All the President’s Nephews
I went to Basic with George H. W. Bush’s nephew,
a smarmy young man who did everything right
or had it done for him. When he found out
I owned the highest ASVAB scores in the company
and had been accepted into a school he admired
but couldn’t attend because I was poor,
he decided to hate me and embarrass me
every chance he got. In the field,
when the rest slept in muddy tents,
ate cold MREs, pulled guard-duty all night,
he was a guest of the general, sleeping
in his cabin, eating hot meals, walking with him
during inspections, until he and the general
stood over me as I filled up a foxhole ditch.
The general asked why I needed to pile the dirt
higher than it had been when we dug the foxholes,
and I was mute, nervous talking to this general,
knowing a wrong answer would get back
to the drills, would mean yelling, extra duty,
and this pause went on a little too long
so the president’s nephew began to yell,
“He got a 97 on the ASVAB! A 97!”
At this point I knew I was screwed anyway,
so I told the general the earth would settle,
and you didn’t want to leave the enemy
proof you were here. “Took you
long enough,” the president’s nephew said
and started walking again, as if the general
should follow. The general shook his head,
like he couldn’t believe he went to West Point
and slogged through the jungles of Vietnam
to end up babysitting this piece of shit.
Then he said, “Good work, soldier,”
leaned in closer and whispered,
“Look at it this way. If you’d have gone
to college, you would have ended up like him.”
Larry Brown and the Holocaust
After Larry Brown published his first novel
but before he achieved full literary fame,
he spoke at a conference, sitting
in a small classroom in a small chair
like a slumped teenager, voice a drawl
as long as his long legs spread before him.
He said rather than do some formal lecture,
he’d just open things up to questions.
Most questions, mine included,
focused on writing, and then a woman
asked this white Mississippian firefighter
if he would write about the Holocaust,
so our world would never let it happen again.
The room sat a moment in paused silence
before Brown suggested she write something.
Later, outside, he told me more bluntly
he couldn’t write about Holocaust Jews,
not because he was anti-Semitic,
or didn’t have compassion for them,
but because a writer needs more than caring
if he’s to spend years screwing with a novel.
You can’t borrow another’s passion,
buy another person’s love, he said,
lighting one cigarette from another.
I asked if he thought she’d write one.
He shook his head no, and said,
a person like that is just passionate enough
to try to get another to do her work for her.
Years later, after penning terrific novels,
many the best to ever come out of the South,
those chained-smoked cigarettes killed him.
Though we only met once, when he died I wept,
and when it came time to write this poem, I wrote it.
James Valvis has placed poems or stories in Ploughshares, River Styx, Hubbub, Southern Indiana Review, Louisville Review, Rattle, The Sun, and hundreds of other journals. His poetry was selected for Best American Poetry 2017. His fiction was chosen for Sundress Best of the Net and won 2nd Place in Folio's Editor's Prize. His work has also come in 2nd for the Asimov's Readers' Award. A former US Army soldier, he lives near Seattle.