I learned in school that war is what happens
when nations disagree, but the textbooks never told me
that war is also what happens when parents disagree,
and when children throw insults harder than they hit baseballs
and when I cannot force myself out of bed in the morning
because there is a voice in my head that tells me
I might win the battle, but I will not win the —
War is what happens when teachers call on students
who don’t have the answers and they are left
fighting their father once he sees their report card.
War is what happens when it rains so hard
blades of grass bend over defeated.
War is what happens over telephone wires when a son
tells his mother he is gay and her white flag
of surrender is the phone going dead.
I have seen war burst into being the moment girls think
they’re too old to hold hands and again some years later when
they’re too young to do more than that, but charge forwards regardless
only to end up with semen exploding inside them like shrapnel.
I have seen war across some people’s wrists.
I have seen it in bones trying to revolt from the flesh.
I have seen it in eyes like double whiskey shots
that are drunk off self-hatred.
I was taught that war was loud. It was supposed to be
bombs and a dictator’s speech and the sound of an entire race
being crossed off one by one, like the days of a calendar.
And I can agree that this is war, but war can also be quiet.
War can be as quiet as a miscarriage.
Or the therapy sessions afterwards, which is quieter even.
It can be as silent as a gas leak.
They asked me in sixth grade what war meant to me
and I told them about the Holocaust, I told them about the Jews.
I didn’t tell them about the boy across the road from me
whose father used his forearms as ashtrays and whose eyes
were the American flag: star-spangled.
I didn’t tell them about women that have their bodies claimed
like new worlds, or men who punch walls and wear their bruised knuckles
like honour badges for all the tears they haven’t cried because
they were raised to be soldiers and soldiers do not cry.
I didn’t mention any of these things because I was taught
that war was big. It was something that happened between countries
and it happened with armies and guns and nuclear weapons.
But if they asked me now—if they asked me now
what war meant to me, I would tell them that war is what happens
inside people, and I would show them this poem as my evidence.