Degrees of Silence
from wild bullets
that rot in the Earth
or a bucket
of live grenades
some meek hero
in the Leyte Gulf.
a wet stone
without a carved name
taking storm knives
in a mile-wide
in a Kwajalein cave
coming up white as
a jaw's best tooth
knocked from a hard jaw.
a grasped photo,
old black & white,
in a dead hand,
the last smile carried off.
a big RBI some kid
drove home in Kansas
in '41 and a father
remembers the ball
going like a bullet
into left center.
a brother swimming
100 miles off
a New Zealand beach
saying your name,
in his teeth,
one last time.
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 besides 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 their energies.
Shadowy, intermittent presences we usually know are
microscope-beset, become most immediate, deliberate.
For glorious moments, splendid people rush back into
our lives with their baggage, the Silver Streak unloaded,
Boston's old South Station alive, bursting soldered 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
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
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
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.
This May's rich again, exploding. Sixty-five May months burst
the air. I inhale anew, leaves bomb me, sap is still, muttering
of the Earth is mute. I remember all the spring Mays; one tears
about me now, but his face is lost. How can I find his face
Twilight lashes us,
which always wasnŐt this way,
this step in another direction.
Now my mouth
is against your wetness
and all youŐve shaken loose.
I hear you say
you have waited
forever for this talk of mine.
will I argue for the hours
we have lost getting here.
Once Screamed to the Flag-waving Drunks at the Vets Bar,
Late, Memorial Day Evening
Fifty years now and they come at me, in Chicago,
Crown Point, Indiana, by phone from Las Vegas.
I tell them how it happened, long after parting, one
night when I was in a bar, thinking of them all.
all I can smell is the gunpowder
on you sharper than booze.
You wear your clothes
with a touch of muzzle flash.
Is it a story you wantÉ?
Listen to the years ago,
to the no shooting,
to the no rout,
to the just dying.
The day stank,
it wore scabs, had odors
to choke tissues and burn
secret laminations of the lungs.
Rain festered in soot clouds,
rose in the Pacific
or the Sea of Japan,
dumped down on us,
came up out of yellow clay
like a sore letting out.
The air must have been
full of bats, of spider weavings;
it was lonely as the lobo,
yet a jungle of minds
filled it with thought leaves
shining with black onyx.
Who needs doctors at dyingÉ?
Prayers sew wounds, piece heads,
hearts, hands together, when blood
and clay strike the same irrevocable
vein, arterial mush; when God
is the earth and clay, silence,
the animal taker leaning to grasp.
listen you heroes in mirrors
only you see into, we through,
it isnŐt the killing, itŐs the dying
must be felt, associated,
even if it stinks.
Blood freezes in hot days
of dying, is icicle inside movement
of trickery less than glacierŐs,
where a man crawls to his maker
up his own veins, is touched,
feels the firebrand burn in the cold.
Where are the shade trees, cool drinksÉ?
Once I froze in the confessional
against the fire.
He was a Spick,
they said, washed his skin
too much, wanted to sandpaper it white,
be us, be another man.
But we wagered ourselves
to get him out of a minefield
live as breathing, comrade shot
down in the clay in the rain
in the time of bright eyes rolling
with thunderŐs fear.
Was it him we carried, or the stone
of his monumentÉ?
Tons he was of responsibility,
one of us despite the Spick name,
man being borne to die.
God is everywhere,
the catechism says, my son says,
now, years later. It was once
a divinity we carried on the poles,
with his balls gone pistonless,
no more a god to his woman.
His image rolled red on the canvas,
burned through the handles of the litter
as secret as electricity; Spick shooting
himself into us, Godhead shooting signs
up shafts of wood.
on sticks and canvas
is frightening. We felt this.
Jesus! We screamed,
have You let go of this godÉ?
Do You fill him up making him burn
our hands? He wanders now for times,
rolling himself together,
womanless, childless, a journey
in dark trees, among leaves,
in jungles, to get near You.
God seeking God
at the intercept of shrapnel,
the tearing down and lifting up
by our hands, God
in the cement of death.
itŐs the dying not the killing
you must speak of. This day
is theirs, not ours, belongs
to the gods of the dead,
of the Spick we carried to his dying
and all his brothers, none of them
here among us.
one to the Spick and graveŐs companions,
jungle flights they are in
to match their god with God.
And think, gunmen,
who among us have the longest journey
among leaves, in darkness,
through the spiders of trees,
Notice how he has come out of a dread silence and given himself a name; Saugus, he says. He bleats like a tethered goat to come out of the coming, to be away, dense spiral to the core of self, to the mountain call, bird arcs across such slopes of pale imaginings. Saugus, he says: I am the part of you cries not for the love but intimacy of words, light touch of skin we dread and seek, owning up of self as if in another. I am that part of you named endless searcher, thirsty one, guzzler, sufferer, warred on, starved and the wasted, that part of you you canŐt turn over by yourself. I have the secrets you do not know you know. I am lodged in a far corner of mind, some fallow place at reinsŐ end, waiting to be routed out, turned up, to green a page again. Has it taken you so long to find me, or do you ignore me and try it on your own? You can't avoid documented lightning, shock of metaphor, God on one knee, Saugus.
I am not a stranger. I breathe with you, find shelter and warmth when you do, know the single star haunting the edge of your horizon, know best of all the magic when the sound is right, Oh, Thomas! when the sound is the music of one word upon another, and it tears two parts of soul to four because nothing like it has been heard before, when the word dances on its consonants, slides on soft vowels, when the spine knows the word is known by every ganglia, thong and sinew of the body. The coring.
I am Saugus and you waste me away, cast me aside. I who carry all sounds of memory, cast me aside at breast-panning, when you lose that music down in some phantom crotch, when a sweet ass ties your brain in knots. Now, Oh, just now, Thomas, feel the core wind in. Feel the word rock in you. Find the word rock. Chip at it. Let the chisel fly, the sparks dance out globally, a word thus broken away from the granite source in you. DonŐt you know me, Thomas? I am the gate tender. I am the one who lets you find the word rock. Oh, I am the key man. I let you into that vast field of yourself where the rock grows.
I am Saugus, and I tend that field where the rock lies in the sacred cairn. We meet so infrequently. I keep myself here waiting on you, gate eager to rise, the field waiting to know your tread, the rock waiting to be beat upon by the hammer of your desire. I am lonely when you wander. It is dark and fearful without you. Yet I can make you cry when I am lonely. You donŐt believe me É I am Saugus who makes you cry. You canŐt tease me, please me, appease me. Just use me. I am servant of servants. I am IdŐs IdŐs Id, ego sans ego sans ego. I am to be used, exploited, submitted.
And I guard that huge rock in you, tend it, know what else filled it dense as hardpan that time in Boxford field and you hurt all over; dense as the frozen earth DeMatteo dug fox holes with C-3 and it finally blew off the back of his head and Colonel Mason said, ŇShit!Ó; dense as Vinegar Hill or Indian Rock or that rock wall outside Schenectady and you stopped to change a tire at her waving and she slid down that wall at her back motioning to you her bodily gratitude. Dense is that word rock, full of all your lore and legends bricked with every movement youŐve ever known, all sights and sounds and music of the words; that special place where the thing rings in you, that place of core vibration.
Jesus, Thomas, take my hand again! Walk in the field with me. We belong together, you and I. Dispel me of doom. Let the music of words come, let them dance first in your eye, roll on your tongue, O, live to die on the page. Let them vibrate on your spine, get kissed of your skin, shoot out of here in flight of geese, and mournful sound of heading home when there is no home, steaming freight train whistle calling you from a circle of blue nights, self -shout at the moon still shining on a hill East of Cleveland, South of Yang-du, East again a long stretch from the Chugach given you in a word picture, West of a cliff near Kerry and rain moved as God laughing at the rootstock of your silence, Celtic mummery, God so buried in stone. If you canŐt come with me, Thomas, you are the loser, lonely, forsaken. I can take you back to all those hard places, to the adjectives and verb ends; to the quadrangle in Japan in 1951 and the cool wind coming through Camp Drake and the voice of death talking in it and calling out all your comradesŐ names and it didnŐt talk your name and you still felt sad and knew you were the only ear. In three weeks they were gone, all gone, their voices went into ground, and all their words, and they built on the word rock and now they still dance sadlyÉ such words that make you cry with music still in them, and they come long and slowly out of another time funnel, like Billy Pigg cursing as he rolled over in your arms and Captain Kay saying, ŇI just want to go home to Memphis for a little while and tell Merle and Andy I love them. Just for an hour or so.Ó
Ah, Thomas, come home again. Come you home again, Lest dust grabs us with the wind, makes of this pairing a double-down burial, leaves our Saugus by itself. All names brought to fore, friends and comrades of the field, come along with us, celebrate the birth of death, first part to let go, say they are gone, disappeared the way departure happens when you're not looking for ways to get free for a last handshake, not having one at the start when it all began; under wire and fire, a veteran of the wars teaching how to die, one-hand finger-talk saying nothing, and it all coming down to this.
From Vinegar Hill, A Small Red Star for Me and My Father
This appointment came when light tired, this arrangement, this syzygy
Of him and me and the still threat of a small red star standing
Some time away at my back, deeper than a grain of memory.
I am a quarter mile from him, hard upward on this rugged rock he could
Look up to if only his eyes would agree once more, and itŐs a trillion
Years behind my head or a parsec I canŐt begin to imagine,
They tell me even dead perhaps, that star. Can this be a true syzygy
If one is dead, if one is leaning to leave this line of sight
Regardless of age or love or density or how the last piece of light
Might be reflected, or refused, if one leaves this imposition? The windows
Of his room defer no light to this night, for it is always night there,
Blood and chemicals at warfare, nerve gone, the main one
Providing mirror and lethal lens, back of the eyeball no different
That out front, but I climb this rock to line up with another rock and him
In the deep seizure of that stolen room, bare sepulcher,
That grotto of mind.
Today I bathed him, the chest like an old model, boned but collapsible,
Forgotten in a Detroit back room, a shelf, a deep closet, waiting
To be crushed at the final blow, skin of the organ but a veneer
Of fatigue, the arms pried as from a childŐs drawing, the one less formidable
Leg, the small testes hanging their forgotten-glove residuum
Which had begun this syzygy, the face closing down on bone
As if a promise had been made toward an immaculately thin retrieval,
And, at the other imaginable end of him, the one foot bloody
From his curse, soured yet holier in mimicry of the near-Christ
(from Golgotha brought down and put to bed, after god and my father
there are no divinities), toenails coming on a darkness no sky owned,
foot bottom at its own blood bath, at war, at the final and resolute war
with no winner.
Oh, Christ, heŐs had such wars, outer and inner, that even my hand
In warmth must overcome, and he gums his gums and shakes his head
And says, sideways, mouth screwed into his outlandish grin,
As much a lie as any look, as devious, cold-fact true, ŇI used to do this for you,Ó
The dark eyes hungry to remember, to bring back one moment
Of all those times to this time; and I cannot feel his hand linger on me,
Not its calluses gone the way of flesh or its nails thicker now than they
Ever were meant to be, or skin flaking in the silence of its dust-borne battle,
Though we are both younger than the star thatŐs behind us
And dead perhaps, as said; then, in a moment, and only for a moment,
As if all is ciphered for me and cut away, I know the failure
Of that small red star, its distillation and spend still undone,
Its yawn red as yet and here with us on the endless line only bent
By my imagination, the dead and dying taking up both ends of me,
Neither one a shadow yet but all shadows in one, perhaps
A sort of harmless violence sighting here across an endless known.
© Tom Sheehan
Bio: Sheehan has published 30 books and multiple works in Literally Stories, Rosebud, LinnetŐs Wings, Serving House Journal, Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, Eastlit, Frontier Tales, In Other Words-Merida, Literary Yard, Rope & Wire Western Magazine, Green Silk Journal, etc. Has received 32 Pushcart nominations and 5 Best of Net nominations with one winner, and other awards. Newer books are Swan River Daisy, Jehrico, The Cowboys, and Vigilantes East, with 3 books being considered, and one accepted by Pocol Press last month, Beside the Broken Trail.