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A Poem for the Last American Soldier to Die in Iraq

ISSUE:  Fall 2008

On the road to Marathon, Hwy. 90,
just outside of Alpine, Texas,
the gravestones stand chalk white
under the thunderheads of summer,
the afternoon rain in a slow roll across
the earth’s wide amphitheater, from Fort Davis
to here, where I stand with a dumb expression
on my face, unsure of what to make of this,
a cemetery that holds no dead, only these markers
to remember them by, these nameless
anonymous stones.

When I was just a boy
I played the bugle at military funerals,
phrasing an elegy of taps for the dead
I didn’t know, and in the winter chill, flinching
as rifles fired upward at nothing I could see,
or at God, maybe, each volley an announcement
of the fallen, I lifted the horn to my lips
and pressed the keys to begin learning
that cold and silver-plated connection
to grief.

To be moved by the sheer accretion
of loss, that’s what this feels like, standing
in the scrub grass and the wind, gravestones
in their ranks and files before me. It’s as if
we must make a conscious effort
to recognize our failure to remember
just who these people were.

And the last one,
the very last soldier to die in the Iraq War,
where is that soldier now? Maybe he, or she,
sat by me this morning and ate a breakfast
of scrambled eggs and chorizo at the diner
in Marfa. Maybe he’s in Pennsylvania,
or North Carolina. Maybe she’s in Oregon,
or in a plane headed to Kuwait, in her pocket
the anodized bolt from her rifle.

Late this afternoon,
when I’ve driven farther south to the border country
near Big Bend, I’ll pull over to the shoulder there
and listen to the wind as it works its way
down into the arroyos, where wine-cups
shield themselves under the desert olives.
And when lightning flashes off in the distance,
it will stun me with its light, if only for an instant,
the smallest fraction of a second, but it will happen—
that horn of silver, bright in its electric heat,
will sear through everything from here
to the far horizon. And I will be changed by it,
completely, even if I don’t know how.


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