trail until it stops short, heart pulsing in its throat,
red eyes fixed on that foreign shape which takes out

a notebook, scribbles green and brown skin, broken black 
       diamonds
arranged in vertical stripes, claws that look like hands
of a fever victim. And then scribbled notes
in neutral tones about mortar fire, flak jackets,

the strap on the helmet that’s always too loose or too tight,
the boy’s bombed house, shockwaves blowing out
the windows to let in riot gas, an adrenaline rush,
the smell of tears chemical as ammonia, and as harsh.

5

All around me the sound of men sleeping,
their bodies shifting slightly in their dreaming,
the engines of the trucks still cooling
giving off little ticks and pings.

And then I was climbing out of my blankets to slip under
the tent’s canopy, stumbling away from mumbling and snores,
the desert cold making the dew-damped sand stiffen
so it crunched underfoot as I crept beyond the watchman

to take a piss: and at the edge of the camp, near the chickens
in their coop, heads tucked under wings,
was a fox staring back, or what I though was a fox
ducking down into the shadows and disappearing behind the trucks

that in the morning would obliterate
its precise, four-clawed tracks that the next night
and the next would keep on coming back, until the chickens got
eaten, or the fox was filled. Then pattering of my own piss brought

me back into the cold, the sky overhead dark and bright,
bundled bodies in the dawn beginning to levitate—
whose elbows dreamed up the chokehold? Who pushes back
the boundaries so that no-man’s-land is

the only heimat, homeland, patrie? Who strips us
of our shadows so that our histories turn to glass?
And then it was time for breakfast, to sip tea, smoke,
and take my place beside the others in the truck.

More by Tom Sleigh

Space Station

(Note: a space station generates gravity by revolving one way and then another. When it reverses direction to revolve the other way, there are several moments when gravity is suspended.)

My mother and I and the dog were floating
Weightless in the kitchen. Silverware
Hovered above the table. Napkins drifted
Just below the ceiling. The dead who had been crushed
By gravity were free to move about the room,
To take their place at supper, lift a fork, knife, spoon—
A spoon, knife, fork that, outside this moment's weightlessness,
Would have been immovable as mountains.

My mother and I and the dog were orbiting
In the void that follows after happiness
Of an intimate gesture: Her hand stroking the dog's head
And the dog looking up, expectant, into her eyes:
The beast gaze so direct and alienly concerned
To have its stare returned; the human gaze
That forgets, for a moment, that it sees
What it's seeing and simply, fervently, sees...

But only for a moment. Only for a moment were my mother
And the dog looking at each other not mother
Or dog but that look—I couldn't help but think,
If only I were a dog, or Mother was,
Then that intimate gesture, this happiness passing
Could last forever...such a vain, hopeless wish
I was wishing; I knew it and didn't know it
Just as my mother knew she was my mother

And didn't...and as for the dog, her large black pupils,
Fixed on my mother's faintly smiling face,
Seemed to contain a drop of the void
We were all suspended in; though only a dog
Who chews a ragged rawhide chew toy shaped
Into a bone, femur or cannonbone
Of the heavy body that we no longer labored
To lift against the miles-deep air pressing

Us to our chairs. The dog pricked her ears,
Sensing a dead one approaching. Crossing the kitchen,
My father was moving with the clumsy gestures
Of a man in a space suit—the strangeness of death
Moving among the living—though the world
Was floating with a lightness that made us
Feel we were phantoms: I don't know
If my mother saw him—he didn't look at her

When he too put his hand on the dog's head
And the dog turned its eyes from her stare to his...
And then the moment on its axis reversed,
The kitchen spun us the other way round
And pressed heavy hands down on our shoulders
So that my father sank into the carpet,
My mother rested her chin on her hand
And let her other hand slide off the dog's head,

Her knuckles bent in a kind of torment
Of moonscape erosion, ridging up into
Peaks giving way to seamed plains
With names like The Sea of Tranquility
—Though nothing but a metaphor for how
I saw her hand, her empty, still strong hand
Dangling all alone in the infinite space
Between the carpet and the neon-lit ceiling.

Oracle

Because the burn's unstable, burning too hot
in the liquid hydrogen suction line
and so causing vortices in the rocket fuel 

flaming hotter and hotter as the "big boy"
blasts off, crawling painfully slowly 
up the blank sky, then, when he blinks 

exploding white hot against his wincing
retina, the fireball's corona searing 
in his brain, he drives with wife and sons

the twisting road at dawn to help with the Saturday
test his division's working on: the crowd 
of engineers surrounding a pit dug in snow 

seeming talky, joky men for 6 a.m., masking 
their tension, hoping the booster rocket's
solid fuel will burn more evenly than the liquid

and keep the company from layoffs rumored
during recess, though pride in making
chemicals do just what they're calculated to

also keys them up as they lounge behind 
pink caution tape sagging inertly 
in the morning calm: in the back seat, I kick 

my twin brother's shin, bored at 6:10 a.m. 
until Dad turns to us and says, in a neutral tone, 
Stop it, stop it now, and we stop and watch: 

a plaque of heat, a roar like a diesel blasting
in your ear, heatwaves ricocheting off gray mist
melting backward into dawn, shockwaves rippling 

to grip the car and shake us gently, flame 
dimly seen like flame inside the brain confused 
by a father who promises pancakes after, 

who's visibly elated to see the blast shoot 
arabesques of mud and grit fountaining up 
from the snow-fringed hole mottling to black slag 

fired to ruts and cracks like a parched streambed. 
Deliriously sleepy, what were those flames doing 
mixed up with blueberry pancakes, imaginings of honey 

dripping and strawberry syrup or waffles, 
maybe, corrugated like that earth, or a stack 
of half-dollars drenched and sticky...? 

My father's gentle smile and nodding head—
gone ten years, and still I see him climbing 
slick concrete steps as if emerging from our next door

neighbor's bomb shelter, his long-chilled shade 
feeling sunlight on backs of hands, warmth on cheeks,
the brightness making eyes blink and blink...

so like his expression when a friend came 
to say goodbye to him shrunken inside 
himself as into a miles-deep bunker...

and then he smiled, his white goatee 
flexing, his parched lips cracked but welcoming 
as he took that friend's hand and held it, held it 

and pressed it to his cheek... The scales, weighing 
one man's death and his son's grief against 
a city's char and flare, blast-furnace heat melting 

to slag whatever is there, then not there—
doesn't seesaw to a balance, but keeps shifting,
shifting...nor does it suffice to make simple

correspondences between bunkers and one man's 
isolation inside his death, a death 
he died at home and chose...at least insofar 

as death allows anyone a choice, for what
can you say to someone who's father or mother
crossing the street at random, or running 

for cover finds the air sucked out 
of them in a vacuum of fire calibrated
in silence in a man's brain like my father's

—the numbers calculated inside the engineer's 
imagination become a shadowy gesture as in Leonardo's 
drawing of a mortar I once showed my father 

and that we admired for its precision, shot raining 
down over fortress walls in spray softly pattering,
hailing down shrapnel like the fountain of Trevi

perfectly uniform, lulling to the ear and eye
until it takes shape in the unforgiving
three dimensional, as when the fragile, 

antagonized, antagonistic human face
begins to slacken into death as in my own 
father's face, a truly gentle man except 

for his work which was conducted gently too—
since "technicals" like him were too shy for sales 
or management, and what angers he may have had 

seemed to be turned inward against judging
others so the noise inside his head was quieter
than most and made him, to those who knew him well,

not many, but by what they told me after he died,
the least judgemental person 
they'd ever known—who, at his almost next to last 

breath, uncomplaining, said to his son's 
straining, over-eager solicitation, 
—Is there something you need, anything?

—That picture—straighten it... his face smoothing 
to a slate onto which light scribbles what? a dark joke,
an elegant equation, a garbled oracle?

Blueprint

I had a blueprint
of history
in my head —

it was a history of the martyrs
of love, the fools
of tyrants, the tyrants
themselves weeping
at the fate of their own soldiers —

a sentimental blueprint,
lacking depth —
a ruled axis X and Y
whose illusions
were bearable . . .
then unbearable . . .

In that blueprint, I wanted to speak
in a language
utterly other, in words
that mimicked
how one of Homer's warriors
plunges through breastplate
a spear past
breastbone, the spearpoint searching
through the chest
like a ray of light searching
a darkened room
for the soul
unhoused, infantile,
raging —
but my figure of speech,
my "ray of light" —
it was really a spearpoint
piercing the lung
of great-hearted Z
who feels death loosen
his knees, the menos
in his thumos
flying out of him —

the fate of his own soul
to confront me
beyond the frame:

no room, no X, no Y, no "ray of light,"
no menos, no thumos, no Z —

only sketched-in plane
after plane after plane
cantilevering upward and forever throughout space.