A Sunday Dinner Poem By David Bottoms And List
1 Mosquito and tick
on that island of mud, centipede, fly, scorpion, lice,
all breed of bug, as she told it,
but mostly mosquitoes—yellow clouds smoking off
the mangrove swamps—and so with exhaustion and hunger
the long hazy weakness of malaria.
Or if you were lucky
you only starved, dug in with your pound of captured rice
for the green flares on parachutes
and Banzai screams charging from the jungle.
Water was there
at your feet, in whatever hole was handy.
He wasn’t so lucky, my uncle.
When he could sleep
he snatched it on his back in a floorless tent,
oozed down in mud and the waves of chill and convulsive fever,
for hours grenades going off
in his brain and hot colors swimming,
sizzle and shell thud, and the jungle growing tongues—
obscenity in broken English, suck
of boots in mud
or the horrible suck and wheeze of the wounded,
and sometimes up from the beach
those silky horns and clarinets—
Goodman—then the sad honey voice
of Tokyo Rose…
They wouldn’t talk, she said, pointing with her knife.
Not my uncle, not my father
lost on those waters for fifteen months
and his family on their prayer-bones nightly
at the altar of Oakdale Baptist.
And that dread
of memory? A fear of eternity,
that onslaught of past into future?
No rice on the table for years…
green beans, peppers, yellow corn, okra, not much
that didn’t come from his garden.
No, they wouldn’t talk, though once in early marriage
on a corner of their bed,
he held her hand for almost an hour
in a story of men on their knees in the mud,
mouths open for the wafer,
and tried to describe the sweetness on his tongue
when he understood finally
no troops were coming.
3 So until the end
this is as close as we can come to 1942, to Guadalcanal
and that Friday the 13th of stars and no moon,
the fragrance of tropical flowers and sweet gases
of decaying flesh,
as clearly as we can see the searchlight
he caught from his hill as it stabbed across the sound
to target the bridge of the cruiser Atlanta,
where my father and his gun crew
were already spinning turret number six
as the first shells blasted out that light
and the ocean caught fire
with flares and the big guns spitting,
and as close as we can hold him, who watched
through fever with his unsaid thoughts,
which we can’t know
until the end, and lived to see
fresh troops hit the beach,
so that years later he could meet my father,
who had floated all night near death
in that water, and never mention the war,
though he would marry the man’s sister
and scratch out a living on used cars and cattle
and ponder his happiness,
and share with her once his first glimpse of peace,
when tumbling through a night between drifts of sleep,
over crackle of tide and insect, groan
and scrap of prayer, a moment neared stillness
as a cockatoo screeched
between sniper fire.