The first responders separate the dead
from the noisily dying and those who might
(though no one expects to) survive.
Then the heat and smoke, cell-phoned orders,
and the sounds the building is making,
like a god trapped in a beast in pain,
compel them to abandon
the dead and some of the living.
Get her out of here! cries their chief, and two —
the bravest and first
men on the scene — lift
the head and arms and strengthless legs
of a smoke-stained woman (no longer young,
her breathing regular, her bleeding stopped),
and begin to descend the stairs they lately climbed.
They have drunk or dispensed
the last of their water, and feel
they have no liquid left to sweat;
that their strength comes from nowhere.
The lights in the endless gray
stairwell flicker. At every floor
more office-workers crowd
the landings. Most are silent,
but the vast stumbling shuffle
is its own noise. Doors have jammed,
some people have tripped or fainted;
the two responders sometimes tread on hands.
From above, smoke pursues them
in thickening wisps. Ahead,
below, other smells.
The bearer of the torso
believes he sees people racing upward —
impossible, a trick of the air. He thinks
he may as well talk, with his dry throat
and labored breath. He tries
to express his hate for the men
who have done this. Suggests,
when each of them is captured,
a worldwide broadcast
of beards being torn out, faces
slapped with the bottom of a shoe,
a slowly tightened noose, and fire.
The bearer of the feet
wonders, silently at first,
who the woman is (he can’t turn,
and is trying to remember her face).
Some corporate lawyer or other crook?
A total bitch? Wouldn’t he,
they, do better
to set her down and help
these weeping figures crushed
to the rail by the downward march
in the dimming light: good people,
probably, unlike her,
probably … to rest a moment and help them?
An empire will rise
from these ruins, says the bearer
of the torso. The cornerstones
of its towers, taller than this, taller
than any ever built, will bear pictures
of our dead. Its temples,
the bones of our enemies
sealed in their walls, will allow only
moderate and civic-minded
gods, and its law
will be eternal fear of us.
His colleague shakes his head
as if to clear it, saying, I’m not being fair.
She may be perfectly nice.
A mother, trapped in that office.
She wanted to be home
with her little boy. Was representing,
in that boardroom, the little guy,
the consumer, the union, and they barely concealed —
those we left up there, dead —
their contempt. And even if
she was evil, she isn’t now.
Now she’s hurt,
the equal of anyone hurt, and
precious. But the upper bearer is lost,
still, in his dream
of empire, and gasps, Our reign
will be kind. We won’t stop anyone
from having a culture, just being one.
They can wear whatever stupid robes
they want, live as they want. But the robes
have to be clean,
and their buildings full
of fresh air. And they can’t preach hate,
and they have to be kind to women,
not hurt them. With which he coughs,
unable to talk any more.
The bearer of legs and feet,
watches the first piece
of heated steel fall,
hit stairs and people
who, screaming, drop away. He tries
to say he was glad to serve
with his friend; that they “tried.”
His friend must pull himself
away from exaltation,
his vision in which peace and power merged.
He wishes he could tell his friend
to turn so he could see the light
spreading from the middle-aged
features of the woman they
still carry. At some point
they transition, not easily,
to heaven, which, as always,
is the past.
School of the Americas
Fort Benning, Georgia
In age as in youth the General
worries that he is not seen
as a man of quality. His room
in the guesthouse is spare –
a coffeemaker, a minibar. However,
he tells himself, he is a soldier;
lays out his uniform on the bed,
the notes for his speech on the coffee-table.
Actually, the speech requires no notes:
a few safe reminiscences,
then talk about democracy, human rights,
He will weep, and everyone will be moved;
and then some Undersecretary will pin
another medal on his chest, or hang it
(the General isn’t clear) around his neck.
And yet he finds he must labor
over the grandiose expected words.
In an hour, junior officers will come,
saluting, awed. He will ask them
where they are from; will compliment
their capital cities. They will drive him
to meet with men he knows, and some he doesn’t
(who will, however, he is sure, belong
to both familiar types: hearty and loud,
quiet and sly). And who,
whatever he has done for them or even,
in years past, under their instruction, never
regard him as a man of quality.
He tells himself they carry Christ in their hearts,
as he does. He visualizes
his guarded, razor-wired hacienda
in noon light, the maids bustling,
none of them competent though none Indian.
He feels drowsy — the flight was long — and makes
coffee. Should he say that
together we drove Communism
from this hemisphere? A small part, one’s
best efforts, etc. Should rather
emphasize future struggles;
use the phrase “shoulder to shoulder.”
What he wants to say, what he learned
implicitly in this place was that
the North likes to give people things, to put
things into them — electricity, drugs —
without otherwise breaking
the skin; and that it was for men
like him to remove things from them: fingernails, eyes.
Frederick Pollack is the author of two book-length narrative poems" The Adventure and Happiness, both published by Story Line Press. Has appeared in Hudson Review, Salmagundi, Poetry Salzburg Review, Die Gazette (Munich), The Fish Anthology (Ireland), Representations, Magma (UK), Bateau, Chiron Review, etc. Online, poems have appeared in Big Bridge, Hamilton Stone Review, Diagram, BlazeVox, The New Hampshire Review, Mudlark, etc. Recent Web publications include Occupoetry, Faircloth Review, Camel Saloon, Kalkion, Gap Toothed Madness. He is an adjunct professor of creative writing George Washington University.