Smelling of sweet resin the Aleppo pines’
shadows grow taller by the hour. Two identical
twin boys chase each other through the shadows,
the one who’s ten minutes older yelling,
I’m gonna kill you while the younger one
laughs, Kill me, kill me if you can!
Day by day these teatime mortars
keep pecking at the blast wall that the boys
have grown so used to they just keep right on playing.
If they weren’t here in front of me, I’d find them
hard to imagine, just as I sometimes find
my own twin brother hard to imagine.
I’m supposed to be doing a story
on soldiers, what they do to keep from
being frightened, but all I can think about
is how Tim would chase me or I’d chase him
and we’d yell, I’m gonna kill you, just like
these brothers do, so alive in their bodies,
just as Tim who is so alive will one day not be:
will it be me or him who first dies?
But I came here to do a story on soldiers
and how they keep watching out for death
and manage to fight and die without going crazy—
the boys squat down to look at ants climbing
through corrugated bark, the wavering antennae
tapping up and down the tree reminding me
of the soldier across the barracks sitting
still inside himself, listening to his nerves
while his eyes peer out at something I can’t see—
when Achilles’ immortal mother came
to her grieving son, knowing he would soon
die, and gave him his armor and kept the worms
from the wounds of his dead friend, Patroclus, she,
a goddess, knew she wouldn’t be allowed
to keep those same worms from her son’s body.
I know I’m not his father, he’s not my son,
but he looks so young, young enough to be
my son—sitting on his bunk, watching out for death,
trying to fight and die without going crazy, he
reaches for his rifle, breaks it down,
dust cover, spring, bolt carrier with piston,
wiping it all down with a rag and oil,
cleaning it for the second time this hour
as shadows shifting through the pines
bury him and the little boys and Tim
and me in non-metaphorical, real life darkness
where I’m supposed to be doing a story.
Copyright © 2019 by Tom Sleigh. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 16, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
About this Poem
"Several years ago during a famine in Somalia, I was visiting feeding stations in Mogadishu accompanied by several young African Union soldiers from Burundi and Uganda. They took me with them on patrol in an armored vehicle as we made the rounds of Mogadishu where they'd been deployed to help in ‘peacekeeping operations’ against an Islamist militia called Al Shabaab, which means The Youth. The poem also picks up on some experiences I had when I was in Iraq just as ISIS was establishing itself. Through the reporter, the poem speculates what it means to think that the press is free, especially given the reporter’s status as an outsider, his fellow feeling for the soldiers, and the need to tell a ‘story’ for a worldwide media."
Tom Sleigh is the author of nine books of poetry, a translation of Euripides' Herakles, and a book of essays.
Date Published: 2019-03-16
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/youth