Our Asian war is over; others have begun.
Our elders, who tried to mortgage lies,
are disgraced, or dead, and already
the brokers are picking their pockets
for the keys and the credit cards.
In delta swamp in a united Vietnam,
a Marine with a bullfrog for a face,
rots in equatorial heat. An eel
slides through the cage of his bared ribs.
At night, on the old battlefields, ghosts,
like patches of fog, lurk into villages
to maunder on doorsills of cratered homes,
while all across the U.S.A.
the wounded walk about and wonder where to go.
And today, in the simmer of lyric sunlight,
the chrysalis pulses in its mushy cocoon,
under the bark on a gnarled root of an elm.
In the brilliant creek, a minnow flashes
delirious with gnats. The turtle’s heart
quickens its taps in the warm bank sludge.
As she chases a frisbee spinning in sunlight,
a girl’s breasts bounce full and strong;
a boy’s stomach, as he turns, is flat and strong.
Swear by the locust, by dragonflies on ferns,
by the minnow’s flash, the tremble of a breast,
by the new earth spongy under our feet:
that as we grow old, we will not grow evil,
that although our garden seeps with sewage,
and our elders think it’s up for auction–swear
by this dazzle that does not wish to leave us–
that we will be keepers of a garden, nonetheless.
©John Balaban, Locusts at the Edge of Summer (Copper Canyon Press, 1997)
John Balaban was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. While at Harvard University, he petitioned his draft board to allow him to drop his student deferment to go to Vietnam with the International Volunteer Services, where he taught at a university until it was bombed in the Tet Offensive. He was wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel and evacuated; after his recovery, he continued his alternative service and returned to Vietnam with the Committee of Responsibility to treat war-injured children.He is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, including four volumes which together have won The Academy of American Poets’ Lamont prize, a National Poetry Series Selection, and two nominations for the National Book Award, After Our War (1974) and Locusts at the Edge of Summer (1998). His Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems won the 1998 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. He was named the 2001-2004 National Artist for the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society. In 2003, he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2008, he was awarded a medal from the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture for his work in translation and digital preservation of ancient texts. In 2017, he received the George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature from the Associated Writing Programs. His new book of poetry, Empires, came out from Copper Canyon Press in 2019.