At a VA Hospital in the Middle of the United States of America: An Act in a Play

By Etheridge Knight 1931–1991 Etheridge Knight
Stars from five wars, scars,
Words filled with ice and fear,
Nightflares and fogginess,
and a studied regularity.
      Gon’ lay down my sword ’n’ shield—
      Down by the river side, down by the river side—
      Down by the river side...

Former Sergeant Crothers, among the worst,
Fought the first. He hears well, tho
He mumbles in his oatmeal. He
Was gassed outside Nice. We
Tease him about “le pom-pom,” and chant:
There’s a place in France where the women wear no pants.”
Former Sergeant Crothers has gray whiskers
And a gracious grin,
But his eyes do not belie
His chemical high.
      Gon’ lay down my sword ’n’ shield—
      Down by the river side, down by the river side—
      Down by the river side...

A.C. Williams drove a half-track
“Half da goddamn way ’cross Africa
In da second war,” his black
Face proclaims, and exclaims—
Along with other rosy exaggerations.
Each week he sneaks through the iron-wrought fence
To the Blinking Bar down the street.
Midnight reeks the red-eyes, the tired
Temper, the pains in the head.
A phone call summons an aide to bring A. C. to bed.
      Ain’t gon’ study the war no more... Well,
      I ain’t gonna study the war no more—
      Ain’t gonna study the war no more—
      O I ain’t gonna study the war no more.

“Doc” Kramer, ex-medic in Korea
Is armless. And legless,
is an amazement of machines
And bubbling bottles. His nurse,
White starched and erect, beams
A calloused cheerfulness:
“How are we today?” Kramer’s wife leans
Forward, sparkling fingers caressing his stump
Of arm. She is pink, fifty-six, and plump.
“Doc” Kramer desires sleep.
      Gon’ lay down my sword ’n’ shield—
      Down by the river side, down by the river side—
      Down by the river side...

Ex PFC Leonard Davenport goes to court
Tomorrow. He is accused of “possession and sale”
Of narcotics; his conditional bail
Was that he stay at the VA, for the cure.
For an end to sin,
For a surcease of sorrow.
He spends his pension for ten grams of “pure.”
He nods the days away,
And curses his Ranger Colonel in fluent Vietnamese.
His tour in “Nam” is his golden prize.
      Gon’ lay down my sword ’n’ shield—
      Down by the river side, down by the river side—
      Down by the river side...

Grant Trotter’s war was the south side
Of San Diego. Storming the pastel sheets
Of Mama Maria’s, he got hit with a fifty
Dollar dose of syphilis. His feats
Are legends of masturbation, the constant coming
As he wanders the back streets of his mind.
The doctors whisper and huddle in fours
When Trotter’s howls roam the corridors.
We listen. We are patient patients.
      Ain’t gon’ study the war no more... Well,
      I ain’t gonna study the war no more—
      Ain’t gonna study the war no more—
      O I ain’t gonna study the war no more.

“At a VA Hospital in the Middle of the United States of America: An Act in a Play” from The Essential Etheridge Knight, by Etheridge Knight, © 1986. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Source: The Essential Etheridge Knight (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986)

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Poet Etheridge Knight 1931–1991

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

Subjects War & Conflict, Social Commentaries

 Etheridge  Knight

Biography

Etheridge Knight began writing poetry while an inmate at the Indiana State Prison and published his first collection, Poems from Prison in 1968. "His work was hailed by black writers and critics as another excellent example of the powerful truth of blackness in art," writes Shirley Lumpkin in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "His work became important in Afro-American poetry and poetics and in the strain of Anglo-American . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT War & Conflict, Social Commentaries

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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