Bloodline, poems by Jack Grady
American-born Jack Grady is a war veteran and a founder member of the Ox Mountain Poets, based in Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland. 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; 300K: Une anthologie de poésie sur l’espèce humaine; and Magnum Opus: An Anthology on Universal Oneness. 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, was published by Lapwing Publications in October 2017 and was nominated for the T.S. Eliot Prize, and it 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.
Someday, a grandson will find in a cigar box
a picture of you with photos unfiled
in the flat of his deceased grandfather.
He’ll take it to his mother and ask who you were.
Chances are she won’t know
nor any person alive who might tell her.
So, she’ll deem it no keepsake
and toss it on the junk pile.
The image of your face may end in cremation
with waste in a public incinerator,
or it may take years to decay
under the ooze of rubbish in a landfill.
But it may be luckier than that. She may not
know who you were but would like to think she does;
so, she puts your image in the ‘save’ pile,
has it framed and mounts it on a wall
for visitors to admire and to inquire after.
She will relate what she knows of events
in another person’s life, embellish a fiction
with vaguely remembered details from a family legend,
or invent an entirely new story, if only to conceal
the fact she has no idea who in God’s name you were
and then have to explain why she retains
the photo of a complete stranger.
The true story of you may thus have been lost
with the passing of the boy’s grandfather,
or perhaps that grandfather discovered your photo
in his own grandfather’s cigar box
and never knew who you were himself.
But, for centuries, your image may continue to exist,
even achieve a sort of immortality
as a mask for another life and then another
dimly if at all recalled
and then another not recalled at all,
though, unbeknownst to you, you’ve been crowned
founder of a bloodline not even your own.
Saigon Crab, 1975
I can still see it in Hong’s kitchen,
where she allowed it to roam,
nanoscopic in its progress of shell
and claws, as rigid as arthritic bone.
Yet somehow it inched
its way to a drain, but the cover
was cruel and refused to give.
It drove the crab mad with the scent
of escape. It taunted and baited with damp,
as if it knew the pincers of its victim
were pinioned with string.
I didn’t wait for a meal
I would not have eaten if I had.
I went to a restaurant and ordered pho instead.
But, as soon as the soup was served,
an amputee Americans dubbed ‘The Crab’
crabbed to my feet and presented for inspection
his only finger and thumb.
I guessed it a sign for begging
when he connected their tips like pincers,
though the expression on his face made me envision
a saint and those digits as hands in prayer.
I offered this saint a piece of chicken,
and finger and thumb deposited the meat
like the Eucharist on his tongue.
As penance, I surrendered another piece,
then lowered the entire bowl, dropped
on the table the cost of my meal
and, on the supplicant’s lap, half
the gratuity in brass-plated dong.
Later, I wondered if my gifts were no better
than a covered drain to a crab
and if the embassy’s gates would be no better
than a covered drain to Hong
when America abandoned Saigon
easier than I had abandoned Hong’s kitchen,
easier than I had left a war victim
a dying nation’s worthless change
and some chicken.
End of an Idyll
nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass….
– William Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality
Did her mind, as I read
from my juvenile attempt
at writing an historical novel,
march with centurions mustered by my pen?
Or did she see herself as another Cleopatra,
and did she imagine the flash of her eyes
more alluring when shadowed with kohl?
And, behind those eyes, was I my story’s tribune –
Maxentius Verus – riding his white steed?
Or was I merely one of my invented generals,
and what was my name?
Was I Lucius, Lycus, or Laurentius?
It should have been Lascivious or Licentious,
for some variation of lustful
is indeed how she made me feel.
But she never surrendered her chastity
to the serenade of my loins or the salivations of my zeal,
though her smile would toss me a rose
for an amorous chapter in my tune.
But in our minds what did we do?
She was a conqueror’s treasure on that summer day.
She was my cherished African jewel.
We savoured as we sat on canvas-backed chairs
the scent of splendour in the grass
while lilacs bloomed in my parents’ backyard
and honeysuckle seduced the bees,
but we were still too innocent and cautious
for actions more venturesome than a dream
as we sailed on a barge of reeds, drifted
past Luxor, and kissed outside Thebes,
and attendants fanned us with ostrich
plumes and date palm leaves.
We didn’t know that storm clouds in the west
were roiling our way,
that they would drive us inside,
that they would spoil our day’s idyll with rain,
nor did we notice that the thunder of real war
was drumming a dirge to America’s door,
that real generals like crocodiles were awaiting their feast,
that relentless, hidden currents
would snag us in sediment, would ensnare us in deceit,
that our generation would founder,
its innocence devoured, our idylls abandoned,
‘In God We Trust’ run aground.
The Career Soldier Salutes
Somewhere, the flag is lowered
to the sound of a bugle
blowing To the Colours.
But, even though you can’t see the flag
as it slides down the cable of its pole,
nor can you watch it
while it is folded lengthwise in half;
then doubled again before wrapped
from one end to the other
in a reverent roll of thirteen triangular folds,
precise and as neat as the starched fatigues
of the MP folding it,*
and even though you can’t see
a bugler playing or that loudspeaker blaring
the pre-recorded call from a wall
of Saigon’s Pentagon East,
you are outside and in uniform
and therefore must stop.
The bugle call is the metronome
for your Pavlovian psychic secretion.
So, you turn to the mecca of the sound,
plant, if not snap, your heels together,
and, while holding yourself firm and stiff-backed,
snap your right elbow up,
make your arm as straight as the wings of Enola Gay
as you align it with your brow,
the fingers of your right hand as still as that squad
in the body count you last made of the enemy’s dead,
and you hold them as tight as beheaded sardines
crammed into a coffinlike tin. Your thumb,
dutifully denying its independence,
reinforces the proximal phalanx of your first finger
and will remain steadfast in place, a sentinel
as attentive to its duty as the holding end’s MP,
who waits to tuck the end of the flag
into the final fold’s sleeve.
You are the soldier who will obey
a pre-recorded call
and give homage to a flag,
indelible in your mind,
even if unseen,
and you will follow
to hell, if need be.
*MP refers to an American Military Policeman.
© Jack Grady