I can picture him, a West Point cadet,
in the standing-room-only section
of the old Met,
his great coat and hat in hand,
hearing, for the first time, Aïda
singing her entombed death,
Othello the Moor raging at unfaithful Desdemona,
or Figaro boasting in rapid Italian.
His face is unlined,
glasses gone, his hair thick, dark,
but I recognize his concentration—
the forehead furrowed,
and his arm, bent at the elbow,
directing each beat,
in front of his polished brass buttons.
How many Saturday afternoons
have I seen him
standing at the radio, score in hand,
directing the Metropolitan Broadcast?
I could never picture him fighting in Germany,
jagged, broken cities open to the sky,
nor in the red mud of Korea,
a whole batallion at his command.
Mother told us of a classmate killed
by sniper fire in Nam,
but I could not picture him
with a helmet or gun,
weeping for his friend.
I see him entering downstage
dressed in gold,
a scarlet cape across one shoulder,
the crowd singing "Toreador"
and Carmen (black hair, gypsy earrings)
waiting. I see him hunchbacked, the cursed Rigeletto,
dragging the Duke of Mantua's body to the river,
not knowing the heavy canvas sack
holds his daughter, murdered.
Only once, I pictured him a soldier,
when he sang "On the Road to Mandalay,"
standing in the curve of our piano.
I saw him, a British redcoat,
kissing a yellow, slant-eyed girl farewell
by the old Moulmein Pagoda,
while "the dawn came up like thunder
out of China 'cross the bay."
Most kids have a treehouse
or a swingset.
When I was six
I had a foxhole to play in.
It was four feet deep
and eight feet long. In Japan.
Every house had one.
I could jump over it.
I could lie across it
and make a bridge.
I cold hide in it
when our housemaid Kimiko called,
She taught me to count in Japanese.
Ichi, ni, san, shi, go…
I would practice in the foxhole,
fingering roots, bugs, sticks, stones.
Loco, chichi, hachi, ku, ju.
I liked the smell of dirt.
I even liked worms
and lying full-length in that hole
pretending to be dead.
When sirens screamed
and lights went out,
we hurried down into the foxhole.
Kimiko would hand out woven mats
to place over the opening,
but she would not come with us.
I asked her what she did in the house.
She said she got under the table
and prayed to Buddha.
Crouched in that hole,
the planes booming,
the sirens wailing,
I added Buddha to "dear God."
I've seen statues of him.
He's happy and easy to touch.
Once we climbed in a big Buddha.
Stairs wound up through
his fat tummy to windows
in slanted eyes.
When I pulled my eyes tight like that,
I could see more clearly.
I'm glad I didn't have a treehouse
or swingset in my back yard.
I don't think
I would love the same things,
like Japanese, like God.