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Sample Poems by Bill Wunder


Reading the latest Agent Orange Review
in the VA clinic's waiting room,
it says I'm at greater risk now
of diabetes, Hodgkin's and soft tissue sarcoma.
I've come here today to collect my inheritance
of test results from long ago exposure to defoliants
in a distant, yet, enduring war.

I still hear the drone of a C-130
crisscrossing overhead, ponderous and slow,
spraying a chemical cloud in its wake.
Billowing like the soft silk of parachutes,
it descended on our upturned, naive faces.
Who knew that the night rain, nectar
we thought a gift from the gods
and greedily drunk off broad leaves
was laced with that devil dioxin?

The orderly comes over, tells me something
about elevated potassium levels and more tests.
But I'm on that verdant trail where we used to hide
from war, how I couldn't see my fingers
in front of me, all of us lost in our own veiled cocoons.
None of us spoke until the cloud dissipated.
How I wished for that shroud of silence to stay,
making me invisible, keeping me safe.
How it reminded me of when Jim and I were ten,
riding our bikes, chasing after the mosquito trucks,
lost in that carefree fog.

Richard Nixon Campaigns at the Levittown Shopping Center, Late October, 1960

My sixth-grade friends play football
behind St. Mike's Roman Catholic Church.
Elbows dig into ribs, hands ball into fists,
and a great grunting is heard all across the field.
Tackler surges into blocker, much as a great wave expends itself
on the rocks of a jetty, all of them, a heaving mass,
falling into a pile of leaves:
warm yellows, glowing ambers, drowsy browns.
They run and whoop it up, unconcerned
that a JFK victory next month means the pope would give the orders
and holy water would be piped into the White House.
That's why I along with my congregation wait among thousands
for the Vice President's bus at the campaign rally.
We all need to be reassured that the world
will not veer off its axis and a Catholic will not inherit the earth.
An hour late, sirens trumpeting his arrival, the motorcade rolls in.
The stage fills with local politicians reveling
in their temporary proximity to greatness, speech
after speech crowning the next leader
of the free world. He is introduced
and a thunderous roar rolls over us,
an ocean swell lifting all partisan boats.
I expect Mount Rushmore or perhaps a halo
of shimmering gold, instead he looks like Uncle Ralph
that time on a three-day drunk: unshaven, haggard, sweating.
I leave, not waiting for him to speak.
Heading back to join my friends at St. Mike's,
the huzzahs of the crowd fading away,
I pretend there's a football in the crook of my arm
and I'm playing ball, falling
into a Joseph's Coat of leaves.

Saturday Afternoon, November, 1963

Walking home from the dusky football field
I am ankle deep in fallen leaves,
a lit lamp post the only hope in a darkening sky.
Company again at the Murphy's house, no doubt
showing off their new bomb shelter.
I'm met at my door by shadows
and Perry Como in Hi-Fi
soothing the murk of living room.
My father, off working again,
my mother tending to pot roast
in her dim Levittown kitchen. I put
Cronkite on TV-he says the world threatens
to wobble out of orbit, Buddhist monks
set themselves on fire, JFK flies
to Dallas, winging into oblivion,
and me, left to wonder when
the Russians will launch their cold missiles
and bring with them that brilliant final light.


Under elephant-ear leaves
I take cover, wonder
who ambushed whom

when I see them on the flank-
a cloud of butterflies
migrating through the war.

They undulate between both sides,
pulse like a psychedelic amoeba,
a breath of purple-sapphire into

asphyxiating greenness.
The shooting stops.
A few shouts, someone

whistles, then we all watch with
veneration. Tomlin, on his third
tour, falls in next to me, says

he had seen everything until today.
And I don't know if it's
the unencumbered beauty

or its billowing lightness that halts
the killing. Without firing
another shot, both sides withdraw

into the jungle's verdant
velour, grateful
for silence's cocoon.

We Were Young Once

Arriving clean and pressed
we de-plane onto Cam Ranh Bay's tarmac,
our exuberance melting
like ice in the Indochina sun.
Bringing with us only a toothbrush,
the memory of our mother's home cooking
and the scent of girlfriends,
we are would-be heroes
from a John Wayne movie.

We march off in the heat
to our grand adventure,
martial music ringing in our ears.

Forty years later,
Cam Ranh's sand covers our footprints,
and flowers no longer mark graves.
The survivors-
sleepless, bloodied still,
speak a language of dark
fatalism, a vocabulary of having embraced
and outlived death.

Once, we talked of a future
bright as a full moon over rice paddies.
Our sweethearts promised they'd be true,
we swore that we'd come home whole,
vowing to shoot the stars out of the sky.