The Dragons of Tet*, poems by Jack Grady
American-born Jack Grady is a Vietnam War veteran, a 1975 winner of The Worcester County Poetry Contest, and a founder member of the Ox Mountain Poets, based in Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland. He considers himself to be a sort of Rip Van Winkle of poets in the sense that he returned to writing poetry in 2014, after a ‘long sleep’, that is, a hiatus of too many years to count, some of which were passed while working in the Middle East. His poetry has been widely published and has appeared either online or in print in Live Encounters Poetry and Writing; Crannóg; Poet Lore; A New Ulster; The Worcester Review; North West Words; Mauvaise Graine; Outburst Magazine; The Runt; The Galway Review; Algebra of Owls; The Irish Literary Times; Skylight 47; The Ekphrastic Review; Dodging the Rain; Mediterranean Poetry; and in the anthologies And Agamemnon Dead: An Anthology of Twenty First Century Irish Poetry; A New Ulster’s Voices for Peace; Poetry Anthology Centenary Voices April 2016; 21 Poems, 21 Reasons for Choosing Jeremy Corbyn; A New Ulster’s Poetry Day Ireland Anthology 2017; Poesia a Sul 1; and 300K: Une anthologie de poésie sur l’espèce humaine. He read in Morocco at the 3rd annual Festival International Poésie Marrakech, as the poet invited by its committee to represent Ireland, and he was invited to represent Ireland at the 3rd annual Poesia a Sul, in Olhão, Portugal. His poetry collection, Resurrection, published by Lapwing Publications in October 2017 was nominated for the T.S. Eliot Prize for 2018. Resurrection can be ordered from their list of poets on the Lapwing Publications website or via their direct link to the collection, which is Jack Grady – Lapwing Store.
The Dragons of Tet*
You enter the locked compound,
cross to an open-sided shed;
watch the prisoners watch your back
while they gouge and rasp,
carve and plane to the whirr of a lathe,
where another prisoner pumps its pedals
and turns a blank of square-edged wood
into a spindle made smooth.
And, if you dared to remain,
you could watch his skew cut grooves,
you could watch ridges, furrows,
sloping rises take shape,
you could watch a man with one leg
use the finished spindle as a cane,
while he takes it away so the one at the lathe
can resume his pumping of the pedals;
mould the next leg for a table and chairs
for the dining room of a Saigon general.
You spot their foreman –
a sergeant of the Viet Cong –
but he no longer hurls a grenade,
nor does he aim an AK-47 at an American face.
He no longer wears a uniform of pyjamas
in ambush black for night attacks.
He no longer looks like a scavenging rook
rooting among the roadkill.
The pyjamas he now wears are the colour
of faded mauve taupe for a prisoner of war
or the remains of Tyrian purple
that has yet to bleed out in the washes that count
the time he’s been detained for the duration
or until his return
if there is ever a prisoner exchange.
Once, he had a vocation in woodwork himself,
but, plunging unseen from thousands of feet,
a bomb cut his options in that craft in half,
its blast silencing an eardrum,
its spit of hot shrapnel
slicing a chunk from an arm,
leaving a crater in the place a bicep once filled,
a depression now wrapped under sunken, scarred skin
to remind him of the crater, fifty feet wide,
left in the jungle as an open-air grave
for the rotting remains of six comrades.
You pay him a carton of Marlboros
for a personal order filled.
He stuffs the carton against that crater in his arm.
He hands you a carved bong.
The incisions in the bamboo of the water pipe
form a pattern of dragons in red.
You wonder if the paint is blood.
When, that night, you smoke from the pipe’s bowl
the weed they call Cambodian Red,
you try to sleep, but, instead of sheep,
you count teeth in the craters of Vietnam.
And, as you watch from each a dragon arise,
in Saigon’s streets, the war arrives.
Raceway to No Return
‘If you get into that car at all, it’s now Thursday… by 10 o’clock at night next Thursday, you’ll be dead….’ – Alec Guinness’s warning to James Dean on viewing the young actor’s new Porsche
Cliff was no James Dean, no star of Giant,
no Hollywood icon travelling East of Eden,
but he was our own Rebel without a Cause
and the heartthrob of all the teenage girls in town.
He drove like James Dean at full speed
as he raced at night on back roads,
but he steered no fancy Porsche,
just a grease monkey’s hot rod of cannibalised parts
from old 40s and 50s Fords.
He and I had no fear of death. To us, it wasn’t real.
Even soldiers only died in combat tales
our fathers tried their best to conceal,
or we would see a hero in a Hollywood film
jump on a grenade to save his pals,
yet still have time for a dying farewell,
exhorting his buddies to ‘give the Nips hell!’
Then, there were those hundred toy soldiers endlessly reborn
from dead piles in our childhood when needed
for the next defence of Pusan, for MacArthur at Inchon,
or for the hundredth replay of Davy Crockett at the Alamo.
When death finally said ‘hello’,
we were in our teens and Cliff turned on the ignition:
We heard a scream, raised the hood;
found a cat chewed up by the fan blades of the engine.
Other than that, death was too distant to notice
until our idol, James Dean, would not heed
the premonition of Alec Guinness;
decided to break-in his Five-Fifty Porsche
with some ‘seat time’ on the road to Salinas.
And, for an instant, we could feel the smash of its steel
against the sturdier mass of an oncoming Ford,
shudder at the red splash as a head crashed through glass;
sense life erased as we stood at its edge
and gazed into the vastness of oblivion.
But, within a day, death was forgotten again
until death dared our Cliff to a race one night.
And that’s when we all finally heard
our own dragster-rubber burn
on a raceway to no return.
Ships Passing in the Night
I google a house on Street View,
a house a hundred years old or more.
Though it was only middle-aged when I lived there,
even my parents thought it ancient back then.
It has today the same colours of paint,
the same brown and cream,
but the paint is fresh, and the porch in front is quaint
with little panes of glass I never noticed
in its windows before. A woman once stood
in the gap between garage and porch
in an earlier Street View of this house. She looked
like my mother, though I knew it wasn’t she,
but perhaps her ghost was caught
on the day the photo was snapped. But now,
neither person nor ghost remains in that spot.
And I notice the pear tree has vanished from the yard.
It must have gone the way the old apple tree went
when it could no longer produce edible fruit,
its bones chopped as food to assuage
the hunger of a wood-burning stove in the cellar.
Even now, I often stroll through the rooms
of that house in my dreams, work in the garden,
trim the lawn, rake up the leaves, respond
to my mother’s shout to supper; only to discover,
when I enter the kitchen, no one is there but me.
I wonder if another grandfather now smokes a pipe
in an armchair in what once was my grandfather’s room.
Does he listen to every sport on the radio full-blast,
keep the house awake with late movies at night,
sneak a nightcap of whiskey after his snack with tea,
scuff in his slippers along the hall
to the bathroom for a midnight pee?
Is there a table lamp clock in his room?
Do two schooners rotate round its base,
pass each other when the clock strikes the hour,
then sail behind a lighthouse that can keep the time
but could never flash a beam? Does he point
at the clock and tell his grandson we are like
those two ships, you and I, each of us
on our own journey and just passing in the night?
Training Fodder for the Flies
Let’s play a game on the PC.
Let’s play Armoured Assault on Mars!
Let’s play Space Alien Tank Invasion!
Or, if you prefer, we can resurrect the Second World War
and match Shermans against Tigers,
Panthers against Grants or T-34s.
Or let’s play an impossible, what-if war
and pit Leclercs against West German Leopards
or one of today’s mighty Abrams
against a battalion of NVA from the Battle of Lang Vei.
Let’s aim our barrels down tunnels
and shoot trains off tracks like rabbits in an arcade.
Let’s play Battle of the Bulge or Tank Tussle in the Sinai;
or, better yet, we could play Race for Baghdad,
its goal the capture of Saddam’s head
or the smashing of his statue in Firdos Square.
So much fun, who has time to check the score?
But, if you hear a beep, you’ve been hit,
or, if it’s a crash or a roar, you’re dead,
your tank just an X and a black plume of smoke
fading out on the screen.
But you won’t find yourself in a tank transformed
into a kettle on a hob. You won’t feel your flesh broiled
when your tank is hit by an HE round
and suffers collateral spalling.
You won’t become a puddle of liquid fat pissed out
of the tank’s roasting bladder, and you won’t see
ten thousand flies feasting on that puddle
under the wrecked hulk of sizzling metal.
And, though someone may invent a game with graphics like that
or even with graphics you can feel, I doubt it would sell,
but who knows? It just might.
And, what if, in that game, you could actually die?
Who knows? You just might.
© Jack Grady