Service Hymn

by Lisa Bickmore

                                    into the wild blue yonder

The star spangled banner blared at the start
and end of each day, and the spot
where we stood when it began was where
we’d stand for the duration. All of us
children learned the song for each branch
of service, at least first verses. I
held my hand over my heart.
                                                   At the base
checkpoint, a small circle of people
chanted Yankee Go Home, which launched for me
a lifetime of taking things personally.
Communists, my parents told me. Maybe
they were right: we lived there only because
of Vietnam. I think of it now, how
we would hesitate to leave the base
for the town, how we lived there in a kind
of sequester, but with discord. The signs
they held as they marched—written in kanji,
or in Roman letters? We were Yankees,
but what else?
                          I felt my freedom in
the bicycle I was allowed to ride
nearly everywhere: to the library,
the pool, for a milkshake. I saw Nikko.
With my class, I rode the bullet train and
visited the Kamakura Buddha,
where I felt awe I could not resolve,
and none of the hymns I knew could match it,
their cadences set for marching, songs for
fighting and farewells, the world they described
a map of battle, guns the tenor and
caissons the vehicle:
                                     since then, wherever
I land in the world, there’s a tune that
whistles, following me: I’m American,
the character of my vowels giving me
away as soon as I speak. To this
cab driver in Dublin, for instance:
we move so quickly to a shared loathing
of the American president as we drive
through industrial estates, across
the M50 and the Royal Canal
till we reach the busyness of Parnell Square,
the Rotunda Hospital within
spitting distance. A whole history
of naming and deriding transacted
within the space of two kilometers.
He remembers Bill Clinton fondly. To me,
it sounds good, to hear the cabbie’s version
of a good American.
                                    I am hours from when
I’ll allow myself to sleep. But even
exhausted, I know this feeling for what
it is—the longing for a vested dignity,
and a past that never was—it’s a comfit,
crust of sugar on a seed to disguise it,
the bite of the sweet giving way to rot.

LISA BICKMORE is the author of three books of poems: Haste (Signature Books, 1994), flicker (winner of the 2014 Antivenom Prize from Elixir Press), and Ephemerist (Red Mountain Press, 2017). Her poems and video work have been published in Tar River Poetry, Sugar House Review, SouthWord, Hunger Mountain Review,, Quarterly West, The Moth,, and elsewhere. In 2015, her poem ‘Eidolon’ was awarded the Ballymaloe International Poetry Award. She is Professor of English at Salt Lake Community College, where she teaches writing of all sorts.

Photo from the author.

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