One table is jeweled in Special Forces-style Pakistani knives–
black, light-sponging blades that open
with a thumb-flick. On another table, fake Rolexes
with Japanese gearings, neatly rowed and columned,
glass lenses tinted pale blue in their bezels
to resemble sapphire, identical watch bands anodized
in metallic colors. I wander through the clamor
of airmen and merchants haggling over cheap wares,
through the teeming crowd in desert fatigues and robes,
past a booth where handbags hang like carnival dolls
and the colors of a rainbow slinky jump from hand to hand.
Even as I push past cellophaned DVDs
with movies recorded last week by shaky camcorders,
ink bleeding through their photoshopped covers
a merchant calls after me. Special price for you three for ten dollar!
Then, desperate, Four for ten! Cheaper than Wal-Mart!
but he has nothing for me. He has no salve
for not being at my Mother's bedside.
Nothing hidden in the silver tubes that contain Cuban cigars,
no hope that she will be there when I return.
But, there. I see it. The thing I can give her
in place of myself. On a table with no others
like it, a red oil perfume dropper bottle. Holding it,
I see the glass stopper’s neck has been
sandblasted for a seal. How the dauber slips into it,
occluding all air.
The gold leaf zagging around its perimeter
threatens to chip, but other than that it’s perfect.
than the real thing.
The commander allows the Kuwaitis onto the base every fourth Saturday,
caravanning in their Isuzu pickups to the rear of the white prefab building.
Fathers in their white linens and ghutrahs rest on boxes and smoke
brown beadie cigarettes while their sons truck kitsch inside
to arrange on doilied card tables.
Before duty, I sit with hajji on a slat-board crate. He pinches a beadie
from the pocket of his dishdasha, holds it out to me.
As the sun gathers from its puddle of gas over the sand
we smoke and watch his youngest son thread in and out.
Sauntering around the corner of a nearby cargo container–then between us–
the angular stray cat the airmen call ‘Joe’ curls against my leg,
and as I pet the feline between me and hajji, I am afraid.
I have seen video from a soldier’s phone
of a cat lapping a poisoned sugar cube from a Kuwaiti’s hand,
who laughed offscreen as its body hitched and seized
then, raising his booted leg,
caved in its ribs there in the dusty street.
Even if I knew how, nothing I say could change a thing.
Hajji sees me, and I wonder if my sadness for what we call animal shows.
Hajji reaches his arm into the seat of his truck for a folded paper box,
untucks a flank of seasoned chicken
which he shreds to a cottony bulb on his knee,
then gathers it into his palm. Nods to Joe, then me.
Sprinkles it like gold dust into my hand.
Two weeks home, an email from the Commander.
Police in San Juan found him with fourteen bullet holes, floating face down,
knocking against a pier’s waterlogged timbers.
I jog for hours, pounding my grief on Carbondale’s sidewalks,
sweating it out. How we met as bunkmates.
The first night I heard him, muffled cries above me.
He saw it in my face the day after, in formation,
and I never saw his hump-knuckled suckerpunch, which came in low,
doubling me over, though I was larger,
and he, easy to place in a crosspin. Then he chopped at my ankles
and took me off my feet.
If I could tell him anything it’s that you never get the grace
of picking who it is you love.
That same dusty night we broke out the hooch he made from apple juice,
ketchup, and yeast rolls pocketed in his cargo pants
and plunked in Gatorade bottles, fermenting in a slit cut in his mattress.
We walked the base’s sandy perimeter
in a parched ghost of light, bathed in orange,
chasing each slug of hooch with a red gummy bear as he told me
he sent his paychecks to his Mother and three brothers without opening them.
It went this way the months we were there,
walking on the paved roads where our bootprints wouldn’t give us away,
him telling me about his Mother, who sewed clothes to support his brothers.
How a wrecking ball’s overstrained cable snapped,
sending the ball plummeting to earth, and whipped his Father in half.
Joseph, I think of you often. How we throw our hurt
into each other like a fist, are confused enough to love when it is not returned.
I’m still pounding it out, sweating my memories of you.
Hazardous materials training on the tarmac. Eight hours before
the next C-5 would touch down. It was a buck-twenty outside and you
were my partner in the simulated chlorine leak exercise.
Both of us in orange, airtight level A suits. Two layers between us
and clean air so if your tank ran dry,
you could pass out before anyone got to you. I measured your entry vitals
on the clipboard and noted your anxiety in how many Pepsis
you drank that day, your hummingbird pulse.
I kept your claustrophobia secret. When we began our mission
to plug the punctured fifty-five gallon barrel, I was just getting the chains
to secure the overpack the moment you reared the mallet over the bung,
and your eyes rolled to the heavens, knees buckled, and when
you slipped to the ground my heart beat a hole in my chest that no hands could fill.
I ripped the zipper down as if you were a breeched baby
suffocating in the womb. Your hot, dry skin, rough as a cat’s tongue.
Slit from the suit, I laid you out, flat on your back,
ringed by at least twenty airmen. Your eyes cracked open.
Smiling up at me, barely conscious, a thin stream of vomit
at the corner of your mouth. As you clutched at words like maple seeds, spinning.
everyone learned your nickname for me.
Jonathan Travelstead served in the Air Force National Guard for six years as a firefighter and currently works as a full-time firefighter for the city of Murphysboro. He received his MFA in Poetry from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and when not on duty, he backpacks twice each year in Central America and Europe, and works on an old dirt-bike he hopes will get him to Peru in February.
Q: Even as the wars in Afghanistan and the region continue, the voices of writers emerging from the front have been many and strong. What does your generation have to say to the wartime poets and writers of the past?
A: If you catch me chuckling as I write this, it’s only because it’s strange to be placed in the position where one is supposed to speak for a generation. In spite of that, anything we had to say to the wartime poets that have gone before us would have to begin with gratitude for carving a trench through the madness that the service-person doesn’t create, but must take a part in. Also for showing us how sometimes the theater of conflict is best examined by focusing the reader away from its immediacy, and to its speaker’s tensions. Robert Graves, Yusef Komunyakaa, Brian Turner–these are personally indispensable poets that have given me guidance not only in how to broach such topics, but also in craft. For myself being overseas, my own struggles were more about the distance between my Mother and I at the time, and learning to accept the narrowing distance between yourself and others when you share experiences in a place far from home. If we were to say anything else, I’m wondering if it wouldn't be a mea culpa for not finding ways for our poems to remain poems, and still sound a barbaric yawp loud enough about what we saw over there.
Q: Your line “If I could tell him anything it’s that you never get the grace/of picking who it is you love” made us think of the Robert Frost line, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, /They have to take you in.” Any thoughts?
A: First off, I love that poem [“The Death of the Hired Man”], as much for such a movement as for its timed delivery within the narrative. As a reader, I am engaged in the quick jabs of dialogue, and, like boxing’s allegorical forgotten arm, there’s this sudden no-nonsense TKO-of-a-line and suddenly you have a goose egg rising on your forehead. These moments are the holy grails I aspire toward in poetry–not interpretations the speaker takes you by the hand and leads you to– but these ruptures from scene to an enlightenment, and it’s his authenticity that gets me there.
Q: Would you consider yourself a poet of the spring, summer, winter or fall? What
season is most apt to be reflected in your work, and why do you think that’s the case?
A: I wouldn’t say I’m so much a poet of a season as I am a poet of a climate or temperature. The poems in the issue are mostly in the desert, and what I’ve been working on most recently is kindled from my occupation as a city firefighter, so I would have to say either ‘summer’ or ‘centigrade.’
Q: When this issue appears, you indicated that you might be on the road to Peru–did you get that motorcycle running? Tell us about your journey.
A: Still chuckling. Indeed I did, and then I didn’t. The relationship I have with my motorcycle is a temperamental one, and I have the stereotypical male’s attitude towards my partner–if the clutch cable only needs some tender love and care, I tend to try to fix it with a hammer, and, more often when it is working just fine, I tend to want to do something foolish like reroute the wiring or lower the handlebars in the triple tree just to see how the steering geometry is affected. In short, I think I still have enough to learn in the saddle and the shop before I set out on a journey down the Great Divide. As for the trip? I’m still going, but I’ll be taking a flight, and then counting on my fiancee to catch us every chicken bus through Patagonia all the way to Cuzco.