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James Sallis

Forty years ago, snow falling endlessly and endlessly falling outside the window of the Portobello Road flat where I lived off bottomless cups of tea and a wheel of hard cheese coming to resemble salt blocks left out for cattle back at my rural Stateside home, I sat putting together The War Book, an anthology of science fiction stories protesting war. "Recently," I wrote, "a large number of science fiction writers organized and signed a declaration against the Vietnam war; as a paid advertisement this document was run in both the major sf magazines." In New Worlds, the magazine I had come to London to edit, we published story after story -- Brian Aldiss's Charteris series (Barefoot in the Head), Jimmy Ballard's ever-more splintered narratives, George MacBeth's Crab Apple Crisis, Mike Moorcock's early Jerry Cornelius tales -- registering the shock waves running through us all.

Born in 1944, I burned year-old legs on heat registers in the rude house we occupied outside Los Alamos. The world was a roman candle about to become a fireworks display complete with patriotic themes. Brother John, seven years older, would metamorphose into a philosopher, nudging at realities beneath the overturned rock. Would the world not ever hold still? What swam up out of the developing tray was not at all what I'd seen, what I thought I'd seen, when I snapped the shutter. This is from my poem "P.S.":

My father a short man
with the face of an Indian. Places
like Los Alamos, Oak Ridge; a welder,
fusing the seams of shards later
put (and without his ever knowing) into
the bomb: Bang. And Daddy
comes home.

During what's come to be known as the first Gulf War, bewildered, sorrowful, deeply ashamed and angry in equal parts (much as now), I wrote an essay, "My Love Naked in Her Gas Mask." Unfortunately the essay itself was nowhere near as intriguing as its title. Still, much remains germane.

On the third day of the war at three in the afternoon I'm sitting in a theater in west Fort Worth, Texas, watching Eve of Destruction, a science-fiction thriller about sophisticated weaponry gone awry, and about the way our darkness enters even the brightest things we create.

The sun large as a man's foot, Heraclitus wrote. That foot had descended. I spent the morning, I remember, reading Auden over and over, moving between "In Time of War" --

Disaster comes, and we're amazed to find it
The single project that since work began
Through all the cycle showed a steady profit

and "September 1, 1939" --

All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

On the day of Kennedy's assassination, I and the woman I loved, both of us numb with shock and tucked into ourselves, took a streetcar into downtown New Orleans to watch some silly, mindless comedy. Looking about then, I thought: every one of us, everyone I will see today, has this single great terrible thing in common -- everyone. Shortly after, as Vietnam steamed down the track growing ever larger as it approached, many felt ourselves cleft from the common society. Not a few of us became separated physically as well. I followed the continuing debacle of the war, read of Johnson's ascension, of the assassination of another Kennedy and of Martin Luther King, in European newspapers, squatting there on Portobello Road.

This world is as wounded by ideologies as by hunger or need. And in such a disproportionate world further Vietnams, Afghanistans, Chiles and Salvadors seem inevitable. Still, I never supposed I'd be witness to another war. I thought we had learned. How could we not have? But like Dante, here again in the midst of life I find myself lost in the dark wood, Vanzetti's "serene white light of a reasonable world" nowhere to be seen.

As I sat that day drinking coffee, not in Portobello Road or New Orleans but in Fort Worth, Texas, I recalled how a friend and I had just exchanged poems about our lives and the way (reminiscent of warnings on food containers) they'd packed down during shipping to what seemed a smaller volume. David was recently married, myself "in love again, at forty." He wrote:

I have to wonder why in all your letters
chocked with art and thought
there was seldom a vagrant word about
your wife, your life, the world
in which you ate and slept
and worked and fought and paid the bills
that every day come due no matter
what high thoughts we think.

Today in Phoenix I'm not thinking high thoughts, my friend. So many bills have come due. We've borrowed and borrowed again to pay them.

My country has just waged an illegal war against which I am powerless to protest. Congress has handed its powers over to a handful of thugs whose resounding cries of liberation! freedom! bring to many of us a great shame. In the name of security, civil rights -- the very principles for which we supposedly stand -- have been abrogated. As Raymond Carver once wrote, Evil does not need much, it requires only a small sliphole, an opening. And no one will stop the madmen. Our madmen.

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children." -- Dwight Eisenhower, 1953.

What does society mean aside from the hope that we will help one another stop in time? That we agree, daily, hourly, to go on relearning again and again what it is to be human?

Last month Karyn and I attended a marriage reception for a Vietnamese friend. Often before we've been guests in their typically suburban U.S. home: expensive carpeting, extravagant sofas, family photos ajumble on the mantel, a large-screen TV. And over one doorway the photo of a transport helicopter.

It's not the sort of thing one brings up, but I assume this to be the vessel that bore our friend's family up and away from Saigon.

Six in the morning now, and again I sit trying to focus on my work, on the ragtag of this new novel, green tea cooling beside me while beneath pot lids yet another horrible war, Bush's war, goes on simmering to a stew of self-congratulation and cataclysmic consequences.

Where is the helicopter that will deliver us?


James Sallis is a prolific man of letters. Author of the popular Lew Griffin novels (The Long-Legged Fly, Moth, Black Hornet, Eye of the Cricket, and Bluebottle), he has also written the avant-garde novel, Renderings, and the spy novel, Death Will Have Your Eyes, as well as more than one hundred short stories, poems, and essays. He has, in addition, written and edited a number of translations, musicological studies and works of literary criticism, including The Guitar Players, Difficult Lives, a study of noir writers, and, most recently, Chester Himes: A Life, a biography of one of his literary heroes. His latest novel is Cypress Grove. For more James Sallis in 3AM go here.

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