The Distant Winter by Philip Levine
from an officer's diary during the last war
The sour daylight cracks through my sleep-caked lids.
"Stephan! Stephan!" The rattling orderly
Comes on a trot, the cold tray in his hands:
Toast whitening with oleo, brown tea,
Yesterday's napkins, and an opened letter.
"Your asthma's bad, old man." He doesn't answer,
And turns to the grey windows and the weather.
"Don't worry, Stephan, the lungs will go to cancer."
I speak, "the enemy's exhausted, victory
Is almost ours..." These twenty new recruits,
Conscripted for the battles lost already,
Were once the young, exchanging bitter winks,
And shuffling when I rose to eloquence,
Determined not to die and not to show
The fear that held them in their careless stance,
And yet they died, how many wars ago?
Or came back cream puffs, 45, and fat.
I know that I am touched for my eyes brim
With tears I had forgotten. Death is not
For these car salesmen whose only dream
Is of a small percentage of the take.
Oh my eternal smilers, weep for death
Whose harvest withers with your aged aches
And cannot make the grave for lack of breath.
Did you wet? Oh no, he had not wet.
How could he say it, it was hard to say
Because he did not understand it yet.
It had to do, maybe, with being away,
With being here where nothing seemed to matter.
It will be better, you will see tomorrow,
I told him, in a while it will be better,
And all the while staring from the mirror
I saw those eyes, my eyes devouring me.
I cannot fire my rifle, I'm aftaid
Even to aim at what I cannot see.
This was his voice, or was it mine I heard?
How do I know that in this foul latrine
I calmed a soldier, infantile, manic?
Could he be real with such eyes pinched between
The immense floating shoulders of his tunic?
Around the table where the map is spread
The officers gather. Now the colonel leans
Into the blinkered light from overhead
And with a penknife improvises plans
For our departure. Plans delivered by
An old staff courier on his bicycle.
One looks at him and wonders does he say,
I lean out and I let my shadow fall
Shouldering the picture that we call the world
And there is darkness? Does he say such things?
Or is there merely silence in his head?
Or other voices which the silence rings?
Such a fine skull and forehead, broad and flat,
The eyes opaque and slightly animal.
I can come closer to a starving cat,
I can read hunger in its eyes and feel
In the irregular motions of its tail
A need that I could feel. He slips his knife
Into the terminal where we entrain
And something seems to issue from my life.
In the mice-sawed potato fields dusk waits.
My dull ones march by fours on the playground,
Kicking up dust; The column hesitates
As though in answer to the rising wind,
To darkness and the coldness it must enter.
Listen, my heroes, my half frozen men,
The corporal calls us to that distant winter
Where we will merge the nothingness within.
And they salute as one and stand at peace.
Keeping an arm's distance from everything,
I answer them, knowing they see no face
Between my helmet and my helmet thong.
But three more days and we'll be moving out.
The cupboard of the state is bare, no one,
Not God himself, can raise another recruit.
Drinking my hot tea, listening to the rain,
I sit while Stephan packs, grumbling a bit.
He breaks the china that my mother sent,
Her own first china, as a wedding gift.
"Now that your wife is dead, Captain, why can't
The two of us really make love together?"
I cannot answer. When I lift a plate
It seems I almost hear my long-dead mother
Saying, Watch out, the glass is underfoot.
Stephan is touching me. "Captain, why not?
Three days from now and this will all be gone.
It no longer is!" Son, you don't shout,
In the long run it doesn't help the pain.
I gather the brittle bits and cut my finger
On the chipped rim of my wife's favorite glass,
And cannot make the simple bleeding linger.
"Captain, Captain, there's no one watching us."