American Life in Poetry: Column 146


Post-traumatic stress disorder is a new name for “shell shock,” a term once applied only to military veterans. Here the poet Marvin Bell describes a group of these emotionally damaged soldiers, gathered together for breakfast. I’d guess that just about everybody who reads this column has known one or two men like these.

Veterans of the Seventies

His army jacket bore the white rectangle   
of one who has torn off his name.  He sat mute   
at the round table where the trip-wire veterans   
ate breakfast.  They were foxhole buddies   
who went stateside without leaving the war.   
They had the look of men who held their breath   
and now their tongues.  What is to say
beyond that said by the fathers who bent lower   
and lower as the war went on, spines curving   
toward the ground on which sons sat sandbagged   
with ammo belts enough to make fine lace   
of enemy flesh and blood.  Now these who survived,   
who got back in cargo planes emptied at the front,
lived hiddenly in the woods behind fence wires   
strung through tin cans.  Better an alarm   
than the constant nightmare of something moving   
on its belly to make your skin crawl   
with the sensory memory of foxhole living.

We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright © 2007 by Marvin Bell, and reprinted from Mars Being Red, Copper Canyon Press, 2007, by permission of the author and publisher. The poem first appeared in Gettysburg Review, Summer, 2007. Introduction copyright © 2019 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.