Waiting for a Number
words appeared as the soft purring of a cat, crow screeching,
end of a hymn, cicadas in trees—spilling in the white
noise of my head—Da 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 Fire—and 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 patties—floating 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.
“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.”