G.I. Joe. A Soldier’s Story

By Rick Bursky

1. They Promised

I imagined myself on a beach in Hawaii
using my annual 30 days of leave
the same way stars use a night sky
or a tongue uses lips when it wants something.
But there hasn’t been a day when I’m not
in eight year old sweaty hands
or laying in the dark in a shoe box
beneath a bed. Buried alive simulations
must violate the rules of war.
I wanted to be a professional dancer,
or a veterinarian. Did you know
I was in cooking school before I volunteered?

2. A Beautiful Life

Plastic doesn’t bleed.
A hallow chest hardens the imagination’s heart.
A true twin eliminates the need for a mirror,
a dozen or more twins is immortality.
I tried telling this to a little boy and he urinated on me.
There are a hundred thousand of me, an army
barricaded in cardboard but an army nonetheless.
Children grow up, soldiers never do,
that’s the beauty of being a soldier.
There’s no beauty in being a toy.

3. The Other Day

Under the sofa scanning the living room floor
for targets, I saw that blond
again, on top of his sister’s backpack.
Perfect legs from a yellow sundress.
Her motionless red lips, I pretended
they were saying my name … Joe, Joe, Joe.
Then something caught my eye
scurrying across the floor beside the bookcase.

4. I Could Have Done This Alone

He stood me in a boxer’s stance
on the bathroom sink. Puddles of water,
scraps of soap. My left hand
tight on the rifle stock.
My the plastic in stomach tightened.
No way to know
if this was only a drill.
We’re always on the verge
of something we’ll later regret.
A thrust of rifle butt into the upper chest is effective.
A strike like a straight jab.
The horizontal butt stroke.
The vertical butt stroke.
A thousand times.
A peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
You need muscles.
A G.I. Joe needs something else.
Some pillows say I’m responsible
for the tear in the pillowcase.

5. On the Other Side of the World

A plastic man prays to a plastic god
to make my plastic life a war trophy.
Is it nobler to die for a god or a country?
Don’t toy with the dangerous plaything that I am.
My head can turn 360 degrees.
I can survive without water.
Driveway, schoolyard, backyard,
scaling closet shelves –– my end will come.
I’m past the ninety day guarantee.
I’m anxious to know the color of my hollow blood.

6. It Always Starts This Way

There’s a story told in the store after the door is locked.
It’s about water that took to the streets
and overran a toy store after the levees failed.
Our small packages, once safe
and comfortable became coffins floating unnoticed; no,
they were noticed, but floating coffins nevertheless.
I have no say in what’s about to happen. Neither do you.
There’s little difference between a child and a soldier.
I hope they never order me to kill you, just a head
nodding in your direction, that would be enough.

7. Tasting the World

When I was in the toy store I dreamed
my mouth could open. As the dream continued
I would stick out a tongue and lick the cellophane.
Life expectancy is the title of a fairy tale.
Discarded is our cruelest death.
Are you sure I don’t have a tongue?
Before I die I want a woman to lick my face.

8. Everyone is Eventually Forgotten

Has rain ever woke you woke from a nightmare
and you found yourself in a baseball glove in an empty playground?
Are you familiar with the odors below a school bus seat?
I have three helmets; one is mine, the other two swallows waiting
for whoever once wore them to again put them on and tighten the chinstrap.
Who collected the eight dollars and ninety-nine cents?
I can’t pay for a cup of coffee, if I did I couldn’t drink.
We all have our own idea of service.

9. To Be Forgotten

Did you hear about the Joe
forgotten on a windowsill in Minneapolis
eleven winter weeks. He watched snow
fall so intently, memorized the intricate details of
over one snow thousand flakes even named them
after the first thousand Greeks to die at Marathon.

10. No One Gets closer to the Fight

I have memorized the smell of explosion,
memorized the sound an MK3A2 hand grenade makes
curving through air, stopping at the apex
before falling to its task.
A hand grenade is weapon of last resort,
breaking up an enemy infantry assault
or creating breach holes in interior walls.
Yes, all of this in bunkers and underground
passages in a little boy’s room.

11. Questions

How many soldiers does it take to create an army?
Before they turned my head and sealed the box I saw thousands of me.
When I get nervous I sing to myself, I want to be an airborne ranger.
The anxiety grips me. You could never tell by looking at me.
I want to live a life of danger. I must have killed, absolutely sure of it.
I want to go to Vietnam. Little boys dream of me. I dream
of no one. I want to kill old Charlie Cong. Do you know the rest of the words?
I was a soldier from the first day I was … born? created? ordered?

12. I Was Never So Proud

Captain Craig Longley stood in front
of company B,1st battalion, 5th Marine Regiment;
and asked the 123 marines to raise a hand
if they ever owned a G.I. Joe.
123 hands raised, even the naval academy
graduates who commanding platoons raised their hands.
Don’t ever call us toys.

13. M.I.A.

You last saw your Joe, me, on the dresser.
It was Sunday before dinner.
A week later you wanted to play
when a friend came over but I wasn’t there.
The future is not sealed in an envelope.
The past is wind tugging on rain
as a dozen poncho-laden soldiers
march uphill into the night.
And you wonder what happened to me.
Play some other game with your friend.

14. About Pushups

Soldiers call it the front leaning rest,
punishment, empowerment. It should be
called the pushaway, pushing the world
twelve inches from your chest.
The power of one soldier. This is the truth.
My arms are long enough.
Because you can hear
your heart beat doesn’t make you special.

15. Wish List

I want to sing happy birthday to someone, anyone.
I want to spend an entire afternoon thinking about snow.
I want the privilege of ignoring dogs.
I want to choose my own clothes.
I want to eat with chopsticks.
I want to snip the cap from a cigar,
toast the end with a zippo for a good long time
before lighting it and close my eyes for the first full draw.

16. Jealousy

I was created with a scar on my cheek.
It’s heroic to little boys but requires
a story I don’t have. Soldiering requires them.
Most ribbons worn by soldier and sailors
are for attendance, as if they had a say.
My assignment never changes.
My predictability, like a sunrise,
is a tactical disadvantage. Something as simple
as sitting in a barber’s chair and listening
to the clip of scissors; an erection,
even if it could never be satisfied
— these are my daydreams.

17. Talents and Science

I wasn’t born? created? ordered? etc?
with the necessary biology for fear.
Unlike you I am my own man. If I decide
to juggle three, four, or even five, of the smallest
pebbles it is for my own amusement.
Are you jealous? Do you still believe
I am brainless? I continue to search
the Periodic Table of Elements
for my family tree. Your apology is accepted.

18. Priorities

Crushed between pages
in a fourth grade math book.
Eye pressed against the numeral three.
It’s times like this that I regretted
not having the ability to blink,
though something not desirable in soldier.
Cats have sharper claws.
But dogs are more of a danger.
Whether you see it coming or not
is immaterial, what matters is the ability
to hold ground and not
blink, flinch or twitch
the trigger finger until a target is acquired.

19. Inventory

I was left upside down inside
a glass of orange juice for hours.
I have no breath to hold.
I have two pockets but my hands
have never been in them.
I have no teeth, did you know that?
I have no bones.
I can’t be buried alive.
I have a theory. What do you have?
Free will? I have no use for it.
You have love? That’s just another form of fear.
But I do have hate, a better form of love.

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Rick Bursky

Rick Bursky / About Author

My new book, I’m No Longer Troubled By the Extravagance, was out from BOA. My previous book, Death Obscura, was published by Sarabande. And my poems have appeared many places and many places including the AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW; FIELD, IOWA REVIEW, GETTYSBURG REVIEW, PRAIRIE SCHOONER, and ANTIOCH REVIEW.

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