By Cainon Leeds

 

I was twenty-four, my friend,

and getting married; we had no idea

what we were getting ourselves into

when we passed over

the field of poppies

that said, “We are the numbers

to end all numbers. You can try,

but you cannot count us

away.” And we walked into the gaping

museum doorway. We watched

a documentary in a darkened room

that held its projector-screen face

in its black-gloved walls and said,

“I am the question

to end all questions. You may ask,

but you may never answer

the immortal why.”

Then we walked out into the open,

where cannons waited to be petted,

and rifles and machine guns slept behind glass.

The helmets and canteens hanging over them said,

“We are the emptiness

to end all emptiness.

You may have your fill

of battle dates, model numbers, and casualty figures,

but you cannot know the emptiness

of the last drop from your best friend’s canteen

and the weight of his helmet strapped to your back.”

In a humble corner of the next room,

shielded from the gas grenades and med trucks,

there hung two rifle-length, black-and-white photos

of young recruits before Argonne,

all dressed up in last century’s best

and ready to play war.

Through the looking glasses, we could see them

smiling, standing on both legs, throwing

connected arms around each other, eating

up their day in the sun in front of the camera.

Leaning in closer, we could see their faces:

some serious, some smiling and unkempt like the wind,

and some with acne spots like fresh mortar scars.

One dreamt of buying a motor car,

another was planning to go to Oxford,

and the one beside him had trained

for the Olympic hundred-meter dash since age eight.

Together, they said, “We were the soldiers

to end all soldiers,

and we had no idea

what we were getting ourselves into

when we signed up for the war to end all wars.

We were fifteen, nineteen, twenty-four,

and some of us never married,

never went to school,

never bought homes,

never had kids or grandkids,

never took them fishing in the creek back home,

never watched our wives grow old,

never told them they were beautiful

with our dying breath.

Our hopes and dreams,

the firstborn of our futures,

were blindfolded,

led to an empty trench,

and gunned down

in front of our eyes.

You may scratch your eyes out

because you just can’t stand the mustard gas memories,

but you may never unsee what you’ve seen

here today.”


Cainon Leeds is a Business Intelligence Developer from Iowa. When he’s not at work, he spends time with his family, practices photography, and hones his poetic skills. He’s authored several poems, including the 2016 Hackney Literary Award 2nd place poem, “Helga,” as well as “Autumnal Equinox,” “Napoleon,” and “Evangelism.” You can reach him through his Facebook page.

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