Site design: Skeleton
Sample Poems by Robert Hill Long
Strapped with a boy's lipstick-red guitar, this whitebeard
plays a last set for tips in a near-empty joint.
His longhair-boy band used to play Camp LeJeune, Fort Bragg--
head-shaved kids, beer-drunk, gung-ho, Saigon-bound. He fired
airbursts of feedback to shake them up, they yelled Fag
but sang along. Four hoarse hours later, pacified,
they called him Brother, packed his amp, shared killer weed,
girlfriend pics. Then flew off to join the body count,
or the amputees, or the ones with no visible scar
who zipped the war in their skin like a body bag
and came home to long nights, bunkered in the corner bar.
That's their whitehaired brother Orpheus who points
his red weapon at shadows, and sings, We were all gods
once. And fires the last note into the back of their heads.
They're target-shooting, the old brothers, in a country dump,
like the days before Older
joined to the Army to gain access to bigger guns,
like 155 artillery, with which he cratered the Ho Chi Minh Trail
day and night. He's deaf enough
to be unbothered by a black powder musket beneath his ear.
See the lid of that washing machine? Boom. It rattles, drops.
They've killed appliances
since each was a boy with the same squirrel rifle handed down
three generations. Older is a stockbroker, Younger a poet,
God bless the Second Amendment
that legitimizes brothers in arms--without a rural dump strewn
with hard targets,what the hell would they talk about?
The fizz of Moscato d'Asti?
The test scores of their progeny? Younger packs a CAR-15
--no full automatic rock'n'roll, just squeeze squeeze pop pop,
2800 feet per second velocity.
Whatever it pierces is poignant through and through: it bores
a fleshy hole and pinballs against bone until spent. Hell of a metaphor,
concedes Older, aiming at
a nine inch TV. Take that, Captain Kangaroo. Younger targets a radio
whose last broadcast began Hiyo, Silver! Pop goes a glass tube,
a second--he can name them:
12ax7, 6v6--being a poet means naming each thing you kill.
If Zorro and Sergeant Garcia rode up, he says, I'd smoke their asses too.
Older booms a bigger TV.
We're fucked, he says, We're who we wanted to kill. Younger searches
the free-fire zone for a target to determine who buys barbecue.
Look, a Healthy Heart
refrigerator magnet! He fixes it to a 44 post twenty paces
past all they've shot so far. He wouldn't be surprised to turn
and find himself crosshaired
by Older's grin: boom, one less vote against taxing the rich.
But how wonderful black powder smells, Concord, Lexington,
rolling thunder of a brass band
playing The World Turned Upside Down at Yorktown.
Strayed a bit right, Older admits: the slug struck nowhere
he can see; his good ear rings.
Younger steps up. Out there, tacked to a post skinny as his spine
is his own death. Last man I killed with that gun, Older muses,
was running down a dirt road
near Bien Hoa. Why didn't he dive into the ditch, or zigzag?
He was running home, I think. The bullets kicked up dust
beyond him, so I figured
I'd missed until patrol located him--he'd bled out running.
The brothers survive in a vortex of cicadas, longleaf pines,
trailer trash, boom boom. By now
some Highway Patrol trooper napping behind a billboard
extolling Big John 3:16 For God So Loved the World
has radioed for backup,
and now South Carolina's black-and-grays smoke blacktop
toward what they imagine a domestic dispute gone terminal.
Younger has the heart in his sights--
it drifts left, rises, falls. Take a deep breath, hold it, squeeze.
Done. They walk together toward the surrogate of affection.
A boom-splat a bit right
as prophesied, a smaller hole piercing left and above.
Not so bad, Younger offers. Could have done better, Older rebuts.
While highway troopers clusterfuck
interstate to interdict their non-emergency, they load the Cadillac
with guns they'll never outgrow. Like pinot gris? Older asks.
We drink that, Younger says,
on what you call the Left Coast. Good, Older says, I bought
a case. But not for you, he says--thumbing the cruise control,
dialing in The Righteous Brothers
on the oldies station, waving at the black-and-grays screaming past--
Half that case, mofo, he says, is mine.
The woman dices onion, red onion from an island
she'll never visit, to give herself an excuse. The man
reclines, canes balanced on his chair arms
like a pirate's crossbones. The island's two hours away
by air. "Nothing to it," his old army buddy told her:
"Jump the puddle, taxi to the casino door, the overture begins."
But he refuses to parade his disease there,
though some nights he pounds one cane against the other
like a pair of one-horned bucks fighting in the woods.
So her knife keeps dicing never into ever
smaller nevers. He's given up driving the car,
golf cart, riding mower. And a wheelchair? No.
He wants to struggle with his legs until they're
nothing. But not in Bermuda shorts on Bermuda
grass he sowed and manicured after his discharge,
honorable, with the small yellow and green
and red bars that translate to this: I gave blood in
the Asian jungle. There should be an orange bar,
he jokes, to approximate what defoiled my future.
"You should still go," he says to her back. "Learn to ride
a scooter past all those pastel houses, those palms."
Her tears are acrid, quiet, a root vegetable
named for an island in the Gulf Stream that's two legs
distant. Never, never, never, never, never.
This exercise in restraint she began by thinking:
frittata. It gets scraped into the disposal.
What calf muscles he had in the photographs then.
Golf shorts, against Army rules; a putter pointed
like a compass needle where his helicopter
would lead lumbering aircraft full of herbicide.
We stripped it bare, he would write: Down there
nothing moves. But moves underneath, she thinks now,
moves like water in a tunnel, and never gives up. Never.
With that she switches off the garbage disposal. He cranks
the recliner upright, plants all four stick legs, sways
knock-kneed toward the bathroom. Midway down the hall
he pauses, leans on the rock maple points of his argument.
"Take an onion," he says, "it's got a skin like a man.bLayer after layer of experience beneath. When you get
to the center, though, nothing. Nothing but tears."
He was quick out of Troy after the fire,
with just enough of the classics in him
to know the next fated stop was Carthage
--that's counties, from Montgomery to Moore,
North Carolina. His daddy had picked
Aeneas as his middle name. Nothing
toughens a boy like a name he has to
defend in the schoolyard, and those hard knocks
ready him for what's awaiting the man
with less fortune than wit. Fine, but where's Dido?
Now he's perched on a carved-up courthouse bench
in Carthage with no clasp-knife to whittle
his name, much less a portable kingdom;
with trouble one town behind him, one step
ahead. Yes, there's even a wooden horse--
two wooden horses, in fact, the stick horse
he rode on his own legs, plus a relic
from a carousel Daddy repainted
and hung as a backyard swing on the oak.
The forensic term for both horses is
accelerant. In classic terms they were
part of a pyre, attendant animals
bearing the dead to the underworld.
Insurance underwriters would call this
a scam if they knew the whole story, but
he's hoping they'll write him a check for the house
since the will is clear, if Daddy wasn't.
Guess I had way too much fun with napalm
in Nam, he'd joke, once lupus and shingles
were burning him up: I never saw one
single enemy I set on fire, but
this has got to be payback. Last orders:
to help pile Daddy's bedroom with items
that burn clean and hot, that incinerate
evidence of suicide assistance.
He didn't want the disease to slowly
roast him in a Vets hospital ward; a man
should die at home, make sure the job's done right.
Thus the wooden horses, the stacks of newsprint,
luggage packed with clothes, like he was planning
to leave for the Vets Home--which he had arranged,
along with letting the electricity
get shut off for nonpayment of past due,
so there'd be a reason for the kerosene
to power the lantern beside his bed.
Any fool with bad dreams can knock over
a lantern in the middle of the night.
As for the cigarettes to start it all,
hell, it's a Carolinian's duty
to smoke over breakfast, on the john, in bed
until his metamorphosis into one more stat
for the National Institute of Health.
Once the pyre was set up, they drank bourbon.
Your momma's people settled in Carthage,
he was told, plus the facts of elopement,
the sundry hellraising circumstances
that preceded his birth and followed it--
he was twenty-one now, he ought to hear--
the war, the domestic betrayals, why
the momma he barely remembered fled
west with a third-rate lounge musician
who had a day job in an auto parts store
headquartered in southern California.
Admittedly, bourbon helped Daddy swell
his small-town Troy story into myth:
what else do you have when the day is done?
A quart of Jim Beam, a lantern to read
the classics by until the cigarette
falls from your hand. Tragic and comic both.
If everything goes as planned, the ashes
of his progenitor will arrive taped
to a settlement check for a half million
after taxes, general delivery,
Carthage, N.C. The courthouse here has
the deeds and plats and names of his Momma's
people, he can look them up, make amends
or mayhem: either all those schoolyard fights
are behind him or the best are to come.
Learn golf, Daddy suggested, they like golf
over there in Pinehurst and Southern Pines.
Might find yourself a queen of the fairways.
They do all their business on the golf course,
I hear. Funny how a father can give
advice on love and sport and work one day
and accomplish his inferno the next.
If there's no queen in Carthage, the atlas
has provided several Romes for him
to consider--Rome, Georgia, Rome, New York,
Rome, Mississippi. There's a Romeo,
Michigan, too, but maybe that's cheating.
Wherever he goes, there will be women
waiting to be transformed, queen for a day,
a year, a lifetime. Why else is his name
LeRoy Aeneas King but to locate
his kingdom and set a woman on fire?
He knows how to fight to defend his name.
He understands how the wooden horse works.
He's packing fresh Trojans in his wallet.