When he poured acid for his etching,
Blake said the art he practiced was infernal,
meaning it brimmed with the energy of demons
who first of all had been angels. On the wall
of the bedroom I inherited from my grandfather
hung a gold-framed etching titled “The Return”—
a doughboy kneeling before a larger than life
crucifix, the helmet and rifle on the floor,
his calves wrapped with puttees, his head
half-hidden by a bulging, cinched-up knapsack.
Harry, older uncle on my mother’s side,
quit college to go to France in 1916.
He flew a Spad in the Lafayette Escadrille,
and never wanted to fly again afterwards.
In one photo, the polished sash of his Sam
Browne belt gleams in the ocean sunlight.
He is sailing home, and a swell has leaned
him into the bulkhead. Under the smile
you can see his fear that life thereafter
would turn out to be another flying coffin.
In 1970, Georgette, Harry’s war-bride
wrote to me on Okinawa, pleading that
I not leave the service as a conscientious
objector. She said Jesus could not approve,
He had smiled on America, and I owed
back some portion of what I had been given.
The airplane I flew home on, my c.o.
discharge in hand, was an empty, airborne
auditorium, another sign of the nation’s excesses.
When I woke, I looked out over the desert.
At first I thought I saw a land split
apart by our history of rage and sorrow,
but as we cruised through a vast clarity
of air thousands of feet up, the creases
of deep, dried-out arroyos reminded me
of the pack that belonged to the soldier
who hung over my childhood sleep
and taught me, before I ever understood
a word like puttee, how good it would feel
to take a helmet off, set the weapon down.
from Full Moon Boat