Tom Sheehan, in his 92nd year, just published Alone with the Good Graces and Jock Poems for Proper Bostonians from Pocol Press, and Small Victories for the Soul VII from Wilderness House Literary Review. He has multiple works in Rosebud, Literally Stories, Linnet’s Wings, Frontier Tales, and many sites/magazines. He served as a sergeant in the 31st Infantry in Korea 1951-52 and graduated from Boston College in 1956.
Born to Wear the Rags of War
The day had gone over hill, but that still, blue light remained,
cut with a gray edge, catching corners rice paddies lean out of.
In the serious blue brilliance of battle they’d become comrades
becoming friends, just Walko and Williamson and Sheehan
sitting in the night drinking beer cooled by Imjin River waters
in August of ‘51 in Korea.
Three men drably clad,
but clad in the rags of war.
Stars hung pensive neon. Mountain-cool silences were being earned,
hungers absolved, a ponderous god talked to. Above silences,
the ponderous god’s weighty as clouds, elusive as soot on wind,
yields promises. They used church keys to tap cans, lapped up
silence rich as missing salt, fused their backbones to good earth
in a ritual old as labor itself,
these men clad in the rags of war.
Such an August night gives itself away, tells tales, slays the rose
in reeling carnage, murders sleep, sucks moisture out of Mother Earth,
fires hardpan, sometimes does not die itself just before dawn,
makes strangers in one’s selves,
those who wear the rags of war.
They had been strangers beside each other, caught in the crush
of tracer night and starred flanks, accidents of men drinking beer
cooled in the bloody waters where brothers roam forever, warriors come
to that place by fantastic voyages, carried by generations
of the persecuted or the adventurous, carried in sperm body, dropped
in the spawning, fruiting womb of America,
and born to wear the rags of war.
Walko, reincarnate of the Central European, come of land lovers
and those who scatter grain seed, bones like logs, wrists strong
as axle trees, fair and blue-eyed, prankster, ventriloquist who talked
off mountainside, rumormonger for fun, heart of the hunter,
hide of the herd, apt killer,
born to wear the rags of war.
Williamson, faceless in the night, black set on black,
only teeth like high piano keys, eyes that captured stars,
fine nose got from Rome through rape or slave bed unknown
generations back, was cornerback tough, graceful as ballet dancer
(Walko’s opposite), hands that touched his rifle the way a woman’s
touched, or a doll, or one’s fitful child caught in fever clutch,
came sperm-tossed across the cold Atlantic, some elder Virginia-
bound bound in chains, the Congo Kid come home,
the Congo Kid, alas, alas,
born to wear the rags of war.
Sheehan, reluctant at trigger-pull, dreamer, told deep lies
with dramatic ease, entertainer who wore shining inward a sum
of ghosts forever from the cairns had fled; heard myths
and the promises in earth and words of songs he knew he never knew,
carried scars vaguely known as his own, shared his self with saint
and sinner, proved pregnable to body force,
but born to wear the rags of war
——Walko: We lost the farm. Someone stole it. My father
loved the fields, sweating. He watched grass grow by starlight,
the moon slice at new leaves. The mill’s where he went for work,
in the crucible, drawing on the green vapor, right in the heat of it,
the miserable heat. My mother said he started dying the first day.
It wasn’t the heat or green vapor did it, just going off to the mill,
grassless, tight in. The system took him. He wanted to help.
It took him, killed him a little each day, just smothered him.
I kill easy. Memory does it. I was born for this, to wear
these rags. The system gives, then takes away. I’ll never
go piecemeal like my father.
These rags are my last home.
——Williamson: Know why I’m here? I’m from North Ca’lina,
sixteen and big and wear size fifteen shoes and my town
drafted me ‘stead of a white boy. Chaplain says he git me home.
Shit! Be dead before then. Used to hunt home, had to eat
what was fun runnin’ down. Brother shot my sister
and a white boy in the woods. Caught them skinnin’ it up
against a tree, run home and kissed Momma goodbye,
give me his gun. Ten years, no word. Momma cries about
both them all night. Can’t remember my brother’s face.
Even my sister’s. Can feel his gun, though, right here
in my hands, long and smooth and all honey touch. Squirrel’s
left eye never too far away for that good old gun.
Them white men back home know how good I am, and send me here,
put these rags on me. Two wrongs! Send me too young
and don’t send my gun with me. I’m goin’ to fix it all up,
gettin’ home too. They don’t think I’m coming back,
them white men. They be nervous when I get back, me and that
good old gun my brother give me,
and my rags of war.
——Sheehan: Stories are my food. I live and lust on them.
Spirits abound in the family, indelible eidolons; the O’Siodhachain
and the O’Sheehaughn carved a myth. I wear their scars in my soul,
know the music that ran over them in lifetimes, songs’ words,
and strangers that are not strangers: Muse Devon abides with me,
moves in the blood and bag of my heart, whispers tonight:
Corimin is in my root cell, oh bright beauty of all
that has come upon me, chariot of cheer, carriage of Cork
where the graves are, where my visit found the root
of the root cell—Johnny Igoe at ten running ahead
of the famine that took brothers and sisters, lay father down;
sick in the hold of ghostly ship I have seen from high rock
on Cork’s coast, in the hold heard the myths and music
he would spell all his life, remembering hunger and being alone
and brothers and sisters and father gone and mother
praying for him as he knelt beside her bed that hard morning
when Ireland went away to the stern. I know that terror
of hers last touching his face. Pendalcon’s grace
comes on us all at the end. Johnny Igoe came alone at ten
and made his way across Columbia, got my mother who got me
and told me when I was twelve that one day Columbia
would need my hand and I must give. And tonight I say,
“Columbia, I am here with my hands
and with my rags of war.”
I came home alone. And they are my brothers.
Walko is my brother. Williamson is my brother.
Muse Devon is my brother. Corimin is my brother.
Pendalcon is my brother.
God is my brother.
I am a brother to all who are dead,
we all wear the rags of war.
© 2019 Tom Sheehan