Blood Stripes, the Ambush, and Other Nightmares

Poem by Aaron Graham


When I stand in ruins — praise God
that I cannot tell the difference
between the weeping and the meaning
between keening and exaltation
that teaches me reality.
I wanna see scars that say:

there’s pain in this scar
a picture of suffering sorrow in this scar
a promise of hope in this scar

I think those children
from Ramadi,
who can’t be trusted
with the liability
of full stomachs,
had best be getting
home now.

The little boy from Jaffa — 
whose broken arm I set — 
he didn’t know
his name.
All he knew — 
the family
once murdered
grew green
stalks,
meaty eyes,
and lived in
the flowers
returning as buds
as bulbs and tubers
in the earth — 
queens of fire
and isolation
blossoming year-round — 
sempiternal, blooming death.

One time
I seen an Iraqi kid bleed
through five shirts when
I couldn’t pray loud enough
in Latin or Arabic to make
his blood stop then limply left
his body, bled out in the sands — 
I realize I’m bawling,
staggering around blur-eyed
and don’t know where my rifle is.

I don’t really believe
in preventative medicine — 
yearly checkups, crushed-
up herbs, rabbits’
feet, chicken bones
and going to church.
Not ’cause I don’t believe
in God. ’Cause I don’t believe
in too much
preemptive fucking around.
I believe in battlefield medicine — 
artery clamps, quick
clot, and syringes dripping
with morphine.
I believe my life used to be
a lot more clean — 
single-razor-blade-shaves
and edge-dressed corframs
black like burning forests.

I wore blood stripes
down each leg like
blood trails the leg
paths through the sand
from where the EFPs
hit to where
we dragged, and then
dropped Dills — 
his lance corporal chevrons
glinting with dying sun.

After plasma transfusions
from navy docs,
out-processing papers
and S-3 shops, pain
pill bottles, and Fentanyl lollipops,
I still remember the quick clot
is for the artery
when the bleeding
doesn’t stop

is for when I reach the point
where I’ve left enough of myself
on the pillow
that I can actually fall asleep.


AARON GRAHAM hails from Glenrock, Wyoming, population 1159, which boasts seven bars, six churches, a single 4-way stop sign, and no stoplights. His work explores the relationship of desire, compassion, and violence in combat situations and the resilience, latency, and impact of trauma and moral injury on maritime society. He served as the assistant editor for Squaw Valley Review, is an alumnus of Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and The Ashbury Home School (Hudson), and is a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where he served with The Marine Corps’ Human Intelligence and Counterterrorism Task Force Middle East as analyst and linguist. His work has appeared in SAND, The Tishman Review, The East Bay Review, Print Oriented Bastards, Zero-Dark-Thirty, and f(r)iction. His first book, Blood Stripes, was a finalist for Tupelo Press’ 2015 Berkshire Prize, and his poem, “Olfaction,” won the 2015 Seven Hills Penumbra Poetry Prize.
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