Waiting for a Number

- 1951-

words appeared as the soft purring of a cat, crow screeching, 
end of a hymn, cicadas in treesspilling in the white 
noise of my headDa Nang Mekong Saigon Nam.

I walked suburban streets to school, hi-fi blasting Somebody To Love
coach meting out orders, my playbook of fakes and jives, 
my head swelling in the helmet. Over sweet cocktails with my beloved 

under the yellowing gingkoes of 64th off Lex, for a moment I felt 
grown up and then the air in my head was orange chemical Dow 
and DuPont, the juke box blasting Light My Fireand where were we?

staring at the image: pistol to the head, a boy I once knew 
on the white-lined field was bagged
and flown back in the dioxin haze of morning.

In the mangrove of my head chopping sounds 
under the covers, rice pattiesfloating mirrors with unidentified
objects. There were Catholics in Saigon and Catholics on my street,  

what about Laos? what about Cambodia? 
American questions spilling in sunlight on white 
shutters, and I’m home on plush carpet waiting for a number.

More by Peter Balakian

Ode to the Duduk

It’s not the wind I hear driving south
 
through the Catskills—it’s just bad news from the radio
 
and then a hailstorm morphs into sunlight
 
—look up and there’s—
an archipelago of starlings trailing some clouds—
 
But how does the wind come through you
primordial hollow—unflattened double reed—
 
so even now when bad news comes with the evening report—
I can press a button on the dashboard and hear your breath implode
 
the way wind blows through the slit windows of a church in Dilijan,
 
then a space in my head fills with a sound that rises from red clay dust roads
and slides through your raspy apricot wood—
 
Hiss of tires, wet tarmac, stray white lines
night coming like wet dissolve to pixilation—
 
Praise to the glottal stop of every hoarse whisper, every sodden tree
which speaks through your hollow carved wood—
 
so we can hear the air flow over starlings rising and dipping as
       	the mountains glaze the sun—
 
so we can hear the bad news kiss the wind through your whetted reed—

Related Poems

Facing It

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't,
dammit: No tears.
I'm stone. I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way—the stone lets me go.
I turn that way—I'm inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

The War in Colors

The digital map on the wall

displays the American wars

in colors:

Iraq in purple

Syria in yellow

Kuwait in blue

Afghanistan in red

Vietnam in green.

The war

on the map

is beautiful

smart

and colorful.

The Watergate

For most in the United States the word brings a phase
when mortars in Vietnam still whistled around them
and the scandal of Nixon and his Machiavellian buds
poured from the news into their subconscious—I see
that Watergate too: the televised hearings, and in particular
one session—Sam Ervin had just asked Ehrlichman
or Dean or Haldeman, a long-winded, periphrastic,
left-branching question—it must have lasted
forty seconds and seemed three days before he paused
for effect, and Ehrlichman or Dean or Haldeman
answered: “Senator, could you please repeat the question?”
And he did, verbatim! And that is one Watergate.
 
But I think also of the morning my father sent me to the creek
that ran through our pasture to remove a dead calf
a flood had floated north to lodge against our water gate—
a little Guernsey heifer—I had petted her often—
Now flies buzzed around her, bloated and entangled
in the mesh—and I remember her eyes were open,
so she seemed to watch as I pulled first one leg
then another from the vines and wire that trapped her,
and pulled her to the bank through the shallow water.
 
Because the second water gate, which features the tender
relationship between a dead calf and a little boy,
happened twenty years before the first, in which men
break into an office complex in a hotel, I prefer its
posts and hog wire that kept cows from a neighbor’s field
to the gray rows of filing cabinets that brought down a presidency.
The water pours out of the mountain and runs to the sea.
Sometimes I say it to myself, until the meanings leave.
I say Watergate until it is water pouring through water.