A WEST POINT
What a Hermit Heard
Himalayan winds whip the heights above.
He lingers in the doorway,
tilts his head to see the monsoon clouds.
The low hut huddles down around him,
drawing warmth from him, vitality.
It stretches rafters, gables, walls towards him
as chilly hands stretch towards the fire.
A new wind slinks through the bamboo brakes
downslope from the silent hut.
And as the sun sinks past the blue-bleak peaks,
the young man with the trembling hand
turns inside and lights the night's first candle.
He wraps his dusty cloak around, clasps it at his waist,
sits down, straightens, slits his eyes, then waits.
Stillness fades to quiet fades to silence.
To a void of sound.
To nothing, nothing.
Then the void is broken
--by the whispered rasp of breakers
when the shore is still two sandy miles away.
--by a deadly tiger purring hunting
swiftly down a jungled brookbed.
By his breath.
is an ocean of power and destruction.
is a tiger's growl-cunning and malevolent.
.As he listens to his lifesound,
the first tendrils of fear break free.
They draw jackfrost patterns, jackfrost names
on his belly's nighted windowpanes.
Now is the season
when each floating day
brings the ships that mark the water.
Churning slowly, tireless upon the wave
that rises crests and,
as though with the help
of the trident of the deep,
nestles back into its fields of kelp.
Pushing forward, parting seas.
From beneath a silent black cloud,
calling dolphins with its murmur.
Bow up and bulging, contents proud,
yet dangerous, unholy water,
separated from the pure by a thin line
of metal and bolts together.
Onward with time on their side.
Dashed-broken, ripped open
to spill a sea into the sea.
Clouds grow and change shape
a spectacle to behold, our souls to keep,
expanding its collection like a plague
that spills over jagged edges
of sheared ship and torn blueprints.
The dolphins jump the flotsam, like hedges
waist deep in liquid death.
Dolphins bathing in the poison
splash the fluid and shriek
at the water of the season.
The childlike dolphins swim,
oblivious to the possibility
of attempting a futile escape.
Birds rest, accepting death's responsibility
into their feathers as deeply
as the crude, soaked-in.
Penetrated, soiled, smiling
a manatee wanders in.
Following the winding trail
of black foreign-ness, he glides forth,
earning the sea cow name
mouth open, willing as a slaughtered calf.
A cormorant flaps his heavy wings
a nearby snail feels the thick
black drops of residue,
oozing from above, slow, death quick.
Too beautiful, rainbow pattern!
Filling our sky with the swirling colors
transformed too quickly to war clouds,
attacking, no revolt, save a starfish holding tight
From Anima Sonnets
"The whole nature of man presupposes woman."
from untitled Vietnam sequence
Sludging our way through slimy muck
We know we can't let our minds wander.
The sultry heat surrounds us, suffocating in its thickness
Filling our lungs
Settling in our bones - making us move like slugs.
Carrying our rifles at almost "ready position,"
We use them to help slash our way
through dense underbrush.
Our platoon leader raises a closed fist.
We immediately stop.
Then softly patting the air with an open palm,
he shows us to take
cover silently. In the silky threads of the setting sun
sifting through spaces in the leaves of trees overhead
he looks like an armored angel
come from heaven to protect us.
Everything I knew
I learned from Mary Astor:
hummingbird hands disguised
a trigger finger
sure enough to plug
Spade's partner with a .45
to burn his coat.
From Barbara Stanwyck,
fire that second shot
and Bette Davis,
who always could,
stalking lovers down the steps
of steaming bungalows,
up the grand staircase of Deception.
I learned to shoot from Dietrich,
bargaining for love
in a Travis Banton gown.
All this, deep
in the Pandora's Box
of only-child Saturday nights
blood red in black & white--
reached for pawnshop .38s
concealed in overcoats,
under sofa cushions,
shot and tossed away.
and lambent shadows
dissolve into a gun club's
haze of powder,
grease traps dirt
in the creases of my palms.
at cardboard perpetrators,
my dead eye
in fetish-Nazis all got up
in military surplus,
wanting to find
in a .45's kick
an elemental masculinity;
wanting to be the soldier
who brought me.
One Cadet's Response
Countless workshops. Daily excursions into the life of the meditative mind. Forty lessons. Two guest poets. One poetic trek through the urban canyons of New York City. What does it all add up to? How has one semester of poetry and meditation made a difference in the lives of twenty-three future Army officers? Somehow, we seem to come back to that question every lesson, a deep searching to rationalize to ourselves why we took this course rather than Multivariable Calculus or Comparative Political Systems. Yet, looking back six months, I can begin to see an unconscious and unfulfilled longing for what poetry and meditation offer. There was something missing in my West Point education--a different kind of learning, a knowledge that cannot be accumulated, compartmentalized, and ultimately discarded.
In "Sunday Afternoons," poet Yusef Komunyakaa writes of a man running from himself. It occurred to me that a majority of cadets seem to be running from themselves, afraid to examine the simplest, but most important questions: Who am I and where am I going? Instead, cadets live from assignment to assignment, task to task. As a new cadet, the first lesson learned is survival. One doesn't have to excel at anything. Rather, one only has time to do the bare minimum in all tasks to avoid reprimand. Competing demands on one's time force out the "unessential" tasks of personal enrichment, creativity and reading. The hyperactivity of the cadet schedule leaves little or no time for necessary reflection and contemplation.
In The Educated Imagination, author Northrup Frye insists that the truth "never speaks unless we take the time to listen in leisure, and it speaks in a voice too quiet for panic to hear." This course has forced me, unwillingly at times, to set aside time every week to listen for the voice that panic cannot hear.
People have given me some weird looks when I tell them I am taking a poetry course at a military academy. Since the Army is physically demanding, shouldn't I focus less on exploring my creativity and more on tactics, they argue. Indeed, tactics and tough military training are essential to professional development throughout a career as a commissioned officer. However, the United States Military Academy exists to produce leaders. The Army expects that West Point leaders enforce tough standards while remaining compassionate.
Poetry and meditation teach self-discovery, which leads to compassion. The discipline of writing and reading poetry have been my searchlight into the darkness. Seamus Heaney began a sonnet with the words, "All I know is a door into the dark." Since the first lesson of compassion is to understand and accept oneself, poetry and meditation become a gateway towards the necessary officer trait of compassion and empathy.
The last picture I put in our family album is a black and white 8 X 10 of yours truly (looking my age, weight and delight) standing in front of a blank gray stone wall with 18 West Point cadets in dress uniform. Looking at the picture now, only a couple of weeks since it was presented to me by one of the cadets as a memento of our "trip-section" (field-trip) tour of the poetry world of Manhattan, I smile, remembering that day, and I am filled with gratitude. In Spring, 2000 I taught two sections of an elective course officially titled, "Poems," at the U.S. Military Academy. Much of the reading was on a course web-site, "Contemplation with the Muse," which I designed with several colleagues and the financial support of a Contemplative Practices Fellowship. What a delight it was to work with these young people.
Our course combined poetry reading and writing, regular meditation, and keeping a journal, and we spent several hours of class time discussing the cadets' poems in workshop. We began each class meeting (with the exception of the last few meetings of one section) with five minutes of meditation in the darkened classroom. For the rest of the time, we thought together about poetry. Although some of them wrote only the poems assigned and meditated for only the specified amount of time outside of class, several discovered important things about themselves and the world through contemplation, and quite a few of them uncovered a gift for poetry.
Many, if not most of the poets whose work appeared in the first two thirds of one of our anthologies, J.C. McClatchy's Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, served in the military during WWII and in Korea, yet military service is seldom listed in the biographical lists of honors earned by the later, younger poets. I know of only a handful who served in Vietnam. I don't know of any at all who served in Desert Storm. Soldiering and what Etheridge Knight used to call "poeting" do seem to be miles and miles and miles and miles apart. Yet Randall Jarrell, William Meredith, Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur, James Dickey, and others were soldier-poets. As were the Vietnamese poets I heard read last summer at the Joiner Center poetry workshops. As was Nguyen Duy, whom I heard read just last month. As was General Patton.
It is my great pleasure to introduce the work of my Poetry Cadets, selected with the assistance of my colleague, Elizabeth Samet. I hope we'll see more of their work in the next ten or twenty years.
University of Connecticut
Marilyn Nelson's third book, The Homeplace(L.S.U. Press), was a
finalist for the 1991 National Book Award and won the 1992
Annisfield-Wolf Award. Her fifth book, The Fields of Praise: New and
Selected Poems (L.S.U.Press), was a finalist for the 1997 National
Book Award and won the 1998 Poets' Prize. A new book, Carver, will be
published in 2001. She teaches at the University of Connecticut (Storrs).