American Incognito

By David Gewanter b. 1954 David Gewanter
But to whatever animal we ascribe these remains, it is certain such a one has existed in America, and that it has been the largest of all terrestrial beings. It should have sufficed to have rescued the earth it inhabited, and the atmosphere it breathed, from the imputation of impotence. . . .
—Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
I called for armour, rose, and did not reel.
But when I thought . . .
                                      I could feel
My wound open wide.
—Thom Gunn, “The Wound”
For he can creep.
Whose doctor said his bipolar was pre-existing.
Smacked in the head by a steel cargo door,
hinges tied with a hamburger bag.
The day he blew up: a sucking silence, mouth of tar,
     story told over and over.
bump and rattle, caissons rolling.
The blacked-out school bus window is
scratched to read GHOST RECON. Street signs flash by,
“This here is Georgia. Now I see New Hampshire,
     and here’s Colorado.” What country is this city?
Gorked on pain-relief cocktails, Iraq to Landstuhl Med
to Andrews Air Force, wheelchair bus to Walter Reed.
Wounded when burning poppies, now afloat
on morphine. “As a state,” he once emailed,
     “Afghanistan is next to Mars.”
The navigator slides along a wall:
“Sir, can you show me north?”
Where the gazebo is a tank. Where the manhole covers a bomb.
Who apologize for shaving cuts. Skull plate,
     40-lb. gain from meds, big ox baby.
“Fall in,” the heart-attack sergeant tells
the legless man. “At ease,” he tells the psychotics.
They limp by drug dealers for their scoop
of Baskin-Robbins. Are told,
     “Suck it up, get used to the outside world.”
Who are saved, but die in dreams,
salute with a mechanical arm.
Beneath the marble, beneath the paper laws;
the paved boglands and legs-up taverns,
the slave-built steps of the Capitol. Winter 1898,
a sewer-man digs up a dinosaur spine,
      a nomen nudum, naked & unnamed fossil
tombed later at the Smithsonian
near Jefferson’s Mammoth tooth
that rattled his pocket, cherished knuckle-bone
and proof against the French naturalist
      who with powdered hands
wrote that New World dampness and cold
had stunted flora, animals, and Man:
the American Degeneracy
Jefferson ordered Lewis & Clark to find
      a living Mammoth,
the “animal de l’Ohio”
grazing somewhere west
of Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, and—
lest a species wither, or Nation grow small—
      brought Mammoth bones to Monticello.
“WHEREAS, the remains of a large carnivorous dinosaur,
which may be an ancestor of the Tyrannosaurus rex,
were found at First and ‘F’ Streets, SE,
OF COLUMBIA, do hereby proclaim January 28, 2001,
Anthony A. Williams
Reindeer of the herdsman Jarkov nuzzle
a tusk frozen 20,000 years. Soon,
French naturalists arrive. Radar shows
the Holy Grail of Mammoth hunters,
      a frigid bulk, twice an elephant’s size—
Timber saws cut the block. Hoisted by
military helicopter to Stalin’s
gulag caves, frozen labs for scientist-prisoners,
now re-opened. Waving hair-dryers
      to sublimate the ice, so that Discovery
can film them planting clone eggs
inside an elephant, hatching a Mammoth
American defender to split the ramparts,
show scheduled for release in 2001
      —the year, in the sci-fi film,
the monkeys learn to talk;
when Mayor Williams greets      
the Capitalsaurus and the new President Bush;
when Mohammed Atta decides he
      cannot date a waitress.
Weary headlands roll through zones of night,
red lights flash the muted streets,
crotch-of-moss draining a blue spark dawn—
We sleep, staring. Tree-shapes and stars prod us,
      the belt of Orion is a martyr’s bomb.
And the king, our godsbody, lies abed
groaning, chill spirit belaboring the flesh—
His spit and sperm are tallied; his temperature,
a weather report told by doctors. Until
      lady Securitas peers from a cloud—
her bloodlined hands, the blank, bureaucratic face!
We pray with our bodies: cold sweat, a hymn
of twitches, heart racing, shrieking dreams . . .
But fragrant Securitas has only
       come for him—
To compass him about.
Lifting out her breast.
Stoppers his mouth with a thick nipple.
Squeezing till the ichor throbs from his eyes,
      milk to make us thirsty—
Helicopters park at Forward Base EXXON;
only the sand is flying today, and it breaks
the speed limits, 50 miles an hour. Visibility zero;
the air is hot as blood, the sky is burnt amber.
      Lord keep still our hands.
In Texas, teens patrol the roads by night,
burning the body’s fuel—State Troopers pull them over.
George, fishtailing dauphin, a graceful
falldown drunk, clouds the breathalyzer:
      FELONY DUI. Daddy’s name sinks the report—
Election night, heaven staring, and Laura’s
yellowcake Chevy mows down her boyfriend:
VEHICULAR HOMICIDE: the car found guilty.
“I know this as an adult, it was crushing,”
      she recalls. Her scented, unmarked body
sweats beneath foundation garments and paste.
His unmarked body, and fructifying breath,
his stone squint chasing snakes from the sun—
They walk, O my darling, the hill of light;
      the bite of remorse teaches them to bite.
Then it rains. What falls from the sky is not water
but mud, raindrops pulling clouds of sand
into large wet globs. “It was biblical,” says
Col. Gibbs. Lights a cigarette, his back to the storm:
      “You’ve got to embrace the suck.”
From the dust, the limbs jerk up alive, stagger home
to camp. Martian: neck gators for the nose, goggles
seal off the eyes, baby wipes. WHAT DID YOU FIND THERE?
A slipper, an ear, some wire. A chemical suit.
      A map of water.
From Stalin’s cave, just bits of gristle—unreadable,
no Frankenstein DNA. They rewrite the Mammoth show.
From Walter Reed, “an aggressive campaign
to deal with the mice infestation.”
      Recovery rooms, “spit-polish clean.”
Whose mother swallows all the soldier medicine.
Who wheels himself in to play Texas Hold ‘Em.
Whose father says, “It was OK for my son
to give his body. They try in their power,
      but it reverses itself.”
Jefferson’s American Incognito
is ground up for fertilizer—
the maid said it was cow bones. Sweet heartland,
Governor Meriwether Lewis
      of Louisiana, depression pre-existing,
shoots himself in the chest and head.
Who sit by the apples and wingback chairs.
“If I had two hands, I’d order two vodkas”—
Who cannot count his change.
      Who wake up and punch the air.

David Gewanter, "American Incognito" from War Bird. Copyright © 2009 by David Gewanter.  Reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.

Source: War Bird (The University of Chicago Press, 2009)

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Poet David Gewanter b. 1954

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Subjects Living, Disappointment & Failure, The Body, Time & Brevity, Activities, Jobs & Working, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, War & Conflict

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 David  Gewanter


Poet, editor, and essayist David Gewanter was born in New York City to a pathologist and art gallery entrepreneur. He briefly studied medicine at the University of Michigan before majoring in intellectual history. Instead of graduating, he traveled to London for two years, where he read Keats’s manuscripts and was inspired to begin writing poetry. He graduated cum laude from the University of Michigan, where he won the Hopwood . . .

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Poems by David Gewanter

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SUBJECT Living, Disappointment & Failure, The Body, Time & Brevity, Activities, Jobs & Working, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, War & Conflict

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Poetic Terms Series/Sequence

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