Three Photographs (from the Vietnam War)

Driving south on Highway 89
along the west shore of Lake Cayuga
from Seneca Falls to Ithaca,
listening to a thin crackle of radio
before it’s lost beyond the hill:

Ken Burns is telling Terry Gross
the story of the Vietnam War
in three photographs —

A South Vietnamese general executing
a suspected North Vietnamese spy
just like walking down the street,
the moment the bullet strikes the brain

(why were we there, taking sides?)

A naked girl on fire, fleeing
her napalmed village

(the futile horrors we inflicted)

A young woman crouched over her dying friend,
shot by the National Guard at Kent State

(the war against our brothers and sisters at home)

and I say we and our because to seeing photos
on the front page of every hometown newspaper
made us all complicit in the violence.

Photo published for Opinion | ‘The American War’: Kent State was originally a footnote in Ken Burns’s documentary. Then...



Everyone had this strange compulsion
to pause like minarets in the ritual wind
and listen

because they were convinced
that the tautness could not go on

that some day something had to happen
that much was certain but what form
the release

might take could only be guessed at
and lying out on the roof at night
under the stars

I strain my ears trying to imagine
I hear perhaps in the direction of

the faint sound of voices calling
but it is always the presence
of silence

broken now and then by a sleepy rooster
crowing on some distant housetop
or a cat

wailing in the street below or a truck
far out on Mosul Road

bang bang
it coasts down the long hill to the Tigris
fertile old giver of life.

February-March 2003