“Stay watchful,” he says to no one, to the eyes
that would watch, fighting sleep in the intersection
of blood and dust.

Friendlies pass with a glance toward the crest
and a false smile that means, “don’t shoot.”

Rakes, shovels and Soviet-made rifles peek
from a truck bed.
It is the others, eyes down, resolute,
who conceal a day’s labor beneath tarp
and stare into a field of ochre where an

unseen hand smears the horizon. An index
finger touches cold metal.

Many days the trucks never come and the desert stretches
bare, and for brief respite the sunset’s long red arms
will not reveal some hidden pressure plate

and the figure in his sights becomes her –
his voice he imagines to be hers.  In this version
she bakes warm bread, her hands flatten and knead
and the dough is the parched earth.

His is the voice saying, “lock up before bed time,”
or, worried of some faceless man who tarries on
the sidewalk in front, he says, “keep walking.”

In June, he flew home and among family become
strangers.  He saw these crossroads in his mind,
and the explosions of each six o’clock cycle
ate a hole that home cooked bread
could never fill,

and she could sense the barometer’s drop and switched
the television off, as if, in not hearing,
“nobody dies, they are only sleeping.”

Still, he scanned the sand through a small silver screen,
past a toddler stacking blocks, past a reporter’s moving lips,
into the blackened shell of an American truck.

A soldier returns to his promontory to find himself
thinking of home, giving names to the lizard,
to the scorpion, who share the rocky soil
like old friends.

In these days, when the road remains clear, he prays
or pulls the day’s letter,
a “mail order soul,” from his pack

and reads in silent dusk. The only sign of life –
steam rises from sun-baked cracks,
one eye on the road below, one eye –

he pictures a room: he pictures her.
And he’s hoping the next time he’s standing there
the room is large enough to hold all of him.

Author: D. A. Gray

D.A. Gray, now living in Texas, retired from the U.S. Army in 2012, having served as a Master Sergeant. He served under 1st Medical Brigade in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2008-2009. Gray has published one book of poetry, Overwatch (Grey Sparrow Press). His work can also be found in several journals, including O’Dark Thirty, Kentucky Review and (forthcoming) The Sewanee Review and War, Literature and the Arts.

4 thoughts on “Overwatch”

  1. The image of the letter — a mail order soul — is especially powerful at the close of this poem.

    This is proper war poetry, one filled with visceral restraint. Amazing.

  2. Thank you, Liusaidh! That letter seems to be the catalyst for so much, the connection between one world and the other. “Overwatch” took so long to write because the feeling of occupying two worlds at the same time is something many feel like we can never explain. It took a while to realize that inability to explain, and by the end to finish complete thoughts, was the center of the experience.

    Lucinda Williams wrote a powerful song simply titled, “Soldier’s Song” that worked as another kind of catalyst. In it she alternates, line by line, the narrative of the soldier and the narrative of the spouse. Often we think life is on hold while the soldier is deployed and resumes when they return. We know that’s not really possible but don’t really have a grasp of that fact. Lucinda’s lyrics really capture the fact that each life moves forward simultaneously, hopefully still on parallel paths. That song helped develop the idea of having a foot in both worlds.

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