Surviving the Ugly

by Sandy Benitez
SplashHall Poetry
Third Place, August 2008
Judged by Tony Barnstone

On a dusty dirt road
squats a rundown mosque.
Rumors point to a new
recreation center for soldiers.
I, an “infidel” disagree.
Blasphemy! To put American
spit-shine on its dingy blue tiles.

Escort duty–hours of sitting,
walking in circles without
a straight jacket. The sun above
Baghdad angrier here than back home.
Dropping heat bombs,
exploding on armpits and breasts.
Five days of wearing the same
sweat-stained bra. Baby powder
works wonders. A soldier
swears by Febreze; his trousers
going on a record eight days.

In the hooch, I thank God
for air conditioning. Say hello
to Mother Mary watching me
quietly from the blanket.
She doesn’t belong here, in this
unfamiliar place. Still, she’s
an acceptable battle buddy;
comforting me when nightmares
creep into my skull, ricocheting
horrors of war like sporadic bullets
fired in the air.

Suddenly, sirens scream,
“Duck & Cover! Duck & Cover!”
Channel 16 on the radio shreaks static,
“Help me!”
I can’t understand a word.
Thunderous seconds knock me down.
A flip flop lands across the room!
Tasting hair and lint. Boom!
Wait for it… Boom!
Is there enough life insurance? Boom!
Will my children remember me?
Except for my pounding heart.
A quick “Amen.”

The siren returns,
chanting “all clear! all clear!”
Helicopter blades loudly buzz,
giant dragonflies gone berserk.
Always in pairs,
off to find bad boys
who played with daddy’s rockets
when mommy wasn’t looking.

Mother Mary calls to me.
“Sit down and breathe.”
Offers me water; I sip, shake my fears.
We resume the evening
watching tv. Game shows; she beats
me at Jeopardy every time.
Stretch legs, eyelids lower.
My toenails are horrible;
they need clipping.

This poem’s portrait of the ordinary grimness and griminess of military life, punctuated by moments of extraordinary stress, could be the merest cliché, just a topical poem about (one assumes) the war in Iraq that relies on current events to lend it power and emotion. But it’s not. I love the details of the poem—the soldier who sprays his trousers with Febreze (which I use to get the smell of cat piss out of my pillows and couch), the protagonist whose armpits and breasts are bombarded by the desert sun’s heat bombs, the helicopters blading past like giant dragonflies gone bezerk. I felt that the poem faltered a bit here and there (I’m not convinced that the characterization of the enemy as “bad boys / who played with daddy’s rockets / when mommy wasn’t looking” is an effective irony). Finally, though, what sold me on the poem was the simplicity and psychological rightness of the protagonist’s focus on that sweat-stained bra, a rightness which comes back even more powerfully in the thoughts which run through her mind as war zone life returns to its strange normality of television and Jeopardy after the bombardment ends: “My toenails are horrible; / they need clipping.” --Tony Barnstone