This coming Monday, with “Veterans Day Sales” all over the newspapers, most Americans observe Veterans Day with flags and parades, honoring men and women who have gone to war for the United States. These days, few recollect that the original name of the holiday was Armistice Day, in honor of the November 11, 1918 end of World War I, then called the “war to end all wars.”
One who has not forgotten is Maxine Hong Kingston, whose National Book Award-winning The Woman Warrior is a staple on college campuses and who garnered a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at last year’s National Book Awards. Kingston famously shifted gears in 1991 when her house burnt down in a devastating fire, and with it all trace of her book in progress. “I decided right then,” she said, “that my first book needed to be a book of peace.”
Not only that, but she needed for the new book to include the voice of veterans of war. “I had lost my writing,” Kingston told interviewer Miel Alegre, “and I wanted a community of writers around me. I asked that these people who would write with me be veterans or families of veterans because I wanted to ask the hardest questions: How do we come home from war? Can we end war? Can we end war that goes on in our very souls? And How do we make peace? These are the questions that I was asking as I was working on that lost book. What can one small individual do in this big world to have any effect?”
The result was The Fifth Book of Peace, which ends by narrating Kingston’s acclaimed veterans’ writing workshop, and a collection of work by its members, Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace. Below are three short poems by veterans from her workshop, followed by a reading by Kingston and three veterans at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. These voices form a strong counterpart to the veterans in Monday’s parades.
I drop a pebble into the vast pond
Ripples spread in all directions
Wrap around rocks , twigs
Remnants reach the farthest shore
What ripples am I spreading today
With my intentions, zctions, words
Seeking peace for our world
Half the night up, spent as casings of brass, face it, we begin this way: there are no women, no satellite tv, no coca-cola, not even the sun, hidden as it is behind billowing black smoke. There is only an x on this map with an arrow pointing north to a line of scrimmage. This is simply a departure, demarcation of any sign of hope: caramel apples, wet grass, cotton candy, watermelons, laughter. We are year-worn, indrawn and compact. We are small, broken toys with maps and guns. I can remember my mother, I can’t imagine a father. I can’t write you because everything’s humming a new color, unfamiliar as childhood, a distant planet. I didn’t expect to escape. I had a blueprint, the life of a famous poet, picking cherries in June, fireworks over Penn’s Landing. Now I wake to the sleep of Lorca’s apples, walk through the meadow. This is just a place. These are just words flashing in the grass. To the north, there is the whine of distant jets and heavy bombardments. We must find a way between them.
Afterwards, the children stood outside
the house of their birth
to witness how it too had to be punished.
When they came of age, they fled to the capital,
lost themselves in the study of history and great works of art,
graduated in swirling carmine robes.
Burdened with a knowledge that murderers
name their deeds after winged deities,
they dream for awhile of claws on the back,
but later they become certain there was
nothing they could have done.
And they are not alone.
It is like this throughout the city.
On each corner you can see them—
leaning as if the vanishing point on their horizon
were other than ours.
They speak quietly only to one another.
They play no instruments, and do not sing.
(Originally posted on Women’s Voices for Change.)