Read an Excerpt
By Jehanne Dubrow
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2010 Jehanne Dubrow
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSECURE FOR SEA
It means the moveable stays tied.
Lockers hold shut. The waves don't slide
a metal box across the decks,
or scatter screws like jacks, the sea
like a rebellious child that wrecks
all tools which aren't fastened tightly
At home, we say secure
when what we mean is letting go
of him. And even if we're sure
he's coming back, it's hard to know:
the farther out a vessel drifts,
will contents stay in place, or shift?
ASSATEAGUE ISLAND, MARCH
We toss our coffee on the sand, watching
the liquid sink and fade to almost nothing
like disappearing ink. The wind disturbs
our tent flap, jostles the poles, sways the frame
so that I hope we cannot stay the night.
Why don't we leave? I ask. He shakes his head,
and in my borrowed sleeping bag I lie
awake, shiver beneath its summer weight,
curl myself into a question mark.
I listen, for hours, to the pace of waves
an irritant like sand inside a shoe.
He always shuts his eyes before I do.
He's slumped in front of the TV or pinned
by an opened book across his chest, and here
surrounded by the racket nature makes,
he rests, so deep asleep I don't exist.
At 8 a.m., we stand, roll up our beds.
I couldn't sleep at all, he says. Too cold,
though you seemed fine. I laugh. To think
of all those hours I listened for his breath
and he for mine, the air a frozen wing,
the wild ponies snuffling for food.
Goddamn our domesticity. At least
we should have sighed the other's name, or rubbed
together, tried burning like two broken sticks.
O' DARK HUNDRED
This is the hour that writers eulogize,
midnights when my husband guards his post
against monotony. Before sunrise,
this is the hour that writers eulogize.
In port, a sentry walks the deck, replies
all conditions normal, surveys the coast.
This is the hour that writers eulogize,
midnights when my husband guards his post.
I can imagine that he faces west,
the sky like a purple sail above the sea.
Somewhere a buoy creeks. Waves sink or crest,
and I imagine him. He faces west
to stand and watch and wait alone, the rest
of the crew asleep in the machinery.
I can imagine him. He's facing west,
the sky a purple sail above the sea.
My words are just reflections from the shore,
and the page, imperfect mirror of his ship,
where white lights blink above each metal door.
My words are just reflections. On the shore
there's radio silence—no talk of war,
only the sound of nothing, only the blip
of words reflecting distantly from shore,
and the page, imperfect mirror of his ship.
AFTER VISITING THE USS ANZIO
We walked the pier to see the cruiser, moored
with Kevlar lines thick as limbs, then came aboard,
where decks vibrated underneath the weight
of polished brass and perforated steel.
My husband pointed out the fire main
and cable run, explained scuttles and where
the ladders led. I don't remember much
he said, but only know he placed my hand
against a hatch to feel the engines tense,
the systems like a pulse inside my palm.
And then, the CIC, where it was calm
and quiet to the passageway—
he'll stand before the green displays of light,
evaluate a signal's frequency.
He'll chart trajectories and blips across
a screen. And all the ship will swallow him:
its hull, an ashy paint they call haze gray
(haze gray and under way, say the sailors,
kissing their wives good-bye), a silver gray
of knives, of mist which settles on the water,
a gray so like the moon, its surface strewn
with oceans, bays, and seas that tremble with
the burden of their wide tranquility.
Tonight we're kids again, all summers boring
as peacetime, our grown-up lives distant
like the barrel organ grinding through a song,
the revolution of the Ferris wheel.
If we look far enough beyond the strand,
we'll see your cruiser there, a blurred knife
that separates the water from its skin,
quiet as modern warfare often is.
Rocky road drips chocolate on your hands.
You lick each fingertip, gesture at a ship
so that it disappears behind your palm,
the naval station still within your reach,
so near we smell the breath of diesel fuel.
I would like to call it death, this thing that sticks
like marshmallows inside my mouth, gritty
with a thousand sharp particulates of sea.
You lead the puppy past the moored boat.
He nuzzles sand, runs to where the waves break,
snaps at lacquered fish that swim near shore.
You let him off the leash, because you like
to see the freedom of a loosened thing,
a ball releasing from a hand, a voice
untying from the collar of the throat.
Each day you walk a little farther, then bring
him home to me, his tail a muddy spike,
his body soggy as a kitchen mop.
We don't wring him dry but watch him shake
the ocean out, watch him rub his face across
the carpet until he falls asleep, sopping,
curled tightly as a seashell on the floor.
Montgomery County, Md.
It's light above. Below,
inside the red-line metro,
the evening never sheds itself for day,
but curves into a passageway,
a universe of fang and tail.
We're lit by bulbs whose pale
fluorescent eyes shine on, unblinkingly.
The third rail sibilates with electricity.
—stand frozen by a sound, the drone
of trains, sidewinders sliding through
blue corridors, steel sinew
stretched to breaking,
their scales aluminum
instead of skin.
Warm-blooded creatures don't belong
so deeply underground. We aren't strong
enough to fight the rattlesnake,
the way it coils into wire, then slowly shakes
its body as it strikes.
We wait. The subway hisses like
A shadow-monster slithers down the track.
LOVE IN THE TIME OF COALITION
He whispers weapons of mass destruction
against the sand dune of her skin. She's toxin.
She's liquid sarin. She's pure plutonium.
Her tracers burn and dim and burn again.
As last resort, he holds a congressional inquiry
about her lips. Have you no sense of decency,
he asks her body's gulf. She's marsh and salt,
alluvial. She's Tigris and Euphrates.
He never finds an answer for her sleep,
more sudden than shrapnel, or for her waking,
sharper than a dust storm in the desert. She's dry
instead, made empty as a wadi,
waiting for rainfall to fill her watercourse
and for the nights to carve a temporary truce.
Imagine this: salt water scrubbing sand
into my husband's skin,
his fingers pale anemones, his hands
turned coral reef, and in
his eyes the nacreous pearls of Ariel.
This could be my husband, drowning in the swell.
A sea change means a shift, a change of heart,
and how the oceans turn
glass shards into a jewel, rip apart
familiar things. Waves churn.
The surf is a liquid body that peels
a carrier from bow to stern, the keel
bent back, steel bands pliable as kelp.
And long before I wake,
the sailors drown. No point in calling help.
Each night, my husband shakes
me out of sleep. I cannot reach for him
or drag him to the surface so he'll swim.
WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT
what the fuck?
Foxtrot the Navy, I yell into the phone,
the first time that my husband groans deployed,
a word we've waited for since war began
four years ago.
[Let whiskey slide as slow
as bullets down my throat. Let foxtrot be
both verb and noun.]
Foxtrot the Navy,
I say again but softer than before,
as if the whisper of a dance could keep
[I need a shot of whiskey just
to take the news, a song in 2/4 time
and rhinestone shoes.]
Foxtrot, I sigh—
third time's the charm in everything but war,
oh ugly, big sublime. I'm buzzing with
[Call in the dancing girls,
the boys who swallow slugs from jerricans,
moonshine sloshed to the brim of each canteen.
Let whiskey taste toxic as benzene.]
The dog and I are first among those things
that will not be deployed with him. Forget
civilian clothes as well. He shouldn't bring
too many photographs, which might get wet,
the faces blurred. He only needs a set
of uniforms. Even his wedding ring
gives pause (what if it fell?—he'd be upset
to dent or scratch away the gold engraving).
The seabag must be light enough to sling
across his shoulder, weigh almost nothing,
each canvas pocket emptied of regret.
The trick is packing less. No wife, no pet,
no perfumed letters dabbed with I-love-yous,
or anything he can't afford to lose.
In the swimming pool, my husband is a stone
that cannot float—he's made for running
through our neighborhood, which leads him down
to where the concrete goes to gravel, then turns
to harrowed fields at the edge of town,
where wind pushes through the corn,
and the crow that drags itself up sounds like a man
drowning. All things sound like drowning if you listen.
There are other guys who sink, the ones grown
up in cinder-block cities who have never seen
the beach, or the ones like my husband, too thin
for buoyancy. They have learned to inflate their own
shirts, blow bubbles of air in the sleeves, fasten
the limbs together, a raft that holds them on
the surface long enough. After a deepwater jump, then
a fifty-yard swim, the sailors lie prone.
They're flotsam drifting in the ocean.
The hardest part is playing dead, to be broken,
inert, when what the body wants is motion,
to kick like a sprinter toward the finish line,
at least to tread water, not to breathe it in.
A SHORT STUDY OF CATASTROPHE
We're arguing about his death again.
Because all men are fools, he swears
I won't be anywhere near the fighting.
I try to laugh but can't, imagining
the photographs of Humvees overturned
like dead roaches, so burned their shells curl back
to show the offal packed inside. Guys die
just driving from the base. The fucking place
is cursed, I say. It's hard remaining calm.
Each conversation holds a roadside bomb,
a sniper in the window, insurgents on
the ground below. Tell me. How did the Greeks
learn beauty from that sudden turn we call
catastrophe?—the king disposed with three
quick blows, the wailing child, the wife,
and always then the falling falling knife.
AGAINST WAR MOVIES
I see my husband shooting in Platoon,
and there he is again in M*A*S*H (how weird
to hear him talk like Hawkeye Pierce), and soon
I spot him everywhere, his body smeared
with mud, his face bloodied. He's now the star
of every ship blockade and battle scene—
The Fighting 69th, A Bridge Too Far,
Three Kings, Das Boot, and Stalag 17.
In Stalingrad he's killed, and then
he's killed in Midway and A Few Good Men.
He's burned or gassed, he's shot between the eyes,
or shoots himself when he comes home again.
Each movie is a training exercise,
a scenario for how my husband dies.
BEFORE THE DEPLOYMENT
He kisses me before he goes. While I,
still dozing, half-asleep, laugh and rub my face
against the sueded surface of the sheets,
thinking it's him I touch, his skin beneath
my hands, my body curving in to meet
his body there. I never hear him leave.
But I believe he shuts the bedroom door,
as though unsure if he should change his mind,
pull off his boots, crawl beneath the blankets
left behind, his hand a heat against my breast,
our heart rates slowing into rest. Perhaps
all good-byes should whisper like a piece of silk—
and then the quick surprise of waking, alone
except for the citrus ghost of his cologne.
READING STEPHEN CRANE'S
"WAR I S KIND " TO MY HUSBAND
I packed your seabag
today: six pairs
of pants, shirts folded in
their rigid squares,
your socks balled up
like tan grenades.
I put my photo in
as well, laid
it there between
the Kevlar vest and heap
of clothes. Don't weep,
the poet warns, don't weep.
On 60 Minutes,
a soldier turns
his face toward us, shows
the camera his burns,
small metal slivers still
the skin, his mouth a scrap
of ragged tin.
The young man's face
was beautiful before,
smooth, unblemished as
my own. For war
is kind, I read. Great is
and great the auguries,
the firing squad,
Excerpted from STATESIDE by Jehanne Dubrow Copyright © 2010 by Jehanne Dubrow. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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