Poetry Daily: http://www.poems.com/

The Greatest Generation


Sometimes he looks across America—
he never turns his television off—
and wonders where the country he "fought for"
has "gone." Gone gone gone, my baby's gone
gone gone
, I hum as I pick up the cue
in the basement of his assisted living.
My daughter asks can we play one more game
before we have to see Moppy and Poppy?
Maybe, I nod, already tense with duty.

Where is the selflessness that drove him
on his knees across a carrier deck,
the shrapnel clanging in the steel above,
to search a stump that was a crewman's leg
seconds before—"Those arteries can slip—
I lost it twice, had to stick my hand up
there a couple times"—the white ball smacks
the colorful wedge with a pleasing sound.
My daughter says breaking takes too much force.

Another time a kamikaze struck:
it turned a square steel hallway below decks
into a perfect cylinder of steel.
I held his body—his best friend's body—
his name was Jimmy .... My name. The orange ball
rockets toward the side pocket, goes thunk.
"Wow, Dad," my baby says, "you're good." She calls,
"Eight ball, corner pocket," then drops it in.
I chase her to the elevator door.

To understand you must go back, always back.
When I was eight, I found a photograph
at Grandma's house—his mother's house: a boy
of eight sat on the dirt floor of a shack.
He looked so much like me, I tried to think
when I'd been there—and who had taken it—
I was so sure I was that other boy.
It was my father who stared back at me:
1930. St. Mary's, Ohio.

Silent, we stand in elevator mode;
its doors stay open longer for wheelchairs,
for those swinging on crutches or walkers.
When it closes, I leap to my daughter,
tickle her while she screams, until the first
floor tone sounds; then we straighten up, blank-faced,
as two old ladies climb aboard, chirping
of bridge. On two, they leave, the heavy door
slides shut. I leap to tickle, as she screams.

He wonders where the country he fought for
has gone. Where is the selflessness that drove
him on his knees across a carrier deck
with shrapnel clanging in the steel above,
to search a stump that was a crewman's leg
moments before, and clamp an artery,
until a doctor could break free and help.
Another time, a kamikaze struck,
turning a square steel hallway below decks

into a perfect cylinder of steel;
he held his friend's body, lifeless, concussed.
In 1968, he asked his son,
"But would you go if it was like my war?"
My war, your war, let's give the sons a war ...
His son was named for that friend he had held.
To understand, you must always go back.
At eight, his son found an old photograph:
a boy of eight sat on a shack's dirt floor.

Of course it was his father who stared back.
There was no humor in that shack, or love.
The mother made clear she deserved "better,"
and when the country crashed, blamed her husband;
that father labored with his arms and back.
There was a tree stump out the kitchen door.
She'd use it to axe chicken necks on days
when there were chicken necks to axe, then rinse
and dry the tool, and hang it on the wall.

One thing about that axe: she kept it sharp.
She had respect for what could get things done.
One afternoon the son came home all bruised.
His teacher at the one-room school caught him
smoking near the building, took a rubber hose,
beat him badly across his arms and back.
She took the axe down, walked two miles to school,
to where the man sat grading at his desk,
and drove the blade into the fleshy wood.

She vowed she would cut off his hand next time,
if he raised it again, against her own.
"It was the only time she ever took my part."
Her grandson came to think, Not even then:
It was her own part she took up that day.
A shack is like a cave, part of the land,
the seam between what's in and what's kept out.
His grandfather married a Cherokee;
his black hair, high cheekbones, recalled this love.

He shot and skinned his food, offered rabbits,
squirrels and birds, to the pot of greens each night;
bullets cost a nickel apiece in town.
He swam St. Mary's lake naked, played cards
and dice with St. Mary's boys, went to war.
The ones who owned the country grew concerned
because a doppelgänger ran amok
in Europe—seed sprung from their own greed,
and Europe's greed, the son come home to roost.

War's just protection of portfolios.
The ones at desks always sound the alarm;
the ones with high cheekbones, black hair, answer.
The ones at home salute, pretend they know,
manipulate the trade that follows war;
the ones who do the least remain intact.
The others, like abused sons, fall in step.
He swam St. Mary's lake naked, played cards.
Freud said to go forward, you must go back.

Each night he'd leave his family for the "corner":
a room where Yid and Wop and Jap and he
clashed over cards. Pinochle, poker, gin.
On Saturdays he'd drive to the horse tracks—
he called his race track bets a second job.
Sometimes he made his son come with him, cheer.
He wanted to be close, though on his terms;
but to the boy it seemed like servitude,
feelings that deepened Sunday afternoons,

as he chased dice across the bedroom rug,
calling out their numbers through blue air,
to his father, smoking, marking a pad.
They picked him up one night, during the war,
the MPs did—he was drunk, throwing bricks
from some construction site right through the plate-
glass windows of Seattle's finest stores.
They put him in a straitjacket when he
resisted—taunted him, threw him in "the hole."

The drinking didn't stop until the night
in 1960, when his son was twelve;
he took off all his clothes and tried to leave.
His wife, a small woman made big by fear,
wrestled him out of the front door. He slept
nude on the couch, and woke, a naked mirror:
that day he gave up cigarettes and beer,
but kept the ponies and the all-night cards.
Years later he would tell his son his truth:

"Find the vice that keeps you alive, live it."
The other adage his son would remember:
"Hitler was right, but he was immoral."
The son wondered: because he liked to watch
Eva Braun shit? Or was it just the Jews?
But he got it. The code a father sends
his first son is more powerful almost
than any mammal code—it can rival
the one a fetus learns within the womb.

A shack is like a cave, part of the land.
Of course, it was his father who stared back.
Freud said to go forward you must go back.
They all picked up on this: Joyce, Valery.
Two thousand years ago man's spirit split
from limbs and testicles, shoulders and heart;
no longer were the entrails read by those
familiar with the viscera, the whole.
The half-men do the least, return intact.

When he returned, the jobs and housing scarce,
he lived with his parents, and his new wife.
He drank, played cards—pinochle, poker, gin—
sleeping the binges off on pool tables.
His mother hid the key to the bedroom,
would stick her head in several times each night.
If planes flew over while they slept, he'd throw
his wife down on the floor first, cover her.
They had a son, and found a place at last.

One night while they were out, the landlord let
himself into their rooms to look around.
When they returned they found a note that read:
"Your one-year-old has scribbled on my walls!"
He pulled his shotgun from the closet shelf,
went downstairs to the landlord's place, and propped
both barrels under that man's quaking chin.
"Don't ever sneak into my home again."
Three days later, the family got the boot.

Sometimes he looks across America,
and wonders "where the country I fought for
has gone." Where is the selflessness that drove
him on his knees across a carrier deck,
with shrapnel singing in the steel above,
to search a stump that was a crewman's leg
moments before, and grip an artery,
until a doctor could break free and help?
A shack is like a cave, part of the land.

There was a tree stump out the kitchen door.
The sky was clear when the kamikaze struck,
turning a square steel hallway below decks
into a perfect cylinder of steel:
he held his friend's body, lifeless, concussed.
In 1968, he asked his son,
"But would you go if it was like my war?"
My war, your war, let's give the sons a war ...
His son was named for that friend he had held.


James Cummins

Still Some Cake
Carnegie Mellon University Press


To view this poem online, visit the Poetry Daily archive at http://www.poems.com/archive.php
View a large-print version of this poem