Buzzards and Light BY Pat LitlieDog COUNTING SURVIVORS By Walter McDonald Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995 WHEN WALTER MCDONALD published Caliban in Blue twenty years ago, the Texas In stitute of Letters awarded the small volume their Poetry Prize, honoring the handful of poems for their ability to contain within short lines, with both control and grace, the huge emotional experience of piloting bombers during the Vietnam War–up to and including the devastating wounding that would send the pilot home. He began that book with a recounting of the raw joy of bombing: For this, I trained to salivate and tingle, target-diving, hand enfolding hard throttle in solitary masculine delight… But the pilot’s high was short-lived, as the poems exited the planes and took to the hospital wards, while the poet attempted to understand such a dark and ironic luck that would bring him home a survivor, but with permanent disablement. Subsequent books have followed the poet’s progress through his reculturation in the War’s aftermath: his return to the West Texas ranch his grandfather built, the birth and growing-up years of his children, and the relationship with his wife. But the old war memories have remained a constant refrain throughout the poems, with certain repeated frames as vivid in their retelling as when he first committed them to words his own wounding, the repeated patterns of flight and stars, the faces of old men and children he might have glimpsed only once as the ragged Enemy but who nevertheless would become permanent features of his interior landscape, more vivid and preoccupying than the empty bowl of sand, the Texas desert land he inherited. Counting Survivors is his thirteenth book of poetry, and the landscapes haven’t changed, although with age, the buzzards around him have become more numerous, and present time continues to be dated by the fall of Saigon. Pat Littledog is a poet and writer who lives in Kerrville. A mad man aging hard can’t fight a war forever. Think pity and the mind turns cold. He still sees children and old men ragged and golden, crawling the base dump for scraps of food at sundown. Years after Saigon, he’s like a wall: lets no one know him, but his name. Stone-faces, he tries to wish it all away, a harmless Buddha with a green patina, envies the lucky ones who didn’t go. Even good booze can’t burn the fungus out, down where it doesn’t show, the mind’s own groin. He takes another shot to hold him till it’s dark, but after that, they’re back. His children are now grown, leaving the poet and his wife to swing on the front porch long hours; at night he contemplates the paths of stars, both fixed and mutable; during the day old ghosts get tangled up in desert mirages which “hover like angels fanning the fields” and tangle in the horns of his cattle and in the windmill’s blades. Political alliances have changed. In the years when he went to cadet school, Iraq had been an ally, so that watching the Persian Gulf War on television makes him remember a fellow classmate, an Iraqi called Al who had been the best of the class of pilots. Now, a son has friends who are going to war in the Persian Gulf, and the poet sees the black granite memorial wall commemorating Vietnam’s slain soldiers extending into the desert land of his long gaze. I saw my son’s own image in the stone but found no other face, only a wide black wall and names, names blurring together. But Walter McDonald is a teacher as well as a poet. This gifted, meditative mind that has brought him such recognition as the title of Texas Professor of the Year in 1992 turns naturally to the issues of education, specifically what older generations of men might pass on to younger ones, so that the poems of Counting Survivors are offered as a kind of personal anthropology. Memories of uncles, cousins, father and brother are subjected to the scrutiny of a refined intellect to discover how honed violence is taught to young men in their lessons of hunting and survival. Of this curriculum he asks the hard question: whether the repetitions of the cycles of hatred and buzzard mentality we have inherited as human animals of this particular planet are inevitable. And now we’ve come this side offifty, a puzzled hunter stiff in the joints, and faithful wife stumbling somewhere under a maze of stars, Polaris only a name for navigation whose mutable charts we can’t use wherever we’re going, dippers, tipping toward the grave. Father of light, we can’t dread outer darkness where burning stars hurtle outward, a gallery of myths, but beg more light in this created world. When I first began reading Walter McDonald’s poems, I felt uncomfortably female, almost voyeuristic, in an overwhelmingly masculine world of soldiers and cowboys, bulls and boxing, hunting and guns. But the more I read, the more impressed I was with the poet’s ability to choose words so precisely and to move lines of them through blank space so definitively that each poem became a kind of light generator in itself, while the whole collection entwined and interconnected its repetitive images like strings of starsor revelationswhich I found to reflect my own deepest concerns, giving voice to the ultimate prayer for peace which is both genderless and universal. I have grown to appreciate this seasoned survivor’s lessons: how to listen and learn from the sounds of night and where to direct the gaze for maximum light. My wife believes in the peace of dark, the burning stars. I watch light shimmer on her face, her flashing eyes. Now it begins, the golds and purple on the plains. Blink and miss it, like flecks of silver in her hair. It is in this kind of training of the senses where hope for new direction is contained and new landscapes become conceivable where the black wall of names might end and buzzards become starlight, or angels. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13
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