The Polack

by Kate Daniels

The planes carrying us stateside after our tour had to ascend at a really steep angle to avoid anti-aircraft fire from the North Vietnamese. So, leaving, like everything else there, was really tense. When we took off, it was overcast. But then we broke through 35,000 feet and the cloud cover at the same time. The sun stabbed us through the windows it was so bright. Then the pilot came on the P.A. and said, ‘Welcome home, gentlemen.’ And he put in a tape – Richie Havens singing, ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ and everyone – I mean everyone – was crying.

      – a veteran of the Vietnam War

He almost had to growl to say his own name,
Greggie Grzinsky, “that Polack kid from Buffalo,”
a big boy, always fighting, growing into the shape
of his father’s despisal – the best part of you, kid,
ran down my leg
– and hulking down, ashamed
inside his own body as if something essential
had been carved out of him and carried away,
and was moldering now, undiscovered,
in the decomposing garbage at the junkyard
or the dump. So when he went to war, it wasn’t
really all that different, and he discovered himself
a superb soldier, a battalion commander who kept
a clear head and never lost a man, and killed, he supposed,
dozens, even hundreds, of the enemy, foreign people
he never saw and couldn’t care about, blowing them up
from ten miles back. Still, war was war,
and even a hard man, even a growling dog of a man
with no soft center, found himself counting
the days until he was sprung from that humid
garden where fields were shallow pools of fecund
water alive with delicate sprouts of rice and buried
hand grenades. Where the sky could be a canopy
of tendrilling trees or fragile ringlets of tropical flowers,
but other times exploded into psychedelic blossoms
of missle fire and ate itself up. The darkness and the feminine
odor of the lowering heat forced him to ponder his lost
best part, his father’s ancient pleasure in the dark,
and how he must have turned away, sticky and separate,
after the act. Around him, the jungle steamed fragrantly, indifferent
as a whore rising to bathe in the quonset brothel outside Da Nang.
So when the plane carrying him home at last
banked sharply in the sky, roaring, it seemed, almost
straight up, he suddenly jettisoned his father’s life –
the immigrant child in Buffalo, New York, stumbling
over the syllables of his own name in a new language,
sponging his jacket of the rotten oranges and balls of mud
flung at his back as he walked to school, stopping his ears
to the incessant cawing of the wiry little Poles
fortunate enough to be born in America – dirty Polack,
stinking Polack
– the two room tenement thick
with the smells of boiling cabbage and stuffed pirogi,
his mother’s babushka, her blood-cracked hands
and terrified tongue. And then there was his father
all grown up at the center of a new life, a belt
in his hand, his shirt stained with beef blood
where he’d wiped the cleaver dawn to dusk,
the old syllables cracking cleanly in his mouth.
And there he was, too, laboring on into the night
hunched above the body of the boy’s own mother,
and pulling out, the son realized now, to confound
conception, and rolling off and over in the dark
just a few feet distant from the body of his boy, curled
like a dog on a folded blanket spread thinly on the floor.
And then resting on his back, his dark grunt of satisfaction
filling the room with a kind of cloud, his hands
cupped on his groin to form a little sacramental space
devoted to the only place in life that gave him any pleasure.

And so, all those years later, to remember those words –
the best part – as the plane surges through the atmosphere
carrying him, finally, away from war, he sees himself
alive at last, a swimmer in a clear tear of human hope,
a globule of desire rising from the old life at the same time
that it falls, disconnecting from the site of his entire history
and burning in its tracks both painfulness and pleasure.

Kate Daniels is the author of three books of poems, and has just completed a fourth collection entitled My Poverty. She has edited Muriel Rukeyser’s selected poems, a volume of essays on Robert Bly, and most recently, a forthcoming anthology of poems about Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. Daniels is Associate Dean of the College of Arts & Science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. “Photo by William Christenberry” first appeared in American Poetry Review 29/2 (March/April 2000). “Crowns” and “Polack” appeared in Five Points in 1999 and 2002. All work © Kate Daniels. Printed or reprinted by permission of the author.