Oswald LeWinter

Tribal Wars

My father and his Mandel cousin
Fired epithets at each other
For two decades. Deadlier
Than mortars or mere bullets,
The verbal mambas killed
The spirit, leaving the body
A husk of crushed memories.

They had been born hours apart
And slept in the same bed
Before Max went to America
And my father, glued to Vienna,
Needed the threat of extinction
To move his ass, and my mother,
To the new world's ghetto.

Cousin Max, moneyed from bread
He baked each morning at four,
Took me to the shelter for refugees
Where he told my father to expect
Nothing from him except old coats.
"In America," he said with his Yankee—
Yiddish, "a real man finds his own way."


In 1967, Thirty-six years old, I was
Ordered to Nigeria where the mambas
Had become bullets. A tribal war,
Between secessionist Biafra
And the legal dictator was piling
Corpses up and down the roads.
The savannahs had turned red and wet.

Taxiing the 25 kilometers into Lagos
From the sandbagged airport,
I dissected my assignment: To discern
The side America should embrace.
Who held the kings and aces that would
End in the annihilation of opponents?
Who was ready to be more pro American.

The hotel was worse than substandard
And the mosquitoes hummed louder
Than the yawing fans in my room.
Moving between the combatants
Without making my shaved white face
A target was an exercise in craftiness
I perfected with the sweating speed of fear.

Ojukwu and Gowon, the two opposing
Generals, glowered at me from walls
Scarred by bullets in Kano and in Lagos.
I was to recommend which of them
Should die by an accident of assassination.
Induced suicide was also an alternative.
I had been schooled in how Lumumba died.

I was reprieved when events overtook
My procrastination and the shooting stopped.
History forced the two Generals to accept
Its own preconceived design. The war came
And the war went. The tribes lost no love
For each other after mortar shells
And bullets stopped parceling out the air.


Max and my father both died
Without having taken one another's hand
Or traded one healing word.
Their tribal war created its own history
That found heirs in my cousin Joe and me.
We never even speak to one another.
Ours is no war of attrition, only a dumb conflict
Disguised by strict silence and the pretense
That neither of us, two survivors,
Cares that we continue to betray
The common childhood when each pressed
His nicked wrist against the other's as a bond.

Oswald LeWinter is a 72 year old American poet living in Lisbon. After a thirty-year-plus hiatus, he is again sending his work to journals. In the sixties and earlier, his work appeared in Shenandoah, Sewanee, Contact, New Mexico Quarterly, Epoch, Hudson Review, Paris Review, Chelsea, the Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, Beloit Poetry Journal, Argonaut and elsewhere.

[Tarpaulin Sky can neither confirm nor deny this information, as LeWinter is the original 'international man of mystery.' Click HERE or GOOGLE for details.]