Red Wool Coat Speaks of Love
You think you know everything there is
to know about a winter coat, plain
And practical, felted black or navy blue, one like that
will do just fine until the red wool coat speaks
Its crimson words of love, and you think: If I had that bright
red coat with the real rabbit fur collar wrapped warm
around my neck I could be anything I want,
Lara in Dr. Zhivago or Maria von Trapp,
Or an ecstatic whirling, giving praise to love’s
Mute joy, spinning soundlessly down the aisle
of the J.C. Penney, Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue,
eight years old.
(from the Polish for grandmother)
What am I supposed to do for the millions worked, worked to
death; Dad’s Babcia in America, by the radio, weeping?
How am I supposed to manage their stolen labor, labor
stolen with intent to murder, labor purchased with death?
Why are some allowed to claim horror but not others, point a
finger at the dead who can’t argue, claim ownership and exclusivity of
Boys’ griefs are not so
grievous as our yearning,
Boys have no sadness
sadder than our hope.
– Wilfred Owen, 1917
Hospital trains chug back and forth from the front. They were bleeding faster than we could cope and the agony of getting them off the stretchers
on to the top bunks is a thing to forget (an Irish nurse remembers that).
Les grands mutiles will holiday in seclusion so as not to aggrieve us with the waste of their mangled faces.
Boarding ship for a misremembered continent. Pencil stub in one
hand, picture postcard in the other:
Sailed on this ship from Brest, France,
August 28th, 1919, 2:30 PM.
Holy Name deliver us from all evils.
Plain cardboard box, mended corners, sheaved
bundles of pay stubs, prayer cards, foolscap sueded with age:
cet agent pour faire le service comme chauffeur sur les lignes.
Oil-gray ash, folded tissue paper, cotton
pouch, initials sparrow-stitched on grief-stained linen
Hail Mary, Mary, Mary
 McEwen, Yvonne, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary: British and Irish Nurses in the Great War, published by Cualann Press, 2006.
Sounding the worse for wear and grief, her voice
soft and thick as Christmas oysters stewed in butter
and brine, she says she has a cold she can’t
get rid of.
It’s been heading this direction for some time now she tells me
so I shouldn’t be surprised, names are altogether gone, but the hardest
part of all is what’s left over, the words he returns to again
A nurse steps bedside to draw another vial of blood Love you,
hon, he smiles gamely or There’s my beautiful bride! He has twenty
different phrases she tells me give-or-take a few, in an all-purpose lexicon
of love condensed.
Some people never get rid of anything.
Their sheds are full of stuff too valuable to throw away, pole
barns packed to the rafters: torn screen doors, three-legged
chairs, stuffed full bins of do-it-yourself screws and nuts
and bolts sure to come in handy one of these day.
Some people have so much they go on TV for help with the
mounds and piles and boxes crammed so tight and piled
so high they need paths to find their living room sofas, their buried
beds and kitchen tables their spouses leave them and their children
move out and refuse to come home until something is done.
Some people find a use for everything, they never let a thing
go to waste. They stand and stare at the rotting steps, the holes
in the roof, willing miracles of reparation. Like patron saints
Of all things that fall apart, they seem to know just how to make
the best of salvaged slates, two by fours, and weather-beaten siding
stored in the rickety barn.
Physics: the study of the physical world, the galaxies,
the night sky you wrapped your love around. Over breakfast
at the fancy hotel restaurant you chose
your words carefully: sons, failures, regrets.
A trip to Bayreuth over coffee.
I never took you for a Wagner man. I never took you
Before you knew me you handed me your life.
I never returned your book of stars.
(for Scott and Ronnie)
Rednecks, crackers, good old boys, true
as anything, I guess, Jack Pine savages, too,
if you’re looking north, but boys just the same, and a .22 is perfect
for squirrel-hunting, dead aim required sharpshooters
in bygone homegrown wars, snipers in ‘67 trying hard
not to die angels of our better natures, you were ill-advised
to shift vocations, take the blunt of it, come home to disco
and refugees: business as usual.
In meth lab country we shove rags in our mouths so nobody
knows we’re abandoned lately I hear more
than I have in years an afternoon of August hot so hot nobody
pays attention hovering in that field where the goat shed stood
sit on a stump scratch an itchy neck and remind me
how it works, returning to places we know as us in dreams
scars heal like miracles, bruise-less, unblemished
If all my dreams came true I would paint you big and let you live
Personally, we know nothing of state ordered hell, but journalists
know a story and it won’t last long and neither will the cast no Brokaw’s
greatest this time around lip service for stooges and misfits too stupid
or poor to stay out red tape and sweep them under the rug and Agent
Orange and deny them access our audience over the shoulder
patriots we hate this war but there’s a story to tell –
Today the tree guy came: Afghanistan and a bad attitude
climb at my windows.
Looking after the recent dead is no easy task. You must visit
them for birthdays and anniversaries, remembering to bring them
bouquets of plastic flowers or a whirligig or a miniature flag
on a stick.
You must speak their names but softly, and read their epitaphs,
and step lightly between them as though they are asleep and your
presence, the sound of your voice, your breath,
might awaken them.
You must stand at their feet or kneel conjure their voices
their hands, their eyes and mouths and feet, murmur prayers
or weep while white-gloved bagpipers pipe and march and salute and play
a rendition of Amazing Grace.
The long-dead ask far less (these fugitive and tangled and nearly
erased), they long only for sweet bright days and brisk black
nights pricked by stars the light pours through, and shadowed trees
gone leafless, stretched lengthwise, across ice-crusted snow.
Names for People and Animals
More than a black granite wall, or something
else: excuse evidence explanation what he
did or didn’t, loved or hated, or missed any chance at all to
Pop, go to Sears
Or Wards and order it if you can just put his
address on it that way he will get it before
Speaking across decades this is as good
as it gets or just better
than nothing 29 September 1969.
September 29th. Quang Tri Province. Artillery,
rocket, or mortar fire
What I mean to say is every living creature
wants a name, to die knowing it was worth
something: notice me too!
Fox carouses in drifts outside my window eyeball
to eyeball, calling or naming
Some scary things some things, some
things that sound like words but work like
fists, or cudgels if we live in dark
times. Some things that fly
around the room striking the walls
and ceilings, splitting the plaster, cracking, denting
Some things that seem like omens, tarred
whispers, a serrated knife cutting
paper something that splits apart
in the middle of the night, down
The center like a seesaw with too
much weight on either end both riders bruise-
assed thud and hit the ground, painful
Some things that holler and shout
and weep and fuss, that shock the mouth like salt