Thursday, March 02, 2006

Letter from the Shore of the Dragon River [a poem in four parts]

1. Letter from the Shore of the Dragon River

So news of you finally reaches me here
on the shore where we used to run and play.
I heard that you had crossed Mekong River
to seek refuge in the land of the Thai.

I heard they put you in a cattle pen
and for a year fed you left-over scraps,
that you lived in little shanties of sticks,
drank water from wells dug next to shitholes.

Now they tell me that you have flown
in a metal eagle into the land of giants.
Are they like in the stories we heard--
do they feed you till you are fat to eat?

Here on the shore of the Dragon River,
nothing has changed, except for your presence.
The river flows calmly in blue summer
and brings raging yellow monsoon currents.

2. In the House of Karst

From my bedroll in this little corner--
my own private space--of the cavern,
I see countless false stars reflect the flame
of my little candle that tries to turn

the gloom of this void into truenight.
I sit here and try to form my thoughts
into a shape, a glowing messenger arrow
that will transcend the vast night sky:

This past season of rain and storms,
monsoon currents turned the Dragon River yellow
and landslides tore the hillsides open
like fresh wounds, our enemies became

our rulers; they overturned heaven
and earth, and drove the survivors into caverns
under the rock mountains
we call the houses of karst. Here in the cool,

vast rooms we share with bats, life is endless
night--the eternal night of the cavern
and the truenights outside that our killers
leave us to roam, and yearn for the day.

3. Sky Soldier on a Mountaintop

From among the broadleaf banana field,
I pressed warm metal trigger,
raising death among the enemy camp
just as they sat down to lunch.

[When the enemy came to burn us out of the caverns
where we had taken refuge, I came here to join
the Sky Soldiers, hoping their holy rituals
of invincibility would protect me as I learned to kill.]

Today, I squeezed off hundreds of rounds,
as easily as dropping deads of sweat.
I am a wise old man at fifteen,
knowing that death is nothing.

On the site that is the enemy's compound,
frenzy and confusion reigned.
Our bullets hit some, but most
died from their own blind artillery.

The sound of their cries, interrupted
by occasional artillery rounds, was at first chilling;
but the further we ran, the less distinct
they became--they could be mistaken for cries of joy.

It's almost dark now as I sit here
on the top of our mountain and watch
them come to gather their dead
and carry them off like ants trailing back to their nest.

I sit here and watch the Dragon River curve
like a silver ribbon towards you and the setting sun,
smell the sweet oder of burnt flesh,
and wait for the wind to turn.

4. The Cuban Advisor in the Jungle

I only have twelve bullets,
one for each approaching man.
Aim for the chest,
he stops and clutches
the red patch spreading.
Aim for the head,
he drops like a full sack.
Then comes the Cuban Advisor--
a dark giant half again as tall as the men
he leads, with arms big as thighs,
carrying double pistols.
A shot to the chest only makes him flinch.
A bellyshot only makes him pause.
It takes nine bullets,
from groin to neck,
to drop him in front of me.
I am surprised to see how young,
how surprised he is to be
dying in this dense jungle so far
yet so like his tropical island

Note: With the victory of the Communists in Laos in 1975, Cuban and Russian advisors came to help "develop" the country. They were surprised to find the war far from over as the Chaofa (Sky Lords/Soldiers) took to the jungles and started a decades-long guerilla war.

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