The Whole Picture

Sometimes a poem grabs me and won’t let go. Would it be different on another day? Is it merely a convergence of mood and date or is it the unimpeachable, unbearable truth it wields? This is such a poem. I read it days ago, reread it this morning. Still the weight of it, its terrible beauty, assail me.


Smelling of sweet resin the Aleppo pines’
shadows grow taller by the hour. Two identical
twin boys chase each other through the shadows,
the one who’s ten minutes older yelling,
I’m gonna kill you while the younger one
laughs, Kill me, kill me if you can!
Day by day these teatime mortars
keep pecking at the blast wall that the boys
have grown so used to they just keep right on playing.
If they weren’t here in front of me, I’d find them
hard to imagine, just as I sometimes find
my own twin brother hard to imagine.
I’m supposed to be doing a story
on soldiers, what they do to keep from
being frightened, but all I can think about
is how Tim would chase me or I’d chase him
and we’d yell, I’m gonna kill you, just like
these brothers do, so alive in their bodies,
just as Tim who is so alive will one day not be:
will it be me or him who first dies?
But I came here to do a story on soldiers
and how they keep watching out for death
and manage to fight and die without going crazy—
the boys squat down to look at ants climbing
through corrugated bark, the wavering antennae
tapping up and down the tree reminding me
of the soldier across the barracks sitting
still inside himself, listening to his nerves
while his eyes peer out at something I can’t see—
when Achilles’ immortal mother came
to her grieving son, knowing he would soon
die, and gave him his armor and kept the worms
from the wounds of his dead friend, Patroclus, she,
a goddess, knew she wouldn’t be allowed
to keep those same worms from her son’s body.

I know I’m not his father, he’s not my son,
but he looks so young, young enough to be
my son—sitting on his bunk, watching out for death,
trying to fight and die without going crazy, he
reaches for his rifle, breaks it down,
dust cover, spring, bolt carrier with piston,
wiping it all down with a rag and oil,
cleaning it for the second time this hour
as shadows shifting through the pines
bury him and the little boys and Tim
and me in non-metaphorical, real life darkness
where I’m supposed to be doing a story.

Copyright © 2019 by Tom Sleigh. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 16, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

My siblings and I used to run in the untamed woods that bordered our neighborhood when we were young playing war. Even though I remember the shadow of nuclear war that loomed in real life, the confrontation with Khrushchev, his raised shoe at the United Nations and his words, “We will bury you.” Sometimes hatred needs no translation; it stands alone.

Yet the twins play, these actors depicted here play and watch and worry. The reports come back to us, the sad photos, the devastation, and the two boys, someone’s sons—Are their parents alive?—become the imagined sons of one whose job it is to bear witness.

I remember the day the New York Times included VR glasses with its edition of the Sunday paper for subscribers. The paper was launching its 360 virtual reality platform, nytvr, with a feature about the youngest victims of war, “The Displaced.” I assembled the foldout glasses and watched in stunning clarity as the faces before me roamed wreckage and recounted their stories of war.

My son and his girlfriend had joined us for a rare visit that Sunday when the novelty that would become the new normal arrived. When they came downstairs, I told them what to do to make it work, and went to get bagels. I came home to them sitting at the table, quiet. My son lifted his eyes from the banquet of news spread before him and said, “Mom, if you’re planning to share this with your students, you’d better warn them. This new way of viewing may make some of them sick.”


4 thoughts on “The Whole Picture”

  1. Yes war is such a grim topic whatever the circumstances and however you look at it. My heart aches for the children who are the helpless victims. Not sure if I like or don’t like this poem?

  2. This whole thing floored me. The poem was like if Cormac McCarthy and Tim O’Brien made a poet together. The Slice is the perfect marriage of the poem and your memories and thoughts. Thanks for this.

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