Author: Richard Schiffman
Location: New Mexico / New York City
Richard Schiffman is a writer who splits his time between New Mexico and New York City. He has published two nonfiction books, and has also worked as a freelance journalist and commentator for National Public Radio. His poetry is out, or slated for publication in The Atlanta Review, The New York Quarterly, 32 Poems, The Southern Poetry Review, Poetry East,
and The Potomac Review
, amongst other journals.
Bullet (For Brian Turner)
He kept the poem with the dangerous title folded
in a vest pocket, where soldiers in more pious times
placed amulets and prayers. Here, Bullet, it began,
if a body is what you want, you'll find one here. But lucky for him
bullets don't read poems, and wouldn't obey them
even if they did. Nothing is more prosaic than a bullet.
Nothing is less obedient.
Still, I admire this cheeky tempting of fate,
wearing a poem like a bull's-eye above the heart
announcing: this is where my life is, this is where my life ends.
Most soldiers try to hide their hearts. A heart is viewed
as a liability in battle. So it's a wonder that this soldier wore his,
if not on his shirt sleeve, then tucked under a less than bulletproof
vest. A bleeding human heart weeping for women and children,
leaking metaphors as harsh as lye. What did the grunts think
when they saw their team leader scribbling in notebooks,
jotting lined verse on the backs of envelopes?
They must have thought that he was penning a love poem
to his girlfriend; surely not recording all the gory details—
the shape the bitter fluid of the blood makes as it fountains
onto a Baghdad sidewalk, and how the crows gawk
from a eucalyptus at the line of new corpses,
and that withering look in the eyes of a twelve-year-old
as you cart his hooded dad off. These are things
that most soldiers try to excise from their brains,
and from their hearts, the tenderest parts
of their human anatomy, which are reserved
for their wives, their honeys, the kids at home.
They won't be inviting bullets to graze there.
Because, let's face it, bullets are as dumb as dumb luck.
They have got no irony or propriety, no justice
(poetic or otherwise), no innate sense of drama, or even timing.
They just slam whatever they slam without rhyme or reason,
in or out of season. And it happens so fast that if a poet
were to blink, he'd miss it entirely. One moment he'd be there,
the next moment he wouldn't.
There would be nothing to write about is what I'm saying.
Forget about a Hollywood ending. It's nothing like riding
into the sunset, a last wet kiss goodbye, a eulogy, an elegy,
a stirring swan song. Just slam bam you're gone. Which, frankly,
doesn't lend itself to poetry, which prefers to take its own
sweet time, like quaffing a fine wine, and savoring
the foretaste, the aftertaste, the subtle bouquet,
the way the ruddy liquid slips down the throat.
The same throat that a bullet would rip
quicker than a sip of rosy beaujolais.
So it was striking that the poet had filled a book
with such breakneck matters: the trajectories of bullets
and Katyusha rockets, grenades rolled into living rooms
by smooth-faced boys, humvees bursting like roses,
crimson flairs blossoming the night of the attack.
He handed us each an orange aster, and thanked us
for taking time off from our busy New York schedules.
And then the words came slamming.
First the poem, "Here, Bullet." You can read it yourself—
an anatomy lesson a GI learns in Iraq. But it made me think about
what poets do routinely—how they draw a taunting bull's-eye
and invite the world to fire pointblank all that it has got
of agony and ecstasy—straight at the heart, the unbarred heart.
Poets make themselves a target, that's a fact. Lucky
for this one he dodged the bullet—a soldier with something
to say, spared to say it for those without throats, or the words
to make a throat quiver with awe and fury and tenderness.
Such a drop-dead combination, it left us speechless.
Which is saying a lot for this crew of poets.
But, let's face it, there was nothing left to say. We applauded,
we awarded him our prize, we quaffed the wine, we noshed
the cheese and crackers. We took the subway home,
each to their own bed, and slept without flashbacks.
None awoke in a cold sweat at midnight, or stumbled
from the sheets the following morning like an inmate
on death row wondering whether our stay of execution
would be extended one more day. And the soldier too—
a professor now—had left all that behind him years before.
Or, who knows, maybe not. He did not ask to be healed,
he confessed—that would be unfair to the Iraqis. Better
to leave the wound exposed than to close it prematurely.
Bull's-eye! The poet's hallowed duty: not to heal just yet.
Not to hide the wound, but to leave it raw and undefiled,
the wound that life too inflicts on all who struggle,
not just soldiers in battle. The wound a poet-heart might wear
upon its public sleeve, or stashed above the breastbone.
The wound that one day—not now—may become
the blood-red bud of healing's blossom.