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The Return

Some afternoons I go without my board
and sit in the sand to watch      Almost no girls     
Just the sun dropping down and its broken

vee of light splashing ashore like a veil
of sky      a scene seductive as white ash
in fire      Too close and C4 blew the senses

How the blast and the light could suck right down
your mouth       then ram to a stop in your balls
I knew plenty guys in-country who’d go

hot at every sudden noise     Not me      Now
I hear nothing but all those busted shards
of silence blowing in      One more reason

I never hang with anyone I knew
over there      Stoned-out Zips will come by      asks
me each time how my brain is      The girl

was maybe fifteen      Used her sign language
Made it clear she’d do anything for me
if I’d let her live      She was kneeling back

in the bend of a blown brown pine outside
Da Nang      looking up at me with prayer
on her tongue     pulling her raggy blouse down

to show me herself      there’d been others  
but      when she finally inhaled      her nipple
rose up like a flare     I’m a trained lurp and

I’m sure there could be AKs scoped on me
from any point in that jungle      or so
we knew to assume      But here comes the first

daytime hard-on in months rising up in
undivided fury      I’m dead-stopped naked
in the mud       staring at that engorged pink

cone in hard relief above the perfect
breast     a perfect convex invitation
Clearly I was locked in boo-coo trouble
The RTO looked at her then me then
puckered his lips and shrugged      Who knew if she
were Charlie     But he kept walking and so

did I      the head of my hard-on scraping
my zipper up and down      Truth is      I liked
the pain      the gut-check     how it got me back

to the hump      the adrenaline      But you don’t
ever forget utter holy beauty
I told Zips right there on the beach I could

reach out and cup the milk of god like this
And I did     I just reached out      palm up    And
he grinned in wonder like we were so far

gone it might as well be junior high      Off
shore the marine layer began to crest
Next day humping the same trail I realized

this is the same busted up brown pine       only
there’s no girl in the crook      just a peasant hat
made of straw       And Zips can you believe this

I say      I get a hard-on all over
again        And he says of course you did man       
Hey      do you think she’s alive      Gotta be     

I pray       Soon he stands up and digs a hole
in the sand with his foot       The sun sizzles
into a blur of white steam       Then Zips

evaporates too       This is the process
If I’m still       each shard will fall without harm      
Each wave will die quietly in my arms




fox hole at night, near Da Nang, 1968

Not even a brush of skin on skin      man
the best sex I ever had means Angie
in the lifeguard tower at Laguna

fluffed up in a pure white hooded sweatshirt
with swelling Jerry Garcia silkscreened
in front      her breasts stretching Jerry’s big smile

like he was high on a dope jawbreaker
He wasn’t fat then      We locked the panels
as fog rolled in      spread out old red flannel

sleeping bags      dialed KLOS     then talked
about the end of high school      her dead father
my parents in their glazy new house      all

that glass and sunshine before the divorce
before the long windless talks-me-to-death
how I’d wait all afternoon for the swell

when I was too young to quit      too driven
to stand on the back of the slow motion
sea then slip down the slope      how her mother

only wore black      always smiling drunk on
rosaries      no booze no pills      a couple years
of life insurance      Honey she’d say      God

has a plan for you      Angie      rolling spliffs
by candlelight      said she half believed her
too      Why not      What about you      Do you think

Jesus will come back like they say      Do you
believe he’s the real deal      And I told her
I had no clue but figured something real

cool was out on the water in the dope
maybe in that mural over Tokay’s shop
So then she asked how I came by my name

and I shrugged a laugh      told her Zips and I scored
a bag of Mexican so fresh bud oil
smeared  our fingers      how three tokes spoke the voice

of God in my ears      Angie lighting up
her eyes in full morph like living crystals
not tunnels but aqua fractals      each ray

pulsing out of the black sunspot center
gray then blue then evergreen threads turning
back into her head as she took a long hit

and tapped the ash off and placed the lit end
in her mouth and closed her lips as I told
the story faster      Zips screaming that’s in-

sanity man      it’s stoned out half crazy
if you’re straight      how he bent over breathless
at the end of his broke hyena laugh

then saying it would be cult radical
but you’re too young to die man      how no one
fourteen ever tried riding The Wedge

ripped and by moonlight     helluva story
we’d have if you pull this number off man
All along Angie with the short wet end

of the spliff pointing my way      I opened
my mouth then she led the tip into me
blew a living smoke dream straight down my lungs

so deep tears broke from the cups of my eyes
but I held my breath      Her vast slit stare bore
into me      Then slowly as a first breeze

she curled back      like in a dance      arced her arm
then drew the joint from her mouth      the lit ash 
long and curling      She asked if that’s a first

for me      And I joked yeah like a first kiss
Then she lay on her back and said I should
go on      I told her I’m near wrecked by chop

how the whole swell sizzles      it’s a weeknight
should be in my room doing algebra
then paddle hard before the mountain breaks

over me and I catch the high front end
and bend low into the curl when the roar
aerates into this echoing silence I’d heard

about from older guys at Tokay’s shop
how I look right through the glassy barrel
its live eye that holds me safe until

I tuck out before the beach break      come in
scratchless      and Zips simply says you’re all hemp
man      and so it just stuck      Then Angie shut

her eyes      spoke into the darkening tower
I love you she said but I don’t think we
should do it      Me neither probably not

I said      Why not she asked      Then I lay back
watched the candle light flicker on the roof
her scent in that room     all girl     all Jesus



Whoever You Are

Swear words are like instant cortisone shots
All of us need the pain to stay up
I learned quick from the older guys floating

the calm between sets      The perfect statement
of each word in stoned exhalation    
was like some irreverent Zen practice

offering infinite license       That’s where
I learned how to tell stories about women
One day at Zips’ house his father came home

late      honked from the street      then Zips’ mother just
slipped out     a smooth slide into the front seat    
Johnny Mathis’ “Chances Are” as loud as

the 4-barrel on that blue Impala
The one I’d worship in a fast few years
I asked Zips     where they goin’     he just shrugged

said no one knows      they won’t be back      not till
the weekend      Ike and I’ve got a gruntload
of frozen food to cook      Want some      Later
in Nam we all had to swear with mortal
devotion because if not you’ll die in
some fucking firefight you fucking faggot     

said the sergeant to every FNG
I don’t any more     It was as if some
ghost rose from the unspeakable vapors

of the jungle floor      angelic      silent
floating dead center in my line of sight    
Who are you I asked      her arms like warm water

her words in my head before she vanished
So I came to know that way of talking
is a sin against the man we’re always

waiting to become      Humping mud outside
Da Nang I made no sound when the flash
cauterized my eyelids     I thought

I’d gone blind from the good light of the lord       
But that’s a lie too     what I told myself      
I dropped to muck      hugging myself     groping

for the shard that must’ve split my ribs     freaked
silence     I couldn’t hear a single round    
Later another grunt laughed sideways      told me

I was tearing at my shirt like I’d rolled
through black ants     I never once thought
of my own parents     white Pacific sun

flashing off the ocean through the giant
plate windows      face gone red as he slams
down cold vodka      she slouched in her soft chair

and dreamed at him like his was some foreign
face of the man she married       I’d step back
Then feel myself drifting into shadows

as if they’d not seen me       Then the drop
into good weed till I’d dream      Whoever
you are      I’ll do anything if you’ll

stay with me      I played that same slide show
The one I watched as dark shut down the night
a half instant before you held me alive

I described Zips’ mother while every guy
stared shoreward as if they’d heard it all       But
I knew they listened like it was poetry

Like it was god      An oceanic moon
lighting the world     A cream skirt slowly
riding up her legs     Then that long lean across

the seat for the kiss     Finally her fingers
in his hair      Then sure as the car      his black
eyes aimed straight ahead      And that’s how I left

it      nothing more      No need       Clean waves or
choppy      we all knew that one center line
was a map to the last best promise on earth




In that last look Simpson’s pale green eyes
matched the quick water     Hot monsoon     Charlie’d
shocked us into a flash flood      bullets

and snakes      For hours I hung on a branch
above the thick rush screaming Simpson’s name
just once as if it mattered      him slipping

low      his mouth filling      my own hands gone numb
And suddenly I’m liking the water
It’s bitchin’ good       Like those days at Seal Beach

I’m nothing but a grommet      maybe
twelve     orange baggies      board too big     not yet
needy for a girl      We took the old guys

for sex-crazed lunes     One day Hops comes up beach
Yells I’m gettin’ laid all day     What the fuck
does he mean Zips asks me     No clue I say

Then we watch Jax fade before sliding back
into a barrel     And Hops says People that’s
the best Jax’ll get this week     And Rahj laughs

yeah and the best wave too     Then half the beach
is laughing     even the Gidgets      And it’s
four years maybe five girlfriends later when

I think the ocean falls in love with me—
I’m in a tropical inshore current
That screams holy-stoke-me till sunset

and      on the first good wave      I get the joke    
Then stand all amped     I go all-out aggro
and do an aerial up an A-frame

then kick out into a backwash so calm
and warm I realize right then it could be
Gina B oiled up in Kama Sutra

like the night before     She’s rolling all zen    
under me     so slowly     wide glassy calm
Her breath this low tidal mantra as if

the next swell is hours off      maybe days off
As if I might as well lay way back     Just
let her take me so far out that the turn

for home would be the turn I’d never want
to take     I wasn’t yet out of high school
and I’m thinking     this is how the ocean

lets you into herself     my fingertips
light as surf foam on Gina B’s nipples
Somewhere     miles below     the crust cracking

A new runnel breaking out     A release
A letting go into the seamless sea
The tide rocking and rocking like rescue



The Wanting

After Nam all the wanting gets buried—
From the start Marie’s breasts reminded you
of that in-country girl who tried to look

at us with blood-dark lust       Maybe fifteen      
pine roots hulked around her like detached arms     
We’d seen so much begging       so many shivering

in their rags      You came to know what gook words
had to mean      what she was wanting to say     
how she pulled her white top off both shoulders

in a practiced ritual      And you just
stare like the kid you are      scared she’s a bomb
scared you’d bury your shaved head in her chest     

anyway      But she’s just barely purling  
When you look up       just like that      she’s Marie
trilling a jazz tune      then giving you that

married after-dinner smile as she sweeps
the dishes from the table      and all those
next seconds      when you’re kindling in the fire

of this carnal present      you’re all focus
on this woman you’ve wanted since her voice
broke you in two that day on the beach

The way she told you your Waimea
was real choka      her long black hair backlit
by the late sun     only now you still can’t

go back there     A few days after you’d seen
the girl     still can’t forget      you’re in stand-down
taking a leak out past the jungle edge

of the ammo dump      can’t forget how you freeze
at the low laugh in the bush     couldn’t be
Charlie this early      not a live tiger

But what’s got your wet hand on your Browning     
as you advance in a crouch        All you want
now is to be here with Marie     Then that    

mute laugh      then real words      not gook talk
And you look over the berm to see Pikes
bent over a girl on a stump      then Gray      

wrenching her arms      her blouse sliced wide open          
Pikes’ clutch belt around his knees      mouth
flooded with angry cowboy cackling       Pikes

always bragging how he’s a double vet      Pikes
always pissed when we’d laugh off that BS
His clenched ass doing figure eights and Gray

yelling you ever gonna get it up
you cracker dickhead      damned if I’m gonna
hold this oily bitch all day      sure as shit

fuckhead I’m gonna get mine       How Gray then
looked up with that trigger-quick in-country
puzzlement we’d all felt too often

You’re holding the Browning straight at Pikes’ back     
and you’d give three toes not to be telling
yourself this story again      All you want

is to keep Marie in your arms       the want
rising like ganja coming on      rising
till we’re flying on the air of the sheets 

But      this was the same girl you’d seen last week
in the blown pine       the same girl at the end
of the world       the end of life in her eyes

topless and pure      Then the RTO said
Charlie or not we just keep marching man  
And Gray lets go her arms and stands up

Pikes screaming pissed      Pikes saying what-the-fuck-
you-doin      Pikes turning round like slow wind
his blood-red sack hard as a smoke grenade 
Pikes and Gray staring at the gun    the girl
covering herself       the girl not running
So you tell the two men didi mau       And

both of them move out slow      real hell-to-pay
on their faces      The girl barely standing
Just staring at me      You try to look back

You’d like to ask her to forget it all
And she doesn’t even cringe as you brush
the dirt from her back and hair      The same blue-

black tint as Marie’s      then walk her halfway
to the village      watch her to the entrance
Back at camp nothing’s different      even

in the mess hall Pikes and Gray smile and nod
like they’re a couple of Sergeant Rocks     
Tonight you’re hoping Marie can blossom

into the moment you need       Then you’re not
breathing hands over your face how many
men you can’t tell cloth clotted in your mouth

you’re wild fighting smothered held pinned beneath
a huge wave like you’re strapped to the beach break
when a Ka-Bar shines in your face till you’re

on your stomach how you never face this
the way the world splits you with a barrel
of steel ice shoved as far into your heart

as you can picture not a word spoken
till you stop your pathetic soundless scream
till you black out and wake to see your own

AK strapped to the rack flying the blood-
splotched flag of your skivvies      And there’s nothing
but resignation       An ocean gone flat

and silent like dirt covering a corpse
You just need to get home quick to any
girl who’ll have you      And in that other life    

you try hard to cross over      The lost world                      
returned in a burning surge from the chest
Each slow exhalation a heart-soaked push—

An instant’s bliss in which you forget how
you’ve blanked on the girl      the AK      Marie’s
late-summer amber skin      The kids at camp

The bed floating in a fade-away room
Then Marie is pulling you by the arm
up and into her     And just as you rise

to take in the full length of her body
the girl’s breasts flash up at you so it’s no use
What choice but to pull away as if this

is the next flashback      And what choice but
to put your head between her legs      Let her 
roll up before you roll off      Let her arch 

into a silent swoon      as if you’ve forged
passage into that ancient wordless room    
from which you’ve locked yourself out forever

C4: explosive carried by American soldiers
lurp: a member of Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols
AKs: Russian-made rifles carried by North Vietnamese army
boo-coo: patois term American soldiers appropriated; very big
RTO: radio telephone operator
Charlie: North Vietnamese army
berm: perimeter line of fortification
choka: surfer term meaning “real cool”
clutch belt: belt that holds ammunition
didi mau: appropriated Vietnamese term meaning “get going quickly”
double vet: a US soldier who had sex with a woman before killing her
Ka-Bar: US infantry knife
rack: cot
Sergeant Rock: WWII cartoon figure of bravery
stand-down: a unit’s return to the base camp
Waimea: brand of surfboard  


Kevin Clark’s Self-Portrait with Expletives (2010) won the Pleiades prize and is distributed by LSU Press. An earlier collection, In the Evening of No Warning (New Issues Press, 2002) earned a grant from the Academy of American Poets. His poems have appeared in the Georgia, Iowa, American Literary and Antioch reviews, Crazyhorse, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, The New York Quarterly, and The Denver Quarterly. The Georgia and Notre Dame reviews have each anthologized his work in retrospective collections. Clark’s essays about poetry have appeared in magazines such as The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, and Contemporary Literary Criticism. A regular critic for The Georgia Review, he has also published essays in books about Ruth Stone, Charles Wright, and Sandra McPherson. Clark teaches at both The Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program in Tacoma, and Cal Poly. He lives with his family in San Luis Obispo. See http://kevinclarkpoet.com/.