Saturday, 26 September 2015

from Blackwater Quartet, selection 42

Weapons Lore
(Photograph of My Father, North Africa, 1943)

The strong were strong, the weak stood weak together,
where elegance was the eye’s contagion,
and slow winks might punctuate a martyr’s passion
or cue the awe-struck into song.
But analogy is not identity, and days nearly poetry
fuel tides, grass, and sky
with or without those fixed rotations
and firmament of stars.

The likeness is my father’s, the argument mine.
Flemish-bond brickwork, old buildings
in the Federal style, May wine and madrigals:
the causes we die for return
with the personal effects, preserved in photographs,
discovered in hometowns row upon row,
sweeter than rivers or marjoram needles,
as impartial as sunlight on date palm and laurel.

The day is a page from Ovid.
I sit in the shade of the noon verandah
examining the letters, and the face of the man
smiling towards armistice on a desert plain.
In the mute immensity of that first campaign,
his helmet cocked fedora-like against the sun,
the face falls away like a coin down a well.
The day is a page from Ovid.

The Kodak shutter trips,
the sergeant’s grin forever fixed
on the camel in the foreground, the nomad,
the officers and the automatic weapons:
to a prospect of civilians
the camel’s indifference to events
lends the scene a sense of easy justice,
routing any stratagem of spoils.

In the weeks to come that world would lie
limbless in a ditch, the insignia dead-weighted
under strafing skies and Panzers
dressing farm boys up as corpses.
Back home, letters addressed overseas
took weeks to find the steel-pot hats shot through,
the familiar hand under foreign seal,
the perfect copperplate unread.

Perhaps not the men schools are named after…
but when medals became children
and the children smiled, lapsing into liturgies
after so many years away,
it seemed prodigal enough, learning the land
through the fortunes of the people,
a mediocrity more powerful
than fear of death in battle.

When the war was over, our family had a house
with a room upstairs my father kept in mothballs.
Roof beams sheared the attic walls
and the floorboards trooped in cadence
to the shouts of a small boy worlds away,
the boots above my knees,
my feet curled seed-like in a foreign soil.
A German pistol lay oiled and holstered in a drawer.

An old man up the street from us
lost his son in the final days of fighting, the body
dissolving in a shell burst on the Rhine,
the tags and grip sent Stateside with the notice.
Next door, a man from the Pacific war
collected finger joints from Japanese he’d killed,
trading with recruits come green and glorious
from boot camps in the South.

Shaped early to allegiance, where atom storms
translate a kanji script of islands,
I sailed into the glory days
photographed in Life.
The dead boy’s canvas duty pack
showed dark on the underside with stains.
When my father saw, he gave it back,
sold the Luger to a gunsmith for a twenty-dollar bill.

Years later, years ago,
Daddy took a twelve-bore
point-blank in the heart, in the street
where we lived my mother collapsing,
my sister asking what would we do…
I cradled the dead man in my arms,
my life the afterlife of April after winter,
rising from that broken season.

Some days so hard and holy:
to commit a world to action,
a man in the earth’s example
waiting silent as smoke where light
was brightening in the wood,
or take the cue from Adam, confess
through symbols of death and longing
and trust the world to break the fall.

The likeness is my father’s, the argument mine,
though at times I imagine him
alive again, whistling a war tune
like laughter in the dark, like the men
without fingertips pressing by me in the street.
Meeting him there, reaching out, I want to say, You.
But the face is blank and the voice soundless—
a Normandy beachhead, a rising sun.

Strange how people look alike sometimes,
barefoot at the fountainhead or sleeping in the park,
shouldering arms or infants: I could have sworn
he was the man I saw that day,
and perhaps would have spoken had I been certain,
but neither my father’s words, nor the words
of my father’s only son would serve
as tokens of the recognition.

I sit in the shade of the noon verandah
where some men learn to die quickly,
where from time to time even good men
go down with blood on their hands.
Their features frozen in an old refrain,
the figures in the photograph are smiling,
strong and familiar in themselves.
We sing the old songs.

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