Beirut Tank

By Tom Sleigh b. 1953 Tom Sleigh
Staring up into the tank's belly lit
by a bare bulb hanging down off
the exhaust, a mechanic's hands are up
inside the dark metallic innards doing something
that looks personal, private. This tank is nothing
like the ones the Americans deploy.
Those have uranium piercing shells that could melt
right through this tank's armor and set off
the ammo box: nothing can withstand the American tanks.   

The barrel's called a cannon. The machine guns they call
deterrents. The tank is old, small, about the size
of a horse and cart. The armor plate shines green
under the streetlight. The sprockets, almost rusted out.   
Somebody forgot to grease the nipples. The timing belt is nicked
and worn. The spare parts from France don't fit. This wire   
crossed with this wire makes a catastrophic fire.
Be careful how you route it. .20 caliber ammo
goes in the hatch behind the armor plate.   

The mechanic on his back in the dirt,
cursing in Arabic, sounds like he's cursing
in a good-natured way: who was the fucking moron
who did the maintenance on this thing?   
This tank, this tank, he should push it off
a cliff into the sea so that it could bob for
half an hour before sinking under the Pigeon Rocks
where all the lovers gather in the shadows
near that little bar, lit by a generator, that serves arak   

and warm beer to soldiers hanging out on the Corniche:
mainly conscripts from down south, whose orange groves
rot because nobody can pick the oranges: try to pick
an orange and a cluster bomb lodged in leaves
comes tumbling into your basket. What weight oil
did this cocksucker use, anyway? And this engine,
it's gonna blow. Beat up tanks and sandbags,
that's all this army is, old sparkplugs that get fouled
so that you have to file the gaps over and over.

He stares up in that live, minute, completely   
concentrated way of scrutinizing something   
or someone you thought you understood:
the tank's underbody completely covers his body
so they look like they're embracing when he reaches up
inside it, his needle nose pliers crimping, twisting,   
pulling down hard. There, you see that, it's all corroded.
The cannon jutting out looks both threatening   
and vulnerable as if the tank's firepower

were dependent on that wire. He runs two fingers
up and down it, then feels where rust,
mixed into an oily paste, shines like bloody flux
that he gently dips his finger in, sniffs and tastes.
Clanging back his tapping on the armor plate,   
as he listens to her talking on his back in the dirt, screwing in   
the spare parts, the tank says what tanks always say,   
Fix me, oil me, grease me, make it fit,
confirming what he knows about the French.

Source: Poetry (June 2008).


This poem originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

June 2008
 Tom  Sleigh


Tom Sleigh is the author of more than half a dozen volumes of poetry. Space Walk (2007) won the 2008 Kingsley Tufts Award and earned Sleigh considerable critical acclaim. Referring to this collection, poet Philip Levine noted, “Sleigh’s reviewers use words such as ‘adept,’ ‘elegant,’ and ‘classical.’ Reading his new book, I find all those terms beside the point, even though not one is inaccurate. I am struck by the human dramas . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Social Commentaries, History & Politics, War & Conflict

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

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