Published on Academy of American Poets (https://poets.org)


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.

Credit


Originally published in House of Fact, House of Ruin (Graywolf Press, 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Sleigh. Used with the permission of the poet.

Author


Tom Sleigh

Tom Sleigh is the author of nine books of poetry, a translation of Euripides' Herakles, and a book of essays. 

Date Published: 2018-01-01

Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/libyan-militia-member