Burning Shit at An Khe


Into that pit
      I had to climb down
With a rake and matches; eventually,
      You had to do something
Because it just kept piling up
      And it wasn't our country, it wasn't
Our air thick with the sick smoke
      So another soldier and I
Lifted the shelter off its blocks
      To expose the homemade toilets:
Fifty-five gallon drums cut in half
      With crude wood seats that splintered.
We soaked the piles in fuel oil
      And lit the stuff
And tried to keep the fire burning.
      To take my first turn
I paid some kid
      A care package of booze from home.
I'd walked past the burning once
      And gagged the whole heart of myself–
It smelled like the world
      Was on fire.
But when my turn came again
      There was no one
So I stuffed cotton up my nose
      And marched up that hill. We poured
And poured until it burned and black
      Smoke curdled
But the fire went out.
      Heavy artillery
Hammered the evening away in the distance,
      Vietnamese laundry women watched
From a safe place, laughing.
      I'd grunted out eight months
Of jungle and thought I had a grip on things
      But we flipped the coin and I lost
And climbed down into my fellow soldiers'
      Shit and began to sink and didn't stop
Until I was deep to my knees. Liftships
      Cut the air above me, the hacking
Blast of their blades
      Ripped dust in swirls so every time
I tried to light a match
      It died
And it all came down on me, the stink
      And the heat and the worthlessness
Until I slipped and climbed
      Out of that hole and ran
Past the olive drab
      Tents and trucks and clothes and everything
Green as far from the shit
      As the fading light allowed.
Only now I can't fly.
      I lay down in it
And finger paint the words of who I am
      Across my chest
Until I'm covered and there's only one smell,
      One word.


Bruce Weigl, Archeology of the Circle: New and Selected Poems, Grove Press, 1999.