Canto XVIII of A War Papyrus

In the aftermath, the daytime blackout
Following these renewed late evening assaults on Odessa,
To which drones, reinforcement drones, counter
          drones, and tracer missiles
Had been like stars attempting to destroy
The molecular composition of each other
If not the very fabric of the black cosmos,
The Earth, as it were, swooned, and speech faltered
In the reticence of consternation,
There was scarcely strength to stand,
And mentally, there was a withdrawal unto the self
By the many who were there singularly
Deposited with their trash
Along street corners near their respective houses
Like disconcerted stray dogs bereft of homes
And habits that were their agendas,
And thus, standing on the streets bewildered,
Not knowing whether to go left or right–
Disconcerted in mass, ubiquity not in concert,
Each impacted by the Russian assault singularly
While in the minds of each person bore a terror,
          latent but active,
Of a possible next scenario of mushroom cloud forming
From a destroyed nuclear power plant
Or the impact of a nuclear warhead.

Wandering the streets, lost in venues of the city,
Lost in selves of the self, I nonetheless see
A plastic sandal along the side of the street,
The inability to know how it got there an added
          dimension to the perception;
A lone, emaciated stray without direction and purpose;
And then from my reflection in a store window,
A reminder of the human barbecue of war,
The dark purplish pink of the charred, inflamed area of skin
Calloused under my right eye which matches
Parts of the upper chest and back
And this, my stump, of an amputated leg–
Yes, I know the ugly, and know how
In the immediate chaos of a conflict
The bigger picture can dwarf the smaller
For a while, but
Only for a while.

It, Odessa, once called the jewel of the Black Sea,
Is now an erstwhile world port
With grain silos, ships, the entire harbor
Incinerated by kamikaze drones;
A newly renovated ancient cathedral now a ruins;
Beach strewn in fragmentary land mines washed ashore
When, weeks earlier, the dam was breached by the damned.
It, the self, blows and is kicked around
Like the plastic cup at my feet: empty, like it,
But of loss, change, and lack
Of any relationships, and now with my brother dead,
mother, presumably so,
The energy spent in erecting
And staving off the collapse
Of the walls of family seeming
A childish act of futility–
Children thinking family lasts forever
And that it should last forever.
Long before any
Family member’s demise is
The demise of family.

The first of a second eye, a second leg–
Neither one for very long freakish
In the evolutionary journey
As these mutations achieved symmetry;
But the first nose, the first mouth, and no
          other, none.
They were, for a considerable time, the aberrant,
          the deviation as
The singular, the oddity, is that which constitutes
          the ugly.
And yet the female animal in every species,
Especially this one,
Makes silent pronouncements of each male she encounters
Through these aesthetic judgments in sexual selection
On brightness, strength, and practicality
(Is neck long enough to stretch to the leaves of the tree and
Will mating with him make my offspring long-necks and
Enhance their chances for survival–
Registers the mind of the female tortoise instinctually
With the woman deviating slightly
By concentrating on mental prowess
And material wealth consciously);
But when the cloak of the pulchritude of youth
Has been scorched and unravels, what woman
Would allow such a monstrosity’s insertion–
Beauty, after all, attracting beauty to beget beauty
          into the world.
Every intimacy in these conditions would have
          to be one of rape.
This is the mutant creature that this war has in all
          likelihood made me into.

Were it not the specious interplay of sun and shadow by tree,
          of wind, in these
Rustling sails of assailment, or this sense that I
          might once again be
Smitten, even in a world continually smote in savagery,
By a present moment that would be a light creature,
Fluttering like dark winged butterflies,
I would go mad
Even now, in this daytime blackout of Odessa


Steven David Justin Sills is an American poet and novelist living in Bangkok Thailand. Some of his early works can be seen on the Online Book Page at the University of Pennsylvania. His poetry book, An American Papyrus is in various libraries including the Internet Archive. Of this early work, one reviewer said, “Sills’ vision is often a dark one. He writes of the homeless, the abused, the forgotten people. He is also intrigued with the mystical, the sensual/sexual, loss–as in losing those whom we hold dear, such as a spouse or lover–as well as the lost, such as someone who is autistic, who seems unreachable. Sills’ skillful use of the language to impart the telling moments of a life is his strength. He chooses his words carefully, employing a well-developed vocabulary. He is thoughtful about punctuation, where to break lines and when to make a new stanza. He’s obviously well versed in “great” literature. Sills’ command of language helps to soften the blows of some of the seamier passages found in his poems. Seamy may not be the best word to use. Perhaps gritty is a better word or just plain matter-of-fact…” Following the rewriting of his last novel, The Three Hour Lady, the Russo-Ukrainian War began and he felt that its significance needed to be captured in verse. He has now written 18 cantos on his long poem, A War Papyrus.