Attrition

Attrition

When we were children our teacher explained the war.
She drew it on the blackboard until her chalk squealed.
The dust of her erasers made us cough. What had she drawn?
Rommel’s pincer movements? The oval mirror inside zero?

Our parents mimed a great massacre always,
in their weariness, their long fight over a toothbrush
clumped with white paste, their tolerance
like a series of fortified trenches. The war could return

Living in the Streets, Ave. C, 1978, photograph by Philip Pocock
Living in the Streets, Ave. C, 1978, photograph by Philip Pocock

like a stray dog and destroy us. Meanwhile we were happy.
But if there were nine grapes in waxpaper in the lunchbox,
six were for the war. We could make the bombs tumble
in silence, in our minds, with no rubble.

We each had our arsenal: cap guns with a whiff of cordite
that singed our nostrils; water pistols we aimed
into our mouths, like Hitler; they tasted of piss, August pollen,
aluminum, a stray dog’s anus, the last goldenrod of summer.

Then autumn and the making of the leaf fort. Winter
and the building of the snow castle. Spring
and the clouds massing, night and the satellites,
marriage and the deep bed, old age and the unlit lamp.

-D. Nurkse