by Tom Sheehan
A Lost Face and then Some
When asked to read to celebrate my new book of memoirs,
I let the audience enter the cubicle from where the work came.
I told them: I’ll celebrate with you by telling you what I know,
how it is with me, what I am, what has made me this way;
a public posture of a private life near nine decades deep.
Just behind the retina, a small way back, is a little room.
with secret doors, passageways, key words beside Sesame.
If you’re lucky enough to get inside that room, at the right time,
there’s ignition, a flare, now and then pure incandescence,
a white phosphorous shell detonating ideas and imagery.
It’s the core room of memories, holding everything
I’ve ever known, seen, felt, spurting with energy.
Shadowy, intermittent presences we usually know
are microscope-beset, become most immediate.
For glorious moments, splendid people rush back
into our lives with their baggage, Silver Streak unloaded,
Boston’s old South Station alive, bursting seams.
At times I’ve been lucky, white phosphorescently lucky;
when I apprehend all, quadrangle of Camp Drake in Japan
in February of 1951, the touch and temperature of the breeze
on the back of my neck; I know a rifle’s weight on a web
strap on my shoulder, awed knowledge of a ponderous
steel helmet, tight lace on a boot, watch band on one wrist.
Behind me, John Salazer is a comrade with two brothers
not yet home from World War II, who the captain calls
and says, “You go home tomorrow. Be off the hill before dark.”
“No, sir, I’ll spend the night with Jack down in the listening post.”
At darkness a Chinese infiltrator hurls a grenade into their bunker.
The count begins again, eternal count, odds maker at work,
clash of destinies. On the ship heading home, on a troop train
rushing across America, in all rooms of sleep since then,
are spaces around me. Memory, fragile, becomes tenacious,
but honors me as a voice, and my will to spread their tenacity.
My book says, ‘For those who passed through Saugus, all towns,
comrades bravely walked away from home to fall elsewhere,
and the frailest one of all, frightened, glassy-eyed, knowing
he is hapless, one foot onto D-Day soil or South Pacific beach
and going down, but not to be forgotten, not ever here.”
I had their attention. We shared: The shells were cannonading
as one died in my arms, blood setting sun down. In darkness now
I cannot find his face again. I search for it, stumble, lose my way.
November’s rich again, exploding. Sixty-four Novembers burst
the air. I inhale anew, leaves bomb me, sap is still, muttering
of the Earth is mute. I remember all the Novembers; one tears
about me now, but his face is lost. How can I find his face again?
Burial for Horsemen
(For my father, blind too early.)
The night we listened to an Oglala life
on records, and shadows remembered
their routes up the railed stairway like
a prairie presence, I stood at your bed
counting the days you had conquered.
The bottlecap moon clattered into your
room in vagrant pieces…jagged blades
needing a strop or wheel for stabbing,
great spearhead chips pale in falling,
necks of smashed jars rasbora bright,
thin flaked edges tossing off the sun.
Under burden of the dread collection,
you sighed and turned in quilted repose
and rolled your hand in mine, searching
for lighting only found in your memory.
In moon’s toss I saw the network of your
brain struggling for my face the way you
last saw it, a piece of light falling under
the hooves of a thousand horse ponies,
night campsites riding upward in flames,
the skyline coming legendary.
Gandy Dancer of the Phoebe Snow
You began right in front of me today.
I don’t know where you came from,
patient muscles hanging loose in your
soil-painted, dark-blue suit coat,
one pocket ripped to a triangle,
one pocket stuffed oh so properly
with a coffee-filled paper-wrapped
pint bottle, your thin legs nailed down
into a pair of the saddest brown pants,
a long-handle spade extending your arms,
eyes folded over reaching for noon.
Off behind you, faded to gray,
jetted the rip of animate steam,
coal gases; railroad track arrowing
onto a lake top that still does not exist.
You said, “Manja,” and laughed at me,
your big teeth ripe of red meat and bread,
voice as loud as your hands slapping with music.
You untied the red bandanna at your neck,
a sun-bothered sail of red bandanna,
wiped the brow under a felt hat, sucked
at the papered bottle until I tasted iodine
at the bend of my throat, smelled coal dust
coming a talc over us, like a dry fog.
It was the same yesterday when I made
a v-grooved pole to hold the clothesline up,
and over the fence a visitor from the Maritimes
said, “You go back a long way. I haven’t seen
a pole like that in years and years.”
So I guess you came the way the pole did,
out of the roads I’ve traveled, down lanes
stuffed like chairs, past yard geographies,
a long view over trees, out of some
thing I was, an organic of memory,
celluloid flashing of wide spaces
I passed through, the odors I thought
I wore or was, cannons at the edge
of a distant war, colors banging
their permanence tightly against
the back of my eyes,
pieces of the circle I find myself on,
where you were a moment ago, just
out the window of my mind, bearing
the riddle of a melancholy whistle
from hollows among the Rockies.
Face of an Old Western Barn
The motley barn, like an old stain
gone haywire, is a dread easel.
Knots, carved into walls like old
promises, wait for campfires
or late hearths, warmth from Earth’s
Only the darkness is inconclusive where
night points its finger. In the deep aches
knots have fallen from, stars fall in, fields
of them, with the evening leader digging
deepest, digging first after yesterday’s carcass
linking still in the eyes’ behavior.
Shadows, upstaging any moon, argue on
its surfaces laterally. I have seen more mandates
than dreams in the dim recesses where wood
envies time, chases after it a whole age of
transparent death; just sunken cedars
in the swamp, drowned black, live on longer,
scaled at new livelihood.
Against a thousand storms this barn has stood,
never folding inward, only down by faint degrees
of ant strokes, termite mandibles, the odd carpenter;
its shoulders going sideways, knees turning softly,
its breath slow and halting.
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Tom Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry, Korea 1951-52, and graduated Boston College in 1956. His books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short Spans; Collection of Friends; From the Quickening; The Saugus Book; Ah, Devon Unbowed; Reflections from Vinegar Hill; This Rare Earth & Other Flights, and Vigilantes East. eBooks include Korean Echoes (nominated for a Distinguished Military Award), The Westering, (nominated for National Book Award); from Danse Macabre are Murder at the Forum (NHL mystery), Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment, and An Accountable Death. Co-editor of A Gathering of Memories, and Of Time and the River, two collections about our home town of Saugus, Massachusetts, both 400+ pages, 4500 copies sold, all proceeds from $40.00 each cost destined for a memorial scholarship for my co-editor, John Burns, in the Saugus School system as director of the English Department at the High School for 45 years. After conception of the idea for the books, and John putting out the word for material to be included by former students, and with a proposal of actions and schedules I prepared for a local bank, ten of his former students signed a loan from the bank for $60,000 to print two books not yet written!!!!
And paid it off!!!!
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painting by Jane Gilday