A word about this poem: I have heard it said, by people who support the gun-culture in this country, that “guns don’t kill. People do.” But that is inaccurate. Guns do kill. They have a life of their own. They are amoral. They get into people’s psyches, especially men; they get into their hands, they change the way people relate, they mess with us. And they multiply, like coat-hangers, pennies, lighters, socks, and they make it very easy to go to war. Guns were inevitable in history, like sex. Impersonal sex. They make killing impersonal.
Guns serve the power drive. They keep people from evolving. They are very addictive. There is no such thing as owning one gun. And gun-love is polymorphous. The forms and phases of gun-love are endless.
When I was only nine years old I made a gun out of an old brass bunsen burner. It was a beautiful thing. I fashioned a wooden handle for it that fit over the gas nozzle on the bottom. I would bottom-load it with a fire-cracker, screwing it down. I notched the metal to allow the fuse to stick out for lighting. It was a zip gun, like the city gangs used in their turf wars. It could fire anything I wanted to front load it with, anything that fit in the barrel. I loved that gun. I loved the power. Every time I fired it, the pop and flash of the gun-powder would burn the skin between my thumb and fore-finger. I loved the sting and the lingering smell of the burn.
In this poem I revisit my love affair with guns and I track that love to the day I became disillusioned.
Gun tales of a pacifist
My brother and I learned to shoot
At summer camp.
That is where gunpowder
Became my favorite smell;
It had a tangy burned pungency
That hung in the air after each shot,
Better than Christmas.
After five or six shots
We would all run up
To inspect our targets
Even though our acute vision
Had already reported back our score.
With our guns
We were all rebel-princes,
Hooded heroes and highwaymen,
Plotting ways to defend the commoner
From our hideaway
In the king’s forest.
And then there was the boy
Who shot his whole family
In the same town as our camp.
They knocked down the house,
Bulldozed it flat and planted pine trees
Over the spot.
The name of the boy
And the family was never uttered again.
It was like they were whited out.
But the trees are still there
When we weren’t at camp,
We took our .22s to the sand pit
And shot at cans on boulders,
Rarely missing except on purpose
When we targeted the boulders
To hear the zing of ricocheting bullets.
One time, in the sand pit,
We spotted a big Hognose snake.
(Snakes grew bigger when I was little.)
We got a box over it and the mothers came.
They called the police
Who responded straight-away,
Told us all to stand back
And shot it through the head
Before we had a chance to grow up
And learn to read
And fall in love with snakes
And find out that Hognose snakes are harmless
Rat-eaters. But I still remember
The dusty bloody carcass of that big snake
Lying still in the sandy dirt
After it stopped writhing,
And feeling that the cop
Did the wrong thing
Even if the snake was, as he declared,
And the whole thing was very anti-climactic.
But the cop and the mothers
Had done their duty.
And I couldn’t wait to get back to
Which only lasted a few more years.