The Waking Comes Late

Steven Heighton

HUMANITARIAN WAR FUGUE

We killed with the best of intentions.

The goals that we died for were sound.

The notions we killed for were sterling, 

our motives the sort that one mentions,

frankly, with pride.

Quit scrupling,

quibbling, lying down and 

lay this down:

Bad guys by the graveful we gunned down so 

girls, little girls 

by the classful, could go to school. Girls, too, busing to school, 

we slew so girls could go to school unharmed, in error 

we slew them, with better intentions, bad eggs however we harmed

to win hearts, warm cockles, gain guts and livers and limbs and minds

with decent intentions, good eggs we even armed (only good eggs 

armed)—the rest we smashed, truncated,

atomized until the doves among us

                buckled, seldom seeing dead

                men un-

dismantled, while heads of this and that kept touting,

hawking our cause like crack,

our crystal intentions, motives one mentions

especially when aim is less than exact

and friendlies get fried…

With downsized intentions we killed and we strafed

and we mortared and missiled and mined,

sniped too, droned too,

till we wilted to haunts in OSI wards, nightly

wading tarns and tar-ponds incarnadine,

and they dosed and discharged and forsook us, 

but on we kept killing with credible reasons

in a lush neural loop of gibbering visions

from hovering gunships, maniacally hooting, 

culling the groundlings with motives forgotten

to a playlist of metal eternally cycling…

Of course, looking back, you would like to reboot

and start over, but there is no over—

this spraying and shredding forever recursive—

this Gatling drum always ample with ammo—

and papa and papa our weapons keep bleating—

a ceaseless returning and endless rehearsing—

you’re killing with the best of 

with the best of them 

killing with the best of

with the best of them, killing,

CORONACH, POST-KANDAHAR

        1

The damaged individual is invited to seek treatment,

albeit at some future date 

Lance-corporal, here—

this comfort song, or (if prayer

is the protocol you prefer) 

this prayer.

When you visit the clinic

we’ll cook up a cure 

for your sadness and panic.

Meanwhile pills, 

meanwhile prayer.

Even to an atheist

God’s the Omega

of a shotgun’s business end.

        2

The patient, still on a waiting list, suffers a major

coronary, for which he is promptly treated

His ribcage we cracked

and his heart we drew clear

like a red, writhing newborn 

pulled from the rubble.

They said that in public

his punchlining brilliance

disguised desperation.

Take this, if you’re manic—

come visit the clinic—

we’ve an opening 

early next March.

Even to an atheist

God’s the cold ordnance

of a twelve-gauge applied to the heart.

        3

In which an appointment, of kinds, is finally found

for our patient 

At the wake 

(closed casket)

the piper 

was drunk 

but managed

a coronach.

CLINICAL NOTES OF THE BIPOLAR THERAPIST

1     The Calvados by lamplight is an oily gold, a liquor pressed 

from bullion. Taste the essence of Norman summers—the 

fruit-sweetening sun, salt-bearing breezes of the English 

Channel, flotillas of cloud cooling the coastline. Proustian 

autumns, mellow and rich; the windless weeks of the apple 

harvest. Your snifter, brimming with brandy, exhales the scent 

of ancient orchards.

2    With your patient you are driving a dog-sled over a frozen sea 

under a sky trembling with a red aurora, blood pouring down 

a dark face. Your patient yells and whips the team onward. A 

bitch is whelping as she runs, dropping raw, mouse-sized 

pups onto the ice. The other dogs scoop them up and swallow 

them without breaking pace. You hurtle north toward that sky 

and, you are certain, open water.

3    The drink’s mission is to italicize the effect of several dozen 

tranquilizers while masking their aftertaste. You arrange the 

Celestanox (7.5 mg) on the edge of your desk, in neat formation, 

like a cycle of birth control pills. This really ought to do it. You 

chase them with another full snifter and taste again those 

schoolboy summers at Grand-papa’s orchard near St-Valentin.

4    The ones coming back from the war are the worst. You listen 

and prescribe—rest cure, work cure, drugs. You’d rather not 

prescribe them but you must. Even dust degrades to finer dust. 

We find you slumped at your desk in a pool of your own fluids 

and we revive you, pump your stomach, and your body survives. 

Bodies are made to, minds not so much. The ones that come 

back from the war, et cetera. Even dust falls to finer dust.

5    Your patient grew up in northern Quebec, son of a white 

trapper and Inuit mother. At twenty, Pete saw the war as a 

way out. And so it was. Up there everyone knew how to use a 

shotgun, he said, because of the fucking bears, though he 

never had to kill one. He did waste a guy in Panjwai with his 

C7 and it wasn’t like online. Wasn’t even a man—wouldn’t a 

man over there have a beard?

“Yes, I fear so.” 

Doctor, feel but don’t overfeel.

6    Above all, don’t get too involved! You can care but you must 

not love! Up north, when a big tide went out, they could crawl 

and then walk under the ice and it was alcohol blue and they 

could hear the sea in the far off and Sorels treading above. 

Pete kept coming back to that, curled like a glove in his chair. 

Many came home like him, but not all kept shotguns ready. 

When the tide returns, man, you gotta move fast!

Doctor, I order you not to love.

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Steven Heighton

Steven Heighton received the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for his 2016 collection The Waking Comes Late. He was the author of many books. His fiction and poetry have appeared in the LRB, Zoetrope, Tin House, Best American Poetry, Best American Mystery Stories and the Walrus.


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