Monday, September 17, 2007

Solomon's Sword: As If This Was The Choice

There's that famous story in the bible where two women are disputing custody of an infant child. They take their case to King Solomon and he offers them a compromise. Alright ladies, let's just cut the kid in half and you can each have your share. A sword is drawn. And then one woman beseeches the king to stop and allows the other woman the child. The wise king sees the sword put aside and awards the child to this woman. It's plain to him this is the true mother, someone who places the child's survival above her own jealous interests.

Lately I get this feeling: sometimes I feel like that king watching the two jealous women, sometimes I feel like the baby. More aptly, I feel my country is that helpless child, our soldiers serving overseas and their loved ones here at home hoping, they are that child too.

I think back to about a year ago. The horrible curvature of Iraq's spiraling violence was already evident and opposition to an open ended US involvement had become a central issue for this country. "Stay the course" had run dry as the Bush administration mantra for the war. It was no longer just dismissible "peace-nick liberals" opposing the bloodshed in Iraq. A profound majority of Americans were calling for an end to this war.

There was rumor of this Iraq Study Group that was about to release its findings. This group would offer up solutions for what everyone agreed was a problem.(Well, everyone except Dick Cheney thought it was a problem. He argued at the time that Iraq was really a "remarkable success!") Oddly enough for a purported democracy it had been agreed that the Iraq Study Group's bipartisan commission wouldn't release its report until after the November elections(the idea was "not to make it political"). There would be reasoned analysis of the problem and sound recommendations as to policy, but only after the public voted.

The President may have considered his "accountability moment" behind him, but it was very much at hand for the Congress. The primary and general elections of 2006 were quite simply a referendum on the Iraq debacle. The debate was had. Despite some late and desperate party establishment efforts to shelter their "moderates" like Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, yes, even despite themselves, Democrats retook the House and Senate unarguably on their appeal to this country's desire to see an end to this war.

That was November 2006.

Then came The ISG or "Baker Commission" report. At last they issued their findings and, together with the election results, the mandate was clear: engage in real diplomacy (i.e.: talk to everyone, even people we don't like), exact real compromise from the warring Iraqi factions and demand measurable progress from their government, rehabilitate the former Ba'athists and let's make Iraqi civil order an Iraqi responsibility. Continued American involvement must be conditionally premised on Iraqi progress towards these goals. This message was unmistakable. And one more aspect of the message was really quite clear: we should begin to bring our sons and daughters home.

That's where we began 2007. We know where it went from there. Our president thanked "Jimmy" Baker for his report and set about the exact opposite in terms of policy. The "surge" has taken us to a place where we are now told we can only hope to withdraw enough troops in the next few months to be back, sometime in 2008, where we were in late 2006. (there's hope, no promises though.) The President openly saber rattles towards Syria and Iran so as to mock the very idea of diplomacy. And every effort by Congress to counter the administration's unilateral policy has been painted and framed as something somehow endangering our troops in harm's way. Congress can only cut the purse strings, we are told, they can't tell the commander-in-chief what to do.

As if there was only one choice to make: either sever the child or surrender him up.

In the current national discourse it is unimaginable to consider another possibility, that the president and his administration, his advisors and staff, that he and his generals might accept the American people's mandate for peace.

Now we are told what the generals think we need for a "successful mission" in Iraq. We aren't even offered any particular assurance that this mission will make our country safer or stronger. "I don't know," General Petraeus said when he was asked by a Congressional Committee.

Are we as a nation served by immersing our soldiers in all this faceted factional bloodshed? "I don't know," that's what he said: "I don't know."

As for the progress of Iraqi reconciliation and reform, the answer from Ambassador Crocker was, in essence, "don't ask."

With this Congress is pressured for the next payment on the Iraqi installment plan: $50 billion in cash just for now and an unspecified number of lives, for just as long as it takes.

I count myself among those who have become frustrated with the slow and seemingly timid progress towards peace, with the way a clear mandate has been muted and all but ignored. I don't want to be this angry. I want to understand. I don't want this rage for the sake of peace.

I suppose I think of that story of Solomon's sword about to sever the child in half because we have been presented with a similar supposed choice for so long. But we haven't the blessing of a solemn judge with an eye for absurdity. No Solomon, no such wisdom. Instead we have those who have placed our soldiers into such jeopardy using the threat of their own dangerous obstenance to leverage more bleeding. Of all the characters in that ancient story, what we seem to have on our hands is the woman who would have watched as the child was cut in two.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Whisper, a prayer

There are times when you can see jet airliners way up high above my house. It has to be a clear day, they're flying at a quite an altitude. You have to look for them. They seem to be moving slowly and silently. The way the light glints off their wings and fuselage, they can be really quite beautiful.

It was just such a beautiful day six years ago. I remember that gorgeous September day. I think it was a Tuesday and the kids were off to school. I was very much enthralled with the idea of myself as a singer/songwriter at the time.

I had just put the final touches on a song I'd written and I was wrestling my way through a rendition on my 12 string, sitting in the back yard. (I never did do justice by that guitar - I would eventually sell it.) I distinctly remember the sight of one of those rarely noticed, beautiful, slow, silent jet airplanes overhead - it was heading south, perhaps southwest, for New York or maybe D.C., I assumed, coming out of Boston.

The song I'd written was this enormously earnest, and somewhat overlong, ballad called "Whisper." I think I was trying to write a peace anthem. At the time the Intifada was raging in the streets of Palestine, and every effort to quell the violence seemed to only make it worse.

In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Accords seemed to be, at best, a precarious hope, with old angry men and younger dangerous ones still shaking their fists over timeless 'Troubles.' Recent history in places like Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda hung heavy on my mind as well. I wondered if we humans would ever find the ability to live in peace.

On a beautiful day (such as that day in September, six years ago) the world could seem to be offering us peace, like some quiet and simple instruction we only needed to accept. Why can't we hear that whisper? That was the idea anyway. Perhaps I preached a bit much in that song, but that seemed like something worth doing just then. I was proud of myself for using a D-Minor 7th chord in the progression.

That beautiful clear blue morning, as I strummed and sang in the backyard by the white flowered hydrangea, my wife called me inside to the phone. My mother was on the line. Have you been watching TV? There's been an accident in New York. A plane hit one of the Twin Towers.

As my mother told me what she knew, I assumed that it was a small plane, that this would be one of those small, sad tragedies that occupies the news without really touching us. There would be plenty about it in the papers, probably for a week or more, no need to turn on the TV.

No, this was something more, my mother said. As if only to humor her, I turned on the news. To this day I'm not sure (it was so confused at that moment), but I believe I was watching live as the second plane hit the second tower.

In the song I'd written I was trying to come to terms with the idea of peace, or rather, the lack of it. There was a line in there about forgiveness as an unspent coinage, one we were being asked to give, let alone spend. And there was another line about rage as an empty pavement for empty streets.

As I said, I was preaching.

There was a verse where I imagined a Christ-like figure arriving upon the scene of some safe suburban modern day American town; Christ with his message of even suffering forgiveness. How would he be received? As I think of it now, I suppose for all I was trying to write a song, I was also trying to utter a prayer.

At different times over the past six years I've had different opinions of that song I'd just finished writing that morning in September. Sometimes I think of it as a beautiful earnest offering, at others it strikes me as pompous and preachy, maybe even naive. The last time someone asked me to perform it I shrugged it away and begged off. I probably couldn't play it right now if I tried.

Still, as I realized the date was coming round again, and as I thought of the way that tragedy has fallen into cynical use, as the ever more tortured justification for ever more fruitless violence, I thought of that song, that light of a beautiful September day, the message that light seemed to convey.

So quiet, almost whispered, a prayer.

This piece appeared in Metrowest Daily News
September 11, 2007

Monday, September 10, 2007

Heaven and Feast Of All Souls

two poems for my father


when he dared to speak of heaven
he used to like to imagine that it was an answer.
just possibly one great answer
or just possibly thousands
upon thousands
each to all mankind’s beseeching

and this world —the mistaken hope
—the pain inflicted even by care —this world
—was his theory of hell.

you listened as he waited and worried it past
the sharp lipped cup flavoring the sweet liquor with blood.
you took that drink with him
and you breathed in together the heavy pale smoke.
you saw the photographs of his journey
and again heard the sorry ballad
born of the dew-wilted flowers of Irish ruin.
and you were there as he prepared
his self-soul for its final travel,
purging the scarred laughter
of his ultimate song.

you once thought you understood.

and in your argument it appeared
that heaven
was not an answer but the beautiful quiet
of song
of aching
of asking.

feast of all souls

—and for a moment I do sense
your presence and as I had hoped it seems
you have found some nourishing peace

though, through my own disquiet, I know
you have not been completely healed
—this aching —the hunger I would share
with my own son —these aspects of your still suffering

I lift an empty cup to these questions
still posed through our communion
to these things you gave to me which I had mistaken
for poorly chosen gifts

these were not things for me to discard
you gave them for me to carry.

These poems appear in

available at

No Silence

I have emptied the silence —taken it
from my mouth —from that long song shadowed place
in beside my heart —from the colorless place behind my eyes.
I have emptied it from the bare stones I had gathered and arranged—
from the green leaves I had allowed to wither.

I have travelled the streets of abandoned logic “one last time.’
I have tasted the token smoke and bid farewell.
I have visited the grave and remembered my father’s expired voice
—speaking his penitent name and listening for what he never said
I have emptied that silence —that sentimental spree has come to a close.

And friends, I will not offer my own silence —I cannot.

It has been replaced in me —I am left with this on my tongue.
Ash or earth —each word displaces the next to call
and utterly transform my language.

I am changed to become something like the lowest
—perfect soils that allow water to pass through
that make a place for seed and offer sweet sheltered stillness.
—I will not mistake that quiet for silence
what is given to flower in the light.
These colors —my children —this song:

I am joined to the resonant host.

This poem appears in

available at

George Bush's Cross Eyed History

George Bush's latest assault on logic in defense of his misadventure in Iraq came in a speech to the VFW this week. With a supposedly historical perspective, the president cited analogies with our country's military conflict with Japan and its subsequent reconstruction as a democracy, with our involvement in Korea, and even with the war in Vietnam.

Of course, as he drew his comparison with Korea and Japan, he neglected to point out that we had been attacked by Japan, that the South Koreans had been invaded by North Korea. He neglected to point out that, in the case of Iraq, we were the unprovoked assailants, we were the invaders. The president still chooses to blur this particular fact with oblique and opaque allusions that connect Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks. This, though he has acknowledged (when pressed) that no connection has ever been proven to exist between Hussein's Iraq and the al Qaeda attacks of 2001.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of Bush's cartoon history of American militarism is his perversion of the facts in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. In the past the president has spoken out of opposing sides of his mouth at the same time: In one breath, praise for trade agreements and WTO membership for Vietnam (for the same regime we spent 50,000 American lives opposing); and in the next, saying our only major mistake in Vietnam was that we "quit too soon."

This week he attained a new low. Bush cites the horrors of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge "killing fields" as the kind of thing we can expect in Iraq if we leave now, as we left Vietnam in the 1970's. He attributes that genocidal catastrophe to those same vaguely defined "forces against freedom" we fought throughout Southeast Asia.

Perhaps there are parallels to be drawn, but not the deluded fables the president would concoct.

Our commander in chief would do well to remember that the Khmer Rouge rose to power in a Cambodia that had tried to remain uninvolved in the Vietnam War, that had found itself in coup induced political chaos, showered in secret bombings and ultimately invaded by U.S. troops. Eventually a puppet dictator fell and Pol Pot came to power and set about a program of "re-education" for the Cambodian people. This supposed education combined ethnic cleansing with ideological fervor to render one of the most devastating genocidal episodes in human history. It was the unified Vietnamese who ultimately challenged the Khmer Rouge, invading and deposing the regime, and unearthing "the killing fields."

Our legacy in the region would be colored by the fact that U.S. Special Forces and the Thai military with our backing would choose to provide support to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge as they retreated into the hinterlands after being routed by the Vietnamese. We would oppose the new Vietnamese backed regime as they sought representation in the United Nations. We would insist that the Khmer Rouge delegate more legitimately represented the Cambodian people. We saw this as a strategic move against Vietnam as it aligned with the Soviet Union at the time. With our tacit approval our "strategic friends" in China would punish the new Vietnamese regime for its actions in Cambodia with military strikes along their border.

Yes, a thorough reading of history would serve us all well as we consider our calamity in Iraq. We might have learned by now that galvanizing disparate threats into a common enemy and lensing all conflict through ideology only renders our actions blunt, brutal and ultimately regrettable. But the reading our president proposes isn't one that draws such lessons from the past. Rather he offers up ever more simplistic fables and vapid mythology: The stuff wars are made of... they almost always have been.


Three stars
as the sky has begun
so differently
—the shadow logic dissolving
and blue, eye-like, light opens
upon the surface,
the smooth
of the sky.

The morning does not break —it becomes
whole before us.
And those three stars
remaining, if only
with us.

Three sea birds, songless above the unquiet
gesture at the shore: that not caress,
not punishment either. A sculptor’s
distracted hand at his creation. Yes, this fact
of absurd patience, the wisdom of sand, the silence

—so we would dream
of those birds, in place on the wind
and witness
to the ruinous grace.

This is what holds us here, these
three distant storms of light,
three silently hungering spirits,
these three needy castings of the heart—
and these three such syllables
of 'Trinity' spoken and taken to their meaning
with our listening to them.

Each of these, seconds —sands, so delicately balanced
and about to fall.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

There Are Too Many

This past Monday morning I drove my son to school as I often do. At that hour our conversation is seldom much more than pleasantries: favorite gags from last night’s episode of the Simpsons, small talk about the coming day’s school work and activities, maybe a peptalk about Algebra.This past Monday morning even the lightest of conversation was a little harder to carry off. Each telephone pole between home and my son’s school was marked with a sign bearing the name of a soldier. This coming weekend is Memorial Day and every year in my home town of Holliston these very simple shrines are put up along the major streets in town.

The name, the state that a soldier called home, the age that soldier was on the day he died, the flag of his country stapled to the pole —these are put in place as a tribute, as a memorial, as a reminder.

There isn’t a particular political point of view to these displays. These memorials have gone up twice a year, Memorial Day and Veterans Day, ever since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. In the first year they stretched a few miles along the main route through town. By last year they had reached from one end of town to another and reached in several other directions along sidestreets and country roads. This year for the first time not every soldier will have his or her name displayed.

There are too many.

You read the ages and the names from these roadside signs and you imagine the faces and the families touched by tragedy. You think of the many parents, children, brothers, sisters, cousins, loved ones and best friends. You think of the waves of loss travelling out from each name. You try to imagine the pain you would feel as you count on one hand the difference in age between a dead young soldier from Texas and your own son riding in the seat beside you. You think of your mother’s own worry and prayer and your own brother’s brave pride as he readies himself for an overseas deployment with The National Guard. You think of every argument you’ve had against these on-going wars, of your rage at the way it seems some would prefer not to question or dwell upon thebloodshed. You think of the anger that has come to rise even from pleas for peace.

Your heart aches.

These memorial shrines are attached to telephone poles, generally, and as such they appear every thirty or forty feet along the side of the road. There is something solemn and fitting in this —even beautiful. There is something of the slow and persistent cadence of a procession brought to mind, even as you drive along on an empty errand or take your child to one appointment or another. That cadence enters your thoughts without your even knowing it. It enters your heart.

There is a slight incline along Hollis Street as you approach Holliston High School. And until you reach the crest of this slope you don’t see the school. Across from the front door of the building is an open pasture, only a couple of acres of grazing land. Along one side of the pasture there is a little side road where the kids who smoke all gather before school. This field is fenced off from the road by chickenwire strung between treated posts. These posts are spaced every six feet or so.

This past Monday morning every one of the posts along that pasture and across from the school was flying a flag in the wind. Every post bore a dead soldier’s name and age. As we came to the crest of the hill my son and I saw all those flags together.

That slow cadence of the other memorials changed to something more powerful and urgent and tragic.

We had been listening to a cd on the car stereo: Neil Young’s latest recording, a collection of protest music, some of it quite angry. There was a song playing just then that said something about “the flags of freedom flying.” That particular song was less angry. More simply it expressed a bewildered pain.

We turned into the parking lot and I dropped off my son like I’ve done a hundred times before. There was a part of me that was glad every kid showing up to school that day was going to see those flags, every teacher, and every parent dropping off their teenaged child. That part of me wanted to explain something to my son before he headed off to classes. It wanted to define what we saw and say what it meant. It wanted to have an answer to the question “what then are we to do?” But that part of me couldn’t come up with words just then. We hardly said a thing to each other as he climbed out of the car and walked away.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and that might be right. This Monday morning I sensed what an image can say once it has entered deep inside you, what the image of all those flags and all those names can say, something much more profound than a thousand words of argument or anger, something like a simple prayer for peace.

Originally published
MetroWest Daily News Memorial Day, 2006

fifteen haiku


breath in the water,
notion of sleep, eternal,


two spirits, dark eyed,
and asking, by the roadside
you can heed neither


take the broken earth
sift the soil through wounded hands
you feel them healing


flower beholding you
the petals grow large and near
infinite and small


the hero images
thumbtacks and adhesive tape
hold them to the wall


the root —below —deep
—flowering toward darkness,
blossom breathing light.


words words words spoken
without a thought for meaning
an unending sea.


...each leaf a notion
of the dark dreaming within
each wakening seed...


ink on parchment fades
roads lose their destination
watch the drifting star


beneath clear water
the soft bed of the slow stream
stone and sand forming


insistent sleep clouds
shadowing the blue sky mind
it's so hard to wake


try to whisper—heart
be still—do not ask for breath—
only for this light!


the eye cannot see
history, not days or hours,
there is only this.


light across the tongue—
mind reaching toward the heart—
such sweet poetry


fifteen haiku— yes—
a strange gift— but then again
all poems are love poems

Notes On An Opening Scene

It would begin with a dark screen
and the faintest distant
scratched plastic phonograph music
spinning absently afar. The void screen
then maybe —a guitar. Muddy Waters
chiming in that everything
everything, everything is gonna be alright
But before the wild stomp of ‘Mannish Boy’
kicks in, the fade.
Back into that black.
Hold it for a second too long
—then give me the colorless light.
The shock of white after so much darkness:
a woman’s face —only a glimpse—
disheveled hair
—Is she beautiful?
We shouldn’t know just yet.
Please have her hair wild and dry,
singular bright strands arching through the ink black
like sparks on slow film.
Her voice will have that music of the guitar
the same strained single note, bending.
She speaks of the story —she doesn’t
tell it. There is the mistaken
assumption that we already know
and understand.
Her complaint —her brave forgiveness
and generous pity.
Her sorrow.

The film is slow and dark, the light
is harsh and weak
like a coward’s judgement.
It shouldn’t matter who she forgives or graces,
who she chooses for the catastrophe of her heart.

We won’t play any favorites in this game.
Another fade before this becomes about her.

Cut to his hands, trembling as they appear,
as they lift the needle arm back to its rest.
Stay with the hands —shaking as he lifts them to his face.
We are his eyes
searching to steady those hands as they reach
as he moves through the soft focus space
to light the greasy stove flame.
Blue flame eruption.
He staggers and turns.
Maybe this is the first real color
—the only one.

I once had words for him—I described him
in philosophical terms, having borrowed
what I could from the dust jackets
of denser texts —contemporary aesthetic theory
and the current paradigm.
He fumbled his way through the deconstructed
architecture. And I faked my way
through faux Kundera and loitering naked warfare
—with nudity. Pages and pages —

That was another set of lenses.
These instructions are for another purpose.

Not a fade this time—nothing so obvious
and only as naked. There are the same occluded
views. Beautiful. Obsene. Absurd.

The pornographer’s confession.
The tyrant’s self pity. The soft
utterly colorless light
—a new breast, her vacant stare.
Blurred white
covering her face.
Rumble and hum of an over-amplified
bass guitar.
song lyrics out of place.

Suddenly silence. No
the kettle scream —comforts in one way
and rages mercilessly in another.
His fingers trace the edge of a smooth plastic counter
—a matchbook cover folded back behind
the one light remaining and torn cardboard strands.
Rain mottled soot
on a window pane.

The screen goes white. It is not silence.
The same music is playing but it is changed somehow.

The camara finds, then loses focus, then
again, and again —that struggle to see
some perfect surface —skin, the sky
or perhaps a veil that only moves
at the first touch of breath
—at the very last.

Seven Songs, a collection

these are seven songs of mine.
I thought of them together recently.
there are some you can hear if you look me up on i-tunes
but you might sing them better yourself
so here:


the things you tried to give to me
I won’t need them where I’m going
the things you tried to teach to me
there won’t be no use there in my knowing
I’m just tired of all this talk about trying
and all oh how useful life can be
when I see one lonely bird up there flying
I start to wonder if there’s a place for me

no better name for where I’m bound
there’s nothing I can claim that I have found
but there’s nothing you could ever sing or say to make me stay
no better name for where I’m bound
but away

we both believed this was a healing place
a place for me to lay my burden down
but deep inside we both found this empty place
just as empty as the streets of this town
you just don’t know what burns inside of me
and I might not know what lives inside of you
weren’t we both fools for what we tried to be?
the lies we told dreaming they’d come true

and you can keep the change
and you can keep the choices
this dream we both thought was ours
‘cause I won’t see your eyes and I won’t hear the voices
telling me to stay and hide these scars

no better name for where I’m bound
there’s nothing I can claim that I have found
but there’s nothing you could ever sing or say to make me stay
no better name for where I’m bound
but away

Midnight Soldier

I don’t want your sympathy for what I’ve been through
I don’t want forgiveness for what I’ve had to do
your charity is a curse on me I try to rearrange
a heart just like a purse i see, you can keep the change

you don’t know the midnight soldier
you don’t even know a thing about his war
or the battle in his brain that sends him walking in the rain
while you just dim the light and close the door

you don’t need to close your eyes or turn your face away
you don’t need to listen to a single word I say
I will be your soldier, I’ll be gone and I’ll be brave
my name can mark your memory like a stone that marks a grave

you don’t know the midnight soldier
you don’t even know a thing about his war
or the battle in his brain that sends him walking in the rain
while you just dim the light and close the door

you rest your head and dream your dreams as if I was not there
I will watch the night and bear the load that marks a soldier’s care
let the tired stars all fall on me in the shadows of this day
in the echoes of the songs not sung, the words you will not say

I sleep in the day time now in the ashes of our bed
after burning through the night and these things inside my head
the morning light might shine upon a simple broken cup
but it won’t mend and it won’t fill and you won’t lift it up

you don’t know the midnight soldier
you don’t even know a thing about his war
or the battle in his brain that sends him walking in the rain
while you just dim the light and close the door

Falling Down, Standing Up

everyone I know has needs
everyone I know has needs
everyone I know has needs
and you are one of mine

the walls have got a brand new coat of paint
the ceiling starts to fall
the things I tried to say to you last night
I know they make no sense at all

the flower falls into the bottle throat
green glass liquor long ago
drunk on dreamsongs and talk of tender hope
and high on how these seemed to glow

falling down, standing up
you leave some things behind
coffee stain lines on an empty cup
turning circles through my mind
everyone I know has needs
everyone I know has needs
everyone I know has needs
and you are one of mine

isn’t this the song I sang for you before
remember paradise before the fall
while the sorry soldier sleeping just outside your door
lies dark and dreaming of your call

but winter chose to stay another day
so you can sleep or just pretend
while the sad survivor finds another way
one wrinkled dollar left to spend

falling down, standing up
you leave some things behind
coffee stain lines on an empty cup
turning circles through my mind
everyone I know has needs
everyone I know has needs
everyone I know has needs
and you are one of mine

Are You Still Sleeping?

are you still sleeping my darling?
are you still wrapped up in your dreams?
you know tonight there’s a light that the stars bring
that says exactly what it means

it does not shine with prayers or promises
of what it hopes to do some day
it will not hurt you in the ways it tries to hold you
it will not choose to turn away

it tells me not to hope for heaven
while I’m lying next to you
it feels your breath dancing lightly on my skin
and paints your face in shades of blue

I don’t know where I’ve been until now
and I don’t know where I’ll go
I just know that I’m with you right now
I just know

I know that I have tried to hold you
like tommorrow was a thief
I’ve tried to hide my heart from what I told you
and this has only brought us grief

but in this light my love I see you
you are here and so am I
every second burning bright inside my heart
like these stars from in the sky

I know that I would be forgiven
for every foolish things I’ve done
if you would wake and see the way this blessing’s given
to love’s foolish fallen son

I don’t know where I’ve been until now
and I don’t know where I’ll go
I just know that I’m with you right now
I just know

is this a song about forgiveness?
is this the song to set us free?
you and I, are we the victims or the witness
to what can and cannot be?
is this light the light of wisdom,
of some truth, sent from above?
is this song a song of salvation or surrender?
is this the shining face of love?

I don’t know where I’ve been until now
and I don’t know where I’ll go
I just know that I’m with you right now
that’s all I know

The River Knows

I think she thought the distance was too far
I think she thought I longed to be a star
I think she said to me, boy, this never can be
I even think I heard her say goodbye

she led me by the hand and through her hometown, past the humming yellow streetlight driveway drone
past her parent’s anxious stares and their virgin mother prayers.
through the winding winter streets we walked alone
did we stumble, did we crawl, did we fly or finally fall to the place beside the river that we found?
she told the river’s name to me, I told the river mine softly, then we listened to the magic water’s sound

and now the river— knows my name
I spoke it like a password or a prayer
I know it saw her dark eyes shine, it could taste the tears in mine
and it felt the wind so gently move her hair

we watched there from the water’s edge, she told me of her dreams, I don’t recall a single word I said
but the words that people say like the prayers that prayers pray
can fall and tangle like the sheets from off a bed
how the stars did shine down to light up the crown the queen of night was wearing for the show
she reached out her hand as we both did try to stand and wipe the midnight dirt from off our clothes

and now the river— knows my name
I spoke it like a password or a prayer
I know it saw her dark eyes shine, it could taste the tears in mine
and it felt the wind so gently move her hair

I still see her winter breath curling through the night, drifting to its rest among the stars
‘sweet longing’ was the scene, the picture frame around a dream
whispered by the passing highway cars
I cannot sing today the words I could not say the broken wings that would not fold or fly
the river there still flows with all the things it knows those things that will forever pass me by.

Not Chosen

(after a poem by Ahkmatova)

I am not chosen that’s not your fault
but say goodbye to your pillar of salt.
Just turn away, love, leave me behind,
let me pass from your heart to your mind
and down the road, you tell the world
that I was the one who turned.

you talked of love to me, sweet things I heard,
the sweet secret song of some heavensent bird
but the bird on the wing, love, he just sings his song.
he’s not the judge of who’s right or wrong
and though he flies so high above
love brings him down.

in your history, darling, love seems to fade.
your songs sing praise of the walls that we made
but the warmth of our bed, the laugh of a child—
who will remember the way that you smiled?
these things are real, though you would not hold them
you walked away.

I am not chosen that’s not your fault
but say goodbye to your pillar of salt.
Just turn away, love, leave me behind,
let me pass from your heart to your mind
and down the road, you tell the world
that I was the one who turned.

None The Wiser

none the wiser I’ve come home to you
none the wiser only hungry tired and blue
for all my time at searching to find just one thing true
I guess I should have known I’d find it when I came home to you

I’m a soldier coming home from the war
the victor or the vanquished only wanting nothing more
it’s long ago forgotten now what he was fighting for

none the wiser, I’ve come home to you
none the wiser for all the battles I’ve been through
I see the tattered banners hanging in a blue and breathless sky
still I see their colors gently turning there in your eyes

I climbed onto the mountain top to see what I could see
no angel come to touch my lips with a burning kiss for me
the songs that I was going to sing, the message I was going to bring,
my blind and lonely wandering, these were to be my offering to thee

none the wiser I’ve come home to you
none the wiser only come to learn one journey is through
and that all of the darkness I have been through
has been along a path that leads me back home to you

I see one pale star in the night
with its memory and a promise of the light
and I know the blind man’s recollection of his sight

none the wiser I’ve come home to you
none the wiser I’ve come home to you
none the wiser I have come home to you

these songs are published in

available at

Saturday, September 8, 2007

“What else could be done?”

“What else could be done?”

This was a couple of years back. I was browsing around in the general store just a short walk from my house, right in the center of town. It was just a brief exchange I overheard as I waited for my daughter to make up her mind about some greatly important purchase: a new notebook for school, or colored markers, or maybe it was the choice of a candybar that had her stumped. We were right up by the front, by the cash register where the owner's father was literally minding the store. This is the kind of place where you know the owners and the owners know you —they apologize if they don't have the disposable fountain pen you've grown to like writing with, but they "think they have some coming in next Tuesday." Anyway, it was their dad at the register that day, a handsome old and kind man, quiet, always pleasant, a gentleman, just possibly the perfect specimen of what has come to be known of as “the greatest generation.” So up to the counter steps this very pretty elderly woman. Blue-gray eyes. Her face was aged, but still smooth and fair. Her neatly kept hair was a vague reminiscence about being blonde. She explained that she was looking for some craft supplies. As she asked for his help she spoke slowly and softly, with the ever so slight trace of a German accent.

They disappeared into that part of the store and were back within moments, each with an armload (my daughter was still weighing pros and cons)."I couldn't help but notice your accent,” the old man mentioned as he placed her items into a thin brown onionskin giftshop bag. His tone was of an asking, an invitation to small talk. I remember the smile in his eyes, even through his thick glasses. If each of them were sixty years younger, he might have been asking her to a dance.

Yes, she allowed, she was from Germany. Many years ago. She was a girl. Dresden.

"Such a beautiful place... And such beautiful people. I remember it...,” he said at first wistfully and then his voice trailed off to explain. "The war," he said and stammered slightly, and his whole person took on a strange burdened quality. "So much was destroyed. So much..." He looked toward the floor and she quickly leaned forward as if trying to lift his eyes. I forget the exact words the old man said after that. I only remember hearing something break in his voice. I only remember the sorrow.

"What else could be done?" the German long-ago girl said. She offered this to him —as an acknowledgment, as understanding and forgiveness. She spoke of the horrible things her country had done, for all its beauty —what else could be done?

The two of them stood there silently for one very delicate second.

Then they each smiled and thanked each other through the rest of the craft supply transaction. It was off to “have a good day” and “do the same.” Sometime later that same day I got my daughter to make up her mind and decide on her purchase.

That little conversation in a small town general store stuck with me, and it has come to mind from time to time over the past couple of years. I think of it when I hear people speak in triumphal terms of that "greatest generation." It comes to mind when pundits want to compare wars and rework history into simplistic equations. It comes to mind when I hear men who have never truly known the experience of war speak of it, as if it were a business venture, as a “remarkable success.” I hear that old soldier’s voice breaking with sorrow and that old “enemy” woman offering him her consolation.

I’ve never spoken with that “old soldier” about that conversation since that day. I think at the time I said something articulate like “wow,” as I paid for my daughter’s purchase, and he simply nodded and smiled, shook his head. I know I’ve seen him drive by in uniform in our town’s Memorial Day parade a couple of times since then. The uniform still fits. The old soldiers ride in classic convertibles at just the same speed little leaguers and cub scouts can walk. The way he carries himself there, I’m certain that he’s proud of his service to his country. For all the sorrow, I sense he is not sorry. From me there’s always a salute as I watch him go by. And I think of my own dad, gone now, and of that whole generation —the lessons they learned and taught about sacrifice, the war they fought, and the peace they prayed would last for their children. And grandchildren

I don’t know if I can close this piece with a resounding conclusion. I would like to think that I’ve learned something somehow, just trying to put down the words. I know this is something about sorrow and sacrifice —about courage and peace. I’d like to think it is about thanks and hope, forgiveness and consolation. "What else could be done?" the German long-ago girl said to the stammering old soldier. I guess that’s where I’d like to leave this, with that question. Between them it meant one thing. For us, I think it stands as question.

A Soldier's Dream

This is a recent song, new lyrics
to the traditional melody 'Lord Franklin'

A Soldier's Dream

A sleepless night and still I had a dream.
I saw a family joined in pain.
Another soldier was coming home
With another name now to be carved in stone.

I dreamed I saw them all standing there,
A folded flag and whispered sorry prayer.
We watched in silence as they laid him down
And warm tears fell to the cold cold ground.

And in this dream I saw my hands reach down.
I gathered soil up from the broken ground.
I prayed a prayer, one soul to save
And let the dirt fall on his open grave.

There’s talk of protest, now —and talk of pride,
As if you choose your truth and you can choose your side.
But this dream of mine will not let me be,
Not with these questions it keeps asking me.

How many more then will be asked to die,
To suffer truth onto this foolish lie?
And how much longer can we all pretend
That we can wait and watch and this war will end?

this song is published in

available at

Thirtythree years ago this August

I remember the day Richard Nixon resigned. It was August of ‘74. Thirtythree years ago. I was about to turn thirteen and I was on vacation with my mother. We were staying, of all places, at The Watergate Hotel. I remember the gift shop in the lobby was selling these little figurines of a bumble bee like creature called “The Watergate Bug.” We had spent the day touring the Smithsonian and were cooling off back in the room and there he was on television, finally owning up (at least a little bit) and announcing that he would spare the country any further agony.

My first thought was “Oh geez, what’s Dad gonna say about this?”

My father was back home in Massachusetts. Let’s just say he wasn’t one of those people driving around with the “don’t blame me” bumperstickers. He had defended ‘Tricky Dick’ all along. Not that he liked him all that much —one of his favorite arguments against Nixon’s accusers was that the man was too self-centered and ruthless (and too smart) to involve himself in this cover up. “He would just throw those people to the wolves,” Dad insisted. As I think back on it now, I guess my dad was something of a pragmatist, cynical in a way. He argued that many of the traits that made Nixon somewhat despicable as a person, made him an effective president. He was hard-nosed, yes, to a point of ruthlessness, but it was a harsh world. Nixon was a realist. The one most important aspect though, in my father’s book: He was an honest man.

Now it was coming to an end. What would Dad say? We’d both watched the hearings on television. Jowely old Sam Ervin and his “I’m just an ol’ country lawyer” routine. John Dean, his wife with the hair pulled back so hard she couldn’t blink, Haldeman and Ehrlichman,all gray flannel finesse and dead pan denial, Gordon Liddy’s strange interface with life on our actual planet. We’d watched it all, and through it all my father had argued for faith in Richard Nixon’s ever more tortured honesty. “He’s ruthless, he’s petty, he’s vainglorious, but he’s a man of his word!”

Now... oh geez.

It was actually quite a while before my father could even talk about it. What I remember most about his first reaction was his comment that he was more entitled to be angry with the man than anyone. Those who had accused Nixon and were now proven right, they could at least enjoy an ‘I told you so’ alongside their righteous indignation. My father was the one who had been betrayed. “I believed him!” he said with a wounded bewilderment in his voice.

I’ve thought of my father a lot over the past few years. My generation has its own hard-nosed pragmatic war to deal with. And lately we’ve had our own parade of government suits and claims of “executive privilege” (we might even be in dire need of an ‘ol’ country lawyer’ sometime soon!) I’ve thought of my dad and that August, 33 years ago now.

He used to love to talk politics. More precisely, he used to love to argue politics (nothing galled him more than people who nodded in agreement with him). We spent a good number of years trying to make sense of the Nixon presidency. Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton gave us plenty to chew on as well. (I suffered the tortures of the damned throughout the Clinton administration. I worked much harder than George Stephanopoulos ever did. And I never got paid a dime.) Through it all, my dad cut a fairly conservative course and I was the liberal counterpoint. We could argue long and loud and we did, often. But as we argued we also tried to make sense of things. And every now and then we’d agree.

Maybe that got a little easier as the politics aged into history. We would eventually come to a consensus that Nixon wasn’t so enlightened and effective after all, that there was such a thing as hard-nosed folly. My concession in the debate was that my father was right, honesty was the most important aspect. My father proudly claimed his rank and privilege as being the most aggrieved party to realize that point. We agreed that the cast of characters and co-conspirators from the Nixon White House had been a danger to this country and what it stood for, that the country and the Constitution had been sorely tested, and that, for all the contention and crisis, we had passed that test, we were a better country for it.

Spying on our own citizenry, using the facilities of government for political gamesmanship, collusion and obstruction, listing enemies among our own people and turning the force of the state against them: this was frightening folly indeed, but our constitutional government survived. The abuse of power had led an American president to lose that power.

That was something we could all be proud of. Thirtythree years ago this August.

Orinally Published August 07 in Metrowest Daily News

Echoes Off The Wall

"Peace with honor." I keep hearing those words lately, like some sad echo off the surface of a wall.

"Peace with honor," those were the words and Richard Nixon was the man saying them. This was his promise as he ran for election in 1968, the promise he made to a country already deeply wounded and troubled by an ill begotten war in Vietnam. Those words had a hopeful reassuring tone to them then. We mightn’t win, but we won't lose, they said. We're not making war, they said, our goal is peace, "peace with honor."

I heard those words and I was a little less afraid, for myself, for my two older brothers, for those poor wounded soldiers I saw on the cover of Life Magazine. There was hope, there were new words like "vietnamization" and "demilitarized zone." We'll step back when South Vietnam's army steps forward -soon they won't need our young men to fight and die in their terrible country. That was the hope. It was a good promise that would come in good time. It was 1968 and I was seven years old, my oldest brother was fifteen.

Those years that followed were scary times of argument and conflict. As the song said, "battle lines were being drawn." Men in hardhats waived American flags and “peacenik” hippies burned them. In my house, my parents tried to teach us to believe in noble things and "peace with honor" soldiered on as the closest thing we could hope for. "Peace, now" was just an infantile demand. "Peace with honor" would require sacrifice, and time.

From 1969 to 1972, the years that followed Richard Nixon's promise of "peace with honor," another 20,000 U.S. soldiers would die in Vietnam as we sought that peace. Over 100,000 would return home wounded. About 320,000 Vietnamese would die in the armed conflict. There is no accurate way to estimate the civilian losses of that period.

In 1975, shortly after the withdrawal of American fighting forces, South Vietnam fell to an invasion from the North combined with the Viet Cong insurgency. The result we had feared most came to pass.

That was over thirty years ago.

Recently, our current president visited Vietnam, the unified communist led Vietnam this country spent over 58,000 American lives opposing, the Vietnam that lost five million of its own people to that terrible war. Our president was there to emphasize the "extremely important" and "very broad relationship" between the United States and Vietnam of today. Vietnam is soon to join the World Trade Organization, explained Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, as the President headed off for Southeast Asia(finally), and this "is going to be of tremendous benefit to both Vietnam and to the United States in terms of job growth, in terms of making the markets open for products!"

On the way to his recent visit President Bush was asked if Vietnam offered any lesson he might apply to his current situation. Yes, he said, we shouldn't expect "instant success" in Iraq. "We'll succeed unless we quit."

The recent elections, Rumsfeld's departure, the release of The Iraq Study Group report -some see these as positive signs, as progress towards peace. And I would like to believe that is the case. But I hear those words still echoing. "Peace with honor." I hear them -when even the ISG report is premised on half our troops remaining for years in Iraq as "embedded forces." When even Democrats enjoying the spoils of an antiwar vote are heard mulling a surge in U.S. forces in Iraq "if only for a
little while." When no one can say what we're trying to win exactly. When no one, for sure, can say where the battleground is, or what side we’re on. When even the generals are saying it's not a military fight "per se." When politicians start explaining the difference between 'victory" and "success" -that's when I hear those words, echoing off our sadly repeated history.

How much blood does it take to paint an "honorable" face on an ill advised calamity? In Vietnam we learned that 58,000 dead American soldiers wasn't enough, not for any lacking honor of the service men and women whose lives were sacrificed, but because a falsely premised war, sustained with lies,
even the lies we tell ourselves, won't ever find an honorable peace. Not for those lies, not for those liars. That is not a function of impatience or quitting. That is a function of the truth.

Take a look at the wall, Mr. President, The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, right there in Washington, D.C.. If that dark shining wall with all those names was twice as long and three times as high, if it was marked with five times as many names, the truth would still be the truth.

Perhaps, that is what we all should have learned from Vietnam. How much longer will it take for us to learn that lesson now?

My older brother John served with The First Cavalry Division in Vietnam and is currently deployed with the Massachusetts Army National Guard in Kosovo on a peace keeping mission. He has never once "quit.”

originally published in Metrowest Daily News/July 07

Friday, September 7, 2007

Another Light

He woke from an utter darkness and silence —a dreamless sleep —as if he was born to this place. He could hear just enough from a nearby room to know that a television was playing there. He could gather the tone of an excited voice, but he couldn’t quite identify the language being spoken. It was a breathless almost cheerful voice with an odd music to it —a sportscaster —or a war correspondent whose preferred side was winning.

This oddly happy voice sang from behind a closed doorway. He could not see this doorway but its effect upon the distant voice was unmistakable. His mind’s eye saw the door, its coarse gray paint worn through to shining in places from use. He could see that sort of metal doorframe, hollow, with mitred corners. His mind’s eye drew the dark lines.

It seemed that he hadn’t yet opened his eyes. He opened them —or rather he tried to open them. And at that same moment he felt his own warm breath spill back across his face and he remembered. His eyes stung with darkness. A heavy canvas bag was over his head —the bag smelled of its canvas, that scorched smothering fragrance, as if sunlight had become exhausted in the heavy fabric —and that exhausted light had turned rancid.

Yes, he had woken from a dreamless sleep and in those first moments he hadn’t yet remembered anything —his own name or language —what had brought him here to this darkness. There had been some peace in these first moments of waking which left him now, a scattered gathering of crows, a sudden flower of pain —opening within him —discoloring the darkness.

He remembered their arrival —screaming voices in a foreign tongue, the sound of car doors slamming shut, dark boots landing heavily in the loose gravel walkway outside his home, one man or many moving quickly past the windows of the front room —the explosion of chaos and cool night air as the entrance doorway erupted into splinter pieces flying and shouting men with guns. Had they moved so quickly? —or had they come from every direction at once? —to surround him, shouting, screaming their instructions to him in words he did not know.

Where are you taking him? His wife had screamed, more an accusation than a question. Brave woman, or fool, perhaps she simply hadn’t realized who these people were —how they could choose to behave. Brave woman, or fool, she had called his name then as someone thrust a knee into his stomach, while others grabbed his arms from behind.

His wrists were joined behind him and tied. And quickly he disappeared into the darkness. The canvas sack was over his head. It was the same one he wore now.

Brave woman, or fool, his wife had called his name again —her voice strangely calm, almost warm —offering comfort, as if she called him away from some terrible dream. She only said his name, but in such a way as to say they cannot hurt you, my love —they can never take you from me.

He remembered his daughter crying —screaming from her room. There were other men, others of his captors running through the home —slamming doors, book cases overturned, the wicker chair being smashed into the floor, breaking glass. They shouted warnings and kicked open doors with their heavy shoes. It all transpired in darkness, though through his minds eye he saw. His prized books torn under their feet. Terror on the face of his child. His wife’s dark eyes.

They had lifted him off his feet then by the arms that were twisted behind him. Off his feet and suspended this way his shoulders had screamed a message of pain across his chest. This scream had gripped his heart and taken his voice. He could not speak. He could not breath, yet he flew through the air —borne by his captors —by his wings of pain.

His wife called one last time from somewhere suddenly far behind him and growingly distant. In his mind’s eye he saw her face —the face that would have accompanied that voice. He knew that face. Without his eyes he saw her. Without his voice he called to her.

See to the child! My love, see to the child!

He was thrown to the floor of a cargo vehicle of some kind. The impact of his own falling sounded a solemn resonant drum. His strangled chest, his shoulders aflame with the searing pain of his injury, were almost soothed by the cool greasy metal floor he found himself pressed against. He felt the shudder of an engine turning beneath him. They began to move away and he was suddenly nauseous. He struggled to contain the sensation with each jolt of the motor changing gears.

In his minds eye he willed that his wife had turned away from the shattered doorway of their home. She must see to the child. He would survive this darkness. She must see to the child.

The pain in his shoulders remained. His arms were still bound behind him. The tearing pain across his chest was easier now —perhaps he had learned to breath differently. Shallowly. Slowly.

His legs were folded beneath him and his ankles, too, were bound. These were joined to his wrists behind him. He had never folded his legs in this way before. He was not certain what had become of his knees. He did not recall when they had bound him in this configuration, but just that thought —just the question— sent a wakened pain coursing through his legs and along his spine. A cruel blood was released in his veins and travelled through him, flowering at the back of his skull.

It was his own voice he heard then —he hadn’t meant to speak —this cruel blood filled his mind and spoke. Something less than a scream had emitted from him —something more desperate than a prayer or a plea, something more primitive —the first word of the first language. This sound had filled the canvas sack around his face.

He could not know if anyone had heard his cry. His breathing followed heavy with the renewed presence of his pain. He was waking from sleep. He was newly born to this horrible place. For all his body was motionless his agony now entailed a strange gathering exertion. It seemed each beat of his heart sent flame coursing through each cell of his body. Each flame demanded a deeper breath. The sharper and heavier each breath, the sharper and heavier the pain became. It was as if his spirit swam in some torrential stream with this exertion —and should he slacken the pace he would drown. He was waking from sleep and he wondered to himself, how had he slept and lived? How had he not drowned in these inner flames?

He chose to deepen and slow his breathing and he began to move beyond the stream.

He remembered the birth of his daughter. The child had chosen a terrible time to be born. His wife and he were not ready. The world was not.

That night the streets had been closed. Explosions wracked the city. Spasms of flame in the distance. The power had failed. And the telephone. He alone had been left there to comfort his wife in the darkness. He had held her hand in his own. Now he remembered her eyes, animal and dark with suffering. He moved her sweat dampened hair from her face. She forced deep even breaths. The candlelight reflected in her eyes. For all her pain, she looked at him. She saw him and smiled a brief smile and then turned again to her breaths.

He held himself to that smile in his mind. He held himself to those breaths, her breaths, then his own.

His own body was calming now. His own breathing had helped to ease his efforts in the river of pain. He began to move more freely there. He let himself glide through and then float above that river. The notion of flame cooled inside him. From this place he took note of his condition once more. The pain in his legs and along his back was the hot inner knifing of wracked muscle. This contortion he was bound in was responsible for that. Perhaps he could train himself to dispel this —if only he could convince these muscles to stop their complaint —to at least for a time surrender. At each of his shoulders there burned a perfect blue flame. This was damage —something torn open in the flame. These might heal. Or they might never.

At his wrists behind him something cold and very thin —where they had bound his hands with plastic straps. Perhaps he was bleeding there. It seemed his blood was improbably freezing to form sharp crystals. Brittle. Resonant. Perfect.

His breath had gone quiet now and he realized so had everything around him. The television noise from the next room was gone. At some great distance he heard a metal door close on a metal frame.

What do you want with me?
Why have you done this?
You don’t even know who I am.
My wife —my child —have you harmed them as well?
What could you possibly gain from what you are doing?

Answer me.
Answer me...

The crystalline pain at his wrists bound behind him grew just then—suddenly larger. And everything around it gave way. At the same time something cool moved along the back of his neck and opened gently in his brain. Cool —a white petalled flower—the fire moving through him —transformed into sweet honeyed milk.

He held his daughter in his arms then —for the very first time. In her face he saw his own. He saw too the sweet darkness of his wife, of her eyes and hair, her voice as it sang. He imagined the child’s voice would one day have the same dark quality.

The child had calmed quickly from its crying, as he held her wrapped in a bath towel and he circled the candlelit room. He had looked out the window on the city with her cradled there in his arms. He rocked gently. The sky was reddened that night with distant fires. But the outside world was oddly silent and far removed at that moment. More than a window pane separated them from the horrors outside.

His wife had spoken his name —what music that had been —her voice at once betraying her weariness, her aching to hold the child, and the joy she had seen born there —this child he held in his arms.

She laughed and playfully scolded as she spoke his name once more. He came to her then with their child. He placed their daughter in her arms.

He blew out the candle by her bedside then.
And the three of them embraced, there in a sweet sweet darkness.