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Love in the Time of War
The jawbone of an ass. A shank braided with shark teeth. A garrote. A shepherd’s sling. A jagged stone that catches light & makes warriors dance to a bull-roarer’s lamentation. An obsidian ax. A lion-skin drum & reed flute. A nightlong prayer to gods stopped at the mouth of a cave.
The warrior-king summons one goddess after another to his bloodstained pallet. If these dear ones live inside his head they still dress his wounds with balms & sacred leaves, & kiss him back to strength, back to a boy.
Gilgamesh’s Humbaba was a distant drum pulsing among the trees, a slave to the gods, a foreign tongue guarding the sacred cedars down to a pale grubworm in the tower before Babel. Invisible & otherworldly, he was naked in the king’s heart, & his cry turned flies into maggots & blood reddened the singing leaves.
When Gilgamesh said Shiduri, a foreplay of light was on the statues going to the river between them & the blinding underworld. She cleansed his wounds & bandaged his eyes at the edge of reason, & made him forget birthright, the virgins in their bridal beds.
Here, the old masters of Shock & Awe huddle in the war room, talking iron, fire & sand, alloy & nomenclature. Their hearts lag against the bowstring as they daydream of Odysseus’s bed. But to shoot an arrow through the bull’s-eye of twelve axes lined up in a row is to sleep with one’s eyes open. Yes, of course, there stands lovely Penelope like a trophy, still holding the brass key against her breast. How did the evening star fall into that room? Lost between plot & loot, the plucked string turns into a lyre humming praises &curses to the unborn.
The Mameluke—slave & warrior—springs out of dust & chance, astride his horse at sunrise, one with its rage & gallop, wedded to its flanks & the sound of hooves striking clay & stone, carried into the sway of desert grass. His double-edged saber bloodies valleys & hills, a mirage, till he arrives at a gate of truth in myth: for a woman to conceive in this place & time, she must be in the arms of a warrior riding down through the bloody ages, over bones of the enemy in the sand & along the river in a sultan’s dream, till their child is born on horseback.
They swarmed down over the town & left bodies floating in the ditches & moats. Bloated with silence, blue with flies on the rooftops.
They gave the children candy made of honey & nuts, scented with belladonna to weed out the weak. Bundles of silk rolled out like a rainbow for the women.
On the wild forgetful straw beds they created a race, a new tongue to sing occidental prayers & regrets.
Their camphor lanterns mastered darkness. All the taboos of lovemaking were broken. Soon, laughter rose again from the fields.
My wide hips raised two warriors from sweat & clay, blood sonata & birth cry. I said anger & avarice, & they called themselves Cain & Abel. I said gold, & they opened up the earth. I said love, & they ventured east & west, south & north. I said evil, & they lost themselves in reflected rivers.
After scrimmages across Asia Minor & guarding kingly ransom in the Horn of Africa, my sons journeyed home to peasant bread & salt meat, to whorish doubts & wonder, but when I flung my arms open at the threshold they came to me as unseasoned boys.
Hand-to-hand: the two hugged each other into a naked tussle, one riding the other’s back, locked in a double embrace. One forced the other to kiss the ground, as he cursed & bit into an earlobe. They shook beads of dew off the grass. One worked his fingers into the black soil, & could feel a wing easing out of his scapula.
That night, the lucky one who gripped a stone like Mercury weighing the planet in his palm, who knew windfall & downfall, he fell against his sweetheart again & again, as if holding that warrior in his arms, & couldn’t stop himself from rising off the earth. Tribe. Clan. Valley & riverbank. Country. Continent. Interstellar aborigines. Squad. Platoon. Company. Battalion. Regiment. Hive & swarm. Colony. Legend. Laws. Ordinances. Statutes. Grid coordinates. Maps. Longitude. Latitude. Property lines drawn in unconsecrated dust. Sextant & compass. Ledger. Loyalty oath. Therefore. Hereinbefore. Esprit de corps. Lock & load. Bull’s-eye. Maggie’s drawers. Little Boy. Fat Man. Circle in the eye. Bayonet. Skull & Bone. Them. Body count. Thou & I. Us. Honey. Darling. Sweetheart, was I talking war in my sleep again? Come closer. Yes, place your head against my chest. The moon on a windowsill. I want to stitch up all your wounds with kisses, but I also know that sometimes the seed is hurting for red in the soil. Sometimes. Sometimes I hold you like Achilles’ shield, your mouth on mine, my trembling inside your heart & sex.
The drummer’s hands were bloody. The players of billowy bagpipes marched straight into the unblinking muzzle flash. The fife player conjured a way to disappear inside himself: The bullets zinged overhead & raised dust devils around his feet. He crossed a river.
Bloodstained reeds quivered in the dark. He rounded a hedgerow thick with blooms & thorns. Some lone, nameless bird fell in tune with his fife, somewhere in the future, & he saw a blue nightgown fall to the floor of an eye-lit room.
Tonight, the old hard work of love has given up. I can’t unbutton promises or sing secrets into your left ear tuned to quivering plucked strings.
No, please. I can’t face the reflection of metal on your skin & in your eyes, can’t risk weaving new breath into war fog. The anger of the trees is rooted in the soil.
Let me drink in your newly found river of sighs, your way with incantations. Let me see if I can’t string this guitar & take down your effigy of moonlight from the cross, the dogwood in bloom printed on memory’s see-through cloth.
When our hands caress bullets & grenades, or linger on the turrets & luminous wings of reconnaissance planes, we leave glimpses of ourselves on the polished hardness. We surrender skin, hair, sweat, & fingerprints. The assembly lines hum to our touch, & the grinding wheels record our laments & laughter into the bright metal.
I touch your face, your breasts, the flower holding a world in focus. We give ourselves to each other, letting the workday slide away. Afterwards, lying there facing the sky, I touch the crescent-shaped war wound. Yes, the oldest prayer is still in my fingertips.
A bottle-nosed dolphin swims midnight water with plastic explosives strapped to her body. A black clock ticks in her half-lit brain. Brighter than some water-headed boy in a dream, she calls from the depths. The voice of her trainer, a Navy Seal, becomes a radio wave guiding her to the target. One eye is asleep & the other is the bright side of the moon.
The trainer & his wife sway to the rise & fall of their water bed, locked in each other’s arms. They’re taken down into a breathless country where Neptune wrestles the first & last siren, to where a shadow from that other world torpedoes along like a fat, long bullet.
Someone’s beating a prisoner. Someone’s counting red leaves falling outside a clouded window in a secret country. Someone holds back a river, but the next rabbit jab makes him piss on the stone floor. The interrogator orders the man to dig his grave with a teaspoon.
The one he loves, her name died last night on his tongue. To revive it, to take his mind off the electric wire, he almost said, There’s a parrot in a blue house that knows the password, a woman’s name.
His name is called. A son’s lost voice hovers near a fishing hole in August. His name is called. A lover’s hand disturbs a breath of summer cloth. His name is called a third time, but his propped-up boots & helmet refuse to answer. The photo remains silent, & his name hangs in the high rafters.
She tenderly hugs the pillow, whispering his name. The dog rises beside the bedroom door & wanders to the front door, & stands with its head cocked, listening for a name in a dead language.
Excerpted from Warehouses by Yusef Komunyakaa.
Copyright © 2008 by Yusef Komunyakaa.
Published in 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.