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Michael Harper


Black men are oaks cut down.

Congressional Medal of Honor Society
United States of America chartered by
Congress, August 14, 1958; this certifies
STAC John Henry Louis is a member
of this society.

``Don't ask me anything about the
medal. I don't even know how I won

Debridement: The cutting away of dead
or contaminated tissue from a wound
to prevent infection.

America: love it or give it back.


Groceries ring
in my intestines:
grits aint groceries
eggs aint poultry
Mona Lisa was a man:

waltzing in sawdust
I dream my card
has five holes in it
up to twenty holes;
five shots out of seven
beneath the counter;
surrounded by detectives
pale ribbons of valor
my necklace of bullets
powdering the operating table.

Five impaled men loop their ribbons
'round my neck
listening to whispers of valor:
``Honey, what you cryin' 'bout?
You made it back.''


Four M-48 tank platoons ambushed
near Dak To, two destroyed:
the Ho Chi Minh Trail boils,
half my platoon rockets
into stars near Cambodia,
foot soldiers dance from highland woods
taxing our burning half:

there were no caves for them to hide.

We saw no action,
eleven months twenty-two days
in our old tank
burning sixty feet away:
I watch them burn inside out:
hoisting through heavy crossfire,
hoisting over turret hatches,
hoisting my last burning man
alive to the ground,
our tank artillery shells explode
killing all inside:
hoisting blown burned squad
in tank's bladder,
plug leaks with cave blood:

there were no caves for them to hide—

In the Projects

Slung basketballs at Jeffries
House with some other welfare kids
weaving in their figure eight hunger.

Mama asked if I was taking anything?
I rolled up my sleeves:
no tracks, mama:
``black-medal-man ain't street-poisoned,''
militants called:
``he's an electronic nigger!''

``Better keep the electronic nigger 'way.''
Electronic Nigger?
Mama, unplug me, please.

A White Friend Flies In from the Coast

Burned—black by birth,
burned—armed with .45,
burned—submachine gun,
burned—STAC hunted VC,
burned—killing 5-20,
burned—nobody know for sure;
burned—out of ammo,
burned—killed one with gun-stock,
burned—VC AK-47 jammed,
burned—killed faceless VC,
burned—over and over,
burned—STAC subdued by three men,
burned—three shots: morphine,
burned—tried killing prisoners
burned—taken to Pleiku,
burned—held down, straitjacket,
burned—whites owe him, hear?
burned—I owe him, here.

Mama's Report

``Don't fight, honey,
don't let 'em catch you.''

Tour over, gear packed,
hospital over, no job.

``Aw man, nothin' happened,''
explorer, altar boy—

Maybe it's 'cause they killed people
and don't know why they did?

My boy had color slides of dead people,
stacks of dead Vietnamese.

MP's asked if he'd been arrested
since discharge, what he'd been doin':

``Lookin' at slides,
looking' at stacks of slides, mostly.''

Fifteen minutes later a colonel called
from the Defense Department, said he'd won the medal;

could he be in Washington with his family,
maybe he'd get a new job now; he qualified.

The Democrats had lost, the president said;
there were signs of movement in Paris:

Fixing Certificates: Dog Tags: Letters Home

Our heliteam had mid-air blowout
dropping flares׫ burned alive.

The children carry hand
grenades to and from piss tubes.

Staring at tracer bullets
rice is the focal point of war.

On amphibious raid, our heliteam
found dead VC with maps of our compound.

On morning sick call you unzip;
before you piss you get a smear.

``VC reamed that mustang a new asshole''—
even at movies: ``no round-eye pussy no more''—

Tympanic membrane damage: high gone—
20-40 dB loss mid-frequencies.

Scrub-typhus, malaria, dengue fever, cholera;
rotting buffalo, maggoted dog, decapped children.

Bangkok: amber dust, watches, C-rations,
elephanthide billfolds, cameras, smack.

Sand&tinroof bunkers, 81/120 mm:
``Health record terminated this date by reason of death.''

Vacuolated amoebae, bacillary dysentery, hookworm;
thorazine, tetracycline, darvon for diarrhea.

ŠConitus': I wanna go home to mama;
Brown's mixture, ETH with codeine, cortisone skin-creams.

Written on helipad fantail 600 bed Repose;
``no purple heart, hit by 'nother marine.''

``Vascular repair, dissection, debridement'':
sharp bone edges, mushy muscle, shrapnel: stainless bucket.

Bodies in polyethylene bag: transport:
ŠTan San Nhat Mortuary'

Blood, endotracheal tube, prep
abdomen, mid-chest to scrotum—

``While you're fixin' me doc,
can you fix them ingrown hairs on my face?''

``They didn't get my balls, did they?''
50 mg thorazine—''Yes they did, marine!''


Swans loom on the playground
swooning in the basket air,
the nod of their bills
in open flight, open formation.
Street-poisoned, a gray mallard
skims into our courtyard with a bag:

And he poisons them—
And he poisons them—

my pass is a blade
near the sternum
cutting in:
you can make this a career.

Patches itch on my chest and shoulders—
I powder them with phisohex
solution from an aerosol can:
you can make this a career.

Pickets of insulin dab the cloudy
hallways in a spray.
Circuits of change
march to an honor guard—
I am prancing:
I am prancing:

you can make this a career.

Makin' Jump Shots

He waltzes into the lane
'cross the free-throw line,
fakes a drive, pivots,
floats from the asphalt turf
in an arc of black light,
and sinks two into the chains.

One on one he fakes
down the main, passes
into the free lane
and hits the chains.

A sniff in the fallen air—
he stuffs it through the chains
riding high:
``traveling'' someone calls—
and he laughs, stepping
to a silent beat, gliding
as he sinks two into the chains.

Debridement: Operation Harvest Moon: On Repose

the sestina traces a circle in language and body.

Stab incision below nipple,
left side; insert large chest tube;
sew to skin, right side;
catch blood from tube
in gallon drain bottle.
Wash abdomen with phisohex;
shave; spray brown iodine prep.

Stab incision below sternum
to symphis pubis
catch blood left side;
sever reddish brown spleen
cut in half; tie off blood supply;
check retroperitoneal,
kidney, renal artery bleeding.

Dissect lateral wall
abdominal cavity, locate kidney;
pack colon, small intestine;
cut kidney; suture closely;
inch by inch check bladder,
liver, abdominal wall, stomach:
25 units blood, pressure down.

Venous pressure: 8; lumbar
musculature, lower spinal column
pulverized; ligate blood vessels,
right forearm; trim meat, bone ends;
tourniquet above fracture, left arm;
urine, negative: 4 hours; pressure
unstable; remove shrapnel flecks.

Roll on stomach; 35 units blood;
pressure zero; insert plastic blood
containers, pressure cuffs; pump chest
drainage tube; wash wounds sterile
saline; dress six-inch ace wraps;
wrap both legs, toe to groin; left arm
plaster, finger to shoulder: 40 units blood.

Pressure, pulse, respiration up;
remove body gowns; scrub; redrape;
5 cc vitamin K; thorazine: sixth
laparotomy; check hyperventilation;
stab right side incision below nipple;
insert large chest tube; catch blood drain bottle . . .

The Family of Debridement

Theory: Inconvenienced subject will return to hospital
if loaned Thunderbird
Withdrawn. Hope: Subject returns,
Foreclosure for nine months unpaid mortgage;
wife tells subject hospital wants deposit,
Diseased cyst removal:
ŠAin't you gonna give me a little kiss good-bye'
Subject-wife: To return with robe and curlers—
Subject tells friend he'll pay $15 to F's stepfather
if he'll drive him to pick up money owed him.

``This guy lives down the street,
I don't want him to see me coming.''

``It looked odd for a car filled with blacks
to be parked in the dark in a white neighborhood,
so we pulled the car out under a streetlight
so everybody could see us.''

Store manager: ``I first hit him with two bullets
so I pulled the trigger until my gun was empty.''

``I'm going to kill you, you white
MF,'' store manager
told police. Police took carload, F and F's parents for
further questioning. Subject died on operating table: 5 hrs:

Subject buried on grass slope, 200 yards
east of Kennedy Memorial,
overlooking Potomac and Pentagon,
to the south,
Arlington National Cemetery.

Army honor guard
in dress blues,
carried out assignment
with precision:

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