Waiting for a Number

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.


Copyright © 2020 by Peter Balakian. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 17, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“Along with the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War was the defining historic event of my coming of age. My friends and I lived in its daily social and political fall-out; We protested it, we studied it, and like many Americans we knew the war was wrong. We imagined our fate if drafted. When President Nixon instituted the draft lottery in 1970, we waited in some complex gray zone of fear and anxiety to see if our number might lead us to combat. This poem, which will be in my forthcoming book, No Sign, deals with that moment.”

Peter Balakian