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By Lucas Carpenter


The Montréal Review, October 2023


Image: The Visitation (1989) by Peter de Francia at Imperial War Museums


We moved mostly during the day.
They moved at night.
So we set our ambushes at night,
and they during the day.
One day near Cu Chi our squad
was trying to link up
with the rest of the platoon,
almost a mile away.
We walked single file on a jungle trail
taking care not to bunch up.

The ambush is an ancient, effective military tactic,
but only if you’re well- camouflaged,
and, most important, silent.
The enemy was better at setting ambushes than we were,
with better camouflage and sound discipline.
We weren’t talking, but I heard boots crunching,
rattling equipment, and Crow
absentmindedly clicking his Zippo open and shut.
We weren’t loud, but not quiet either.

It was a classic L-shaped ambush.
They took us completely by surprise,
with RPGs and automatic weapons fire.
Four men dropped instantly:
JoJo, Smoke, Bullet, Soul Man.
During training we were told
to break an ambush by moving
toward the source of the fire,
avoiding being pinned down.
We’d done it before
 but that didn’t make it easier.
I still wanted to run.
I always wanted to run.
Sarge signaled the order to advance.
We rushed their muzzle flashes,
the only things we could see.
It took no time to be slaughtered.
Only three out of twelve survived.
Me? A bullet through my helmet and head,
a quick painless fade to black.
I’m dead.
But a good death, as soldiers say.
And years later I won’t need to hear
“Thank you for your service”
from sincere citizens
who’ve been told
we want it that way
to help make it all OK.


Viet Cong Booby Trap, 1969, From the Jonathan F. Abel Collection (COLL/3611), Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections


“That’s one small step for man…,”
and you know the rest.  Marcus
took another hit
from the communal bowl
and passed it on. We were watching
the first manned moon landing
from a hooch at Firebase Lonesome.
Then he stood up, exhaling a lungful of smoke.
“So fucking what?” he sneered.
“Put him on a booby-trapped trail
and he’d see what a small step could do.
Remember when Jensen tripped a mine
on that trail near Con Tien? Shrapnel
laid his chest open enough so we
could see his heart beat a few times
before it stopped. Now that sure was
a giant step for him. Mister Spaceman
ain’t ever gonna take a step like that.”


Privas (c. 1620) by Matthäus Merian der Ältere


It’s what’s on the other side of boundaries,
approachable but formidable
like French hedgerows,
the almost solid living barrier
of brambly bushes and small trees
planted on a low berm of dirt
marking the edges of farmers’ fields,
often for centuries, impenetrable
without bulldozers or big bush hogs.
The Allies had to use tanks in WWII.
But for the poor farmer they’re
practical and cheap: windbreaks
and habitats for birds and small animals.
They don’t make them much anymore anywhere
because they take too long to grow
and most of the fields are already fenced.

I tried to get through one once. The place I picked
looked a little thinner, more vulnerable.
I manage to force my way in
but not through. The hedgerow
engulfed me and I feared being somehow
absorbed or consumed. Just as the panic
began to peak I fell through backwards
to the road where I started,
as if I’d been found wanting and rejected,
spit out, you might say.
The Gallo-Roman battlefield at Alesia
Was just down the road so, with understated reasons,
I shrugged on my backpack and headed there
where archeologists have found the skeleton of a Gallic warrior
on the battlefield where Caesar won the war,
 a three-foot Roman ballista bolt through his skull,
leaving him splayed out, sword at hand.
Wonder what he was thinking then.
Not that it matters.
But it was
a helluva soldier’s death,
one, we’re told, was devoutly wished for.
Like in Vietnam. If we had to die
we wanted the sniper bullet through the head,
the clean kill. You drop in your tracks
while the world fades to black.

I continued to the Carnac stones
in Brittany near the Channel coast.
I hitched a ride in a Mercedes truck
carrying a load of canned goods to Brest.
The driver asked my destination.
“A powerful place,” he said, “you can feel it.”
He let me out at Carnac and wished me luck.
Three thousand menhirs and dolmens
aligned in rows like a giant cemetery,
components of a collective mystery
a thousand years older than Stonehenge.
My imagination pursued swirling possibilities,
but none of them answered all the questions.
I camped nearby to see what dreams would bring.
I recalled nothing the next morning,
but I woke knowing I’d visited another, larger mind.
An Andean shaman once
showed me ancient petroglyphs placed
near the top of a peak so high I could barely breathe.
Among the scattered signs a large spiral.
I asked him if he knew that the spiral
is maybe the most common ancient rock art glyph
worldwide. I asked him why.
“Because that is where shamans have always gone
to communicate with each other. Like
a long-distance telephone
that only we can hear. I
talk with dead shamans and future ones
until there is no future.”
“Why don’t you put on paper
 what you hear?” “And see,” he said.
“Because no one would understand
and it would be too late anyway.”

Nothing I’ve ever learned
has helped me move
through the labyrinth of this life.
I just do it, while looking
for landmarks I won’t forget.
Like the narrow path through the dense fir forest
behind my stone house in Idaho,
where white supremacist evangelical Christian nationalists,
play militia with rifles and tactical gear,
thinking they’ve found meaning and purpose
for their livid lives. Sometimes
I hear their gunshots and homemade bombs.


Lucas Carpenter is the author of one book of literary criticism, John Gould Fletcher and Southern Modernism (U. of Arkansas Press, 1990), a chapbook of poetry, A Year for the Spider (UNC Pitcher Poetry Award, 1973), and three books of poetry, Perils of the Affect (Mellen Press, 2002), The Way Things Go (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), and Mother Medusa (Poets’ Choice, 2022). His poems, stories, articles and reviews have appeared in more than twenty-five periodicals, including Prairie SchoonerThe Minnesota Review, Beloit Poetry JournalKansas Quarterly, Carolina Quarterly, Snake Nation Review, Concerning Poetry, Poetry (Australia), Southern Humanities Review, College English, San Francisco Review of BooksCallaloo and New York Newsday. He was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to lecture and write in Belgium during the 1999-2000 academic year. He is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Humanities at Oxford College, Emory University.


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