Poet Honors American Service Personnel Killed in War

May 30, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Wyatt Prunty's poem, "The Returning Dead," is a response to the NewsHour's Honor Roll of service personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The poem first aired in 2006.

JEFFREY BROWN: And before we go on this Memorial Day, here’s an encore from poet Wyatt Prunty.

We first ran his poem, “The Returning Dead,” in March of 2006. It was his response to the NewsHour’s honor roll of service personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

WYATT PRUNTY, poet: My name is Wyatt Prunty. I served in the Navy during Vietnam.

I was a nearsighted gunnery officer, and I don’t think I hurt anyone.

That was a difficult time for many, difficult for some of us because, while we disagreed with the war itself, we believed we could not refuse to serve.

Years later, I started the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. And Sewanee, Tenn., is where I now live and write.

My wife and I have watched the NewsHour since its beginning, which means we’ve had a good long marriage.

For three years, we’ve studied the faces of soldiers from all regions and backgrounds in America. They are the ones the NewsHour has broadcast as its honor roll.

What I’m going to read is a response to those lost, yet so permanently-set people, whose lives are our mute gift.

The poem is called “The Returning Dead.”

“Each night, I make a drink and wait for them. They have become the day’s concluding news, installments from a world without anthems or children, unfocusing eyes, a question that repeatedly rejects my easy terms.

“They are ones who believed and acted in the narrow and select ways handed them, while ordinary lives ran on without interruption or bad pictures, as though nothing had changed. Change is the one unanswerable question of these faces. The world can rearrange itself repeatedly, but these remain the same, silent in everything they lack. That’s what they have come to, in places with names like Afghanistan, Iraq.

“And this is the way it happens. The words are old – mother, father, home – and will catch surrounding currents in the slow, absurd, descending will of any river etched out of a landscape history refines to myth. The TV blanks between segments, but every static face defines itself, holds stubbornly its private scene fixed publicly, as we are led back to that little negative whose lack is each of us, staring the staring dead, leaning, sometimes like grief itself, then straightening back.”