In the Way That Bone and Blood
Pass into Words
A Chapbook of Poems
When I was a boy,
two dark bookcases stood in the hallway
that ran through the center of the house.
At the end of one of the bottom shelves
was a history of the 5th Marine Division.
My father's name appeared nowhere
but among the long roster in the back.
I used to sit for hours under a small lamp
and search the ship and battle photos
for a face that might be his.
All my father ever said was--
"I never killed anyone. I drove a truck."
It was not until years after his death
that an uncle mentioned in passing
that my father had driven ammo
from the black beaches of Iwo Jima
to those who has moved inland,
where death disguised itself
as blasted rock and ground,
where the Japanese were like shadows
moving inside shadows.
Over ale and squid,
he tells me this story,
"Our bulldozers pushed
the broken buildings
from the downtown streets.
Our dead had been dug out,
and the gunfire had moved
up into the hills
more than half a mile
from the new quartermaster HQ.
About a block away,
they threw up a mess hall,
and every day going to lunch,
we passed this one heap of brick
pushed off the road,
waiting to be hauled away.
At about eye level,
there was a Jap arm
hanging out of the brick
from just above the elbow.
I don't know why
but every day for about a week,
I shook his hand."
Designed to withstand the fury
of a great assault borne up the gray channels
of the Bismarck Sea,
defended by soldiers,
sailors, and airmen of hardened confidence,
of the ardor that welcomes
the blood offerings which victory
requires of valor,
it was denied its heroic confrontation--
bypassed by MacArthur and Nimitz,
outflanked after the long exercise of carnage
had spent itself in the jungles
of the Solomons and New Guinea.
Instead, the heroes of the early sun
gave themselves up in a grim ritual of attrition.
The boldest airmen found diminishing solace
in their inevitable flaming out,
as instincts tested beyond articulation
and all that remained of honor
was avoidance of dishonor.
The ships below
scattered, the white of their wakes
tracing the soul-dulling cycle
of their escape from "safe harbor"
to the empty refuge of the open sea.
And on the island itself
those in the bunkers dug ever deeper
as the droning bombers
pulverized the remnants of what had been
blasted away after the surface itself
had been blasted to a lunar desolation.
At regular intervals,
the survivors regather at a bare shrine
and leave their frail offerings
of red blossoms and paper prayers.
In the underworld of the barge caves
move the descendants of the first men,
who passed in their great canoes
beyond the yearnings of their epoch.
These pass like shadows
from one rusting hulk to another.
They carry long bamboo poles
strung with snares that seize the bats
roosting where quiet has settled
in the long abandonment of sorrows.
The first and the last time I really talked
to my cousin Jimmy
was at the Ukrainian Hall on River Street
at his nephew Eddie's wedding.
Jimmy was older than my old man
and a cousin four- or five-times-removed,
depending on who I asked.
He was wearing a maroon-plaid suit
and a tie with a purple palm tree on it.
We were drinking seven-and-sevens
to the quick polkas
that the women were dancing to.
He told me
how the German had somehow
gotten out of the locked boxcar;
how he had shouted for him to stop;
how the other Germans in the boxcar
had shouted more loudly
again and again and again--
Tote den Verrater!
Tote den Verrator! Tote den Verrater!
how the sentry farther down the track
had lifted his rifle to his shoulder
and shouted something
that the German running straight for him
either did not
or preferred not to hear,
though he must have understood
as the shot was squeezed off
and the bullet closed the space
much faster than he ever could have.
He told me
how the Germans in the boxcar
had fallen quiet
not when the gun had fired
but the moment after
when the German had stopped
dead in his steps
and then had lifted off his feet
as if someone had struck him
square in the heart with a club;
how that night they had not
unlocked the cars
because there was no transport
available for prisoners
and no place to take them
how the next morning
the sentry had reported
a quiet night
and slid the door open
for a captain
who had said "J-e-s-u-s"
like someone had just ripped his guts;
how they had found all of them
grayer than winter,
colder than the morning cold;
how they all had come to look
and had looked for longer
than they should have been allowed
how more than a decade later
in a quiet bar
in the middle of an afternoon
in Newark, New Jersey,
a GI's former German bride
had told him
that Tote den Verrater!
"Kill the traitor!"
I know now that my cousin Jimmy
was already dying of a cancer
that would eat away his insides
faster than anyone but him
could admit believing.
They laid him out
in the maroon-plaid suit,
but his wife had substituted
a plain red tie
for the one with palm tree
of certain sunsets
over the anthracite mountains.
After the War Was Over
I took down the map of the world
which I had pieced together
from large maps of each continent.
It had covered most of one bedroom wall,
and each night I had moved
the colored tacks by which I tracked
the gains and losses of ground
announced on that night’s news.
My grandfather looked at all the tack holes
and started to talk about replastering.
I sat at the foot of my bed
and found myself trying to count the holes
as though I were a tired soldier
attempting to preserve the sound
of each bullet that had not killed me.
Why I Cannot Look at a Picture of Benito Mussolini
without Staring at His Nose
His biographer tells us
that in 1926
a crazy Irish woman
named Violet Gibson
went to Italy
determined to kill
either the Pope or Mussolini.
By chance, she came within
an arm's length of the Duce,
pulled out her revolver,
and squeezed off a shot
before being subdued.
Because he had tossed back
his head in his usual way,
to favor the crowd
with an imperial profile,
the bullet passed,
not into his brain,
but through his nose.
We are told that,
seizing the moment,
"Fancy, a woman."
We are told that,
after his nose was bandaged,
he resumed his passage
through the crowd,
like Caesar merely nicked
We are told that,
as a gesture of goodwill,
he later ordered
she be released quietly
to the British.
Yet we are not told
what happened to her then,
nor how the hole
in the Duce's nose
came to heal so well
that we who depend on pictures
never could have known.
I. Munich 1929
The boy who loved Eva Braun
knew only that she enjoyed fresh fruit.
After the grocer closed the shutters,
the boy would sweep the soiled sawdust
to the shoe-worn center of the floor--
could lose himself in the recollection
of her teeth breaking the apple's skin,
the crisp sound and her smile as she chewed
rewarding the devotion in his selection.
On the day that she stopped coming,
he told himself that she would come the next,
but his dreams that night were full
of vacant faces gathering at windows.
II. The Ukraine 1944
In the miles on ten of miles of mud
on every side, there was always
the weariness that seemed to bring
into the lungs all the odors of terror.
The grocer's boy had acquired scars,
the grim humor that embraces death
to hold off the awful fear of its moment.
Sometimes in the chill quiet,
he would tell the others about the girl
who did not care that as she chewed
the apple's juice dribbled on her chin.
In return, they would offer him stories,
epic misadventures that would by chance
return them to each other at war's end.
A dairy cow explodes
in a pasture in Provence--
disappears as cow
in the crackling flash,
becomes in the instant
raw stuff of soil
to be dispersed into grass
and then digested into cow.
From the fragments,
the experts determine
it was a German grenade.
Though it may have lain there
the fifty years,
it seems more likely that,
it had worked its way slowly
back to the surface--
where history gives way again
to story, and where wonder,
in some sudden voice,
survives its circumstance.
The Camp Survivors
Those who heard the boot knock
of stormtroopers on the stairs
have survived to find their hearts
still beating in the darkness
where damaged dreams collect
like bodies in remote gullies.
Those who hear, in the cold
accents of policy, the wearied tread
of human hope herded still
before the club and the bayonet,
must find in the enduring need
for their grim testimony
the darkest irony
of their long survival.
Homely Metaphors for Slaughter
The axles of Assyrian chariots
turned long, curved blades
that cut through enemy foot soldiers
and horsemen and horses
like the food processor
goes through cabbage.
No, for though the cabbage bleeds,
we call its lifeblood juice
and simply wipe it up.
For it is not the deep red
of carnage, of agonies
beyond the bloody record,
beyond the catalog and count.
For if a headless man becomes
but briefly a fountain of gore,
a headless cabbage is but
a bare patch of ground.
Two millennia later,
in the Great War,
men ran bent forward
with their bayonets pointing upward,
like blades of grass
to be mown down by machine guns.
And, indeed, the figure
does make one reconsider
the violence done to grass
in the name of lawns--
does make one wonder
whether we might keep our children
by lopping off their heads.
As we have kept our young men