Thomas Lynch reads

No Prisoners

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Odds are the poor man was trying to please her
because her pleasure would have pleasured him,
adding as it would have to his image of
himself as a latter-day Man of Steel,
able as always to leap tall buildings
and off of whose chest the bullets would bounce,
his five bypasses notwithstanding,
nor withstanding how his heart had grown
flimsy with hard loving and bereavement.
Or maybe it was the Marine Lance Corporal
in the snapshot of himself in the South Pacific
he kept in the corner of the bathroom mirror:
barechested in khakis and boondockers
with Billy Swinford Smith from Paris, Kentucky,
posing as always for the girls back home;
the ready and willing eighteen-year-old
who went from right tackle with St. Francis DeSalles
to light machine gunner with the Corps
and came home skinny and malarial later
to marry the redheaded girl of his dreams
who had written him daily through the war,
beginning her letters with My Darling Edward
and closing with All My Love Always, Rose.
We found those letters, years later, in a drawer
and tried to imagine them both young again,
dancing to Dorsey and Glenn Miller tunes
under the stars at the Walled Lake Pavilion
before they had any idea of us.
“Six sons,” he’d laugh, “enough for pallbearers!
And girls enough to keep us in old age.”
So when our mother took to her bed with cancer,
it was, of course, the girls who tended her
while my brothers and I sat with him downstairs,
being brave for each other. When she died
he knelt by her bedside sobbing, “Rosie,
my darling, what will I do without you?”
And grieved his grief like Joe DiMaggio
who never missed a game and took a rose
to place in the vase at her graveside daily
then came home to sit in his chair and weep,
those first nights without her thereby replacing
as the worst in his life a night in ‘44
on Walt’s Ridge in Cape Glouster, New Britain,
when he and elements of the Fifth Marines
survived nine Bonzai charges. The Japanese
foot soldiers kept screaming, kept coming, blind
into the crossfire of light machine guns
that he and Billy and Donald Crescent Coe
kept up all night, aiming just below the voices.
In the morning he crawled out of his hole
to poke his bayonet among the dead
for any signs of life and souvenirs.
Whatever he found, he took no prisoners
and always said he wondered after that
how many men he’d killed, how he’d survived.
He’d try to make some sense of all of it,
but if he did, he never told us what it was.
And now he is dying of heartache and desire.
Six months into his mourning he became
an object of pursuit among the single set
of widows and divorcées hereabouts;
the hero of a joke his cronies tell
that always ends But what a way to go!
Last night, mistaking breathlessness for afterglow,
a woman nearly finished him with love
and barely made it to the hospital
where they thumped his chest and ordered oxygen.
The Fifth Marines are off to war again.
He watches CNN in ICU
while Leathernecks dig trenches in the sand.
The president says “No More Vietnams.”
The doctors tell him “Easy Does It, Ed—
six weeks, six months, who knows. It’s up to you.
Avoid excitement, stimulation, sex
with any but familiar partners.”
He tells them “War is Hell. It takes no prisoners.
A man must have something worth dying for.”
The Persian skies are bright with bombs and fire.
My father’s sleep is watched by monitors
that beep and blink—his sore heart beating, still.
I wonder if he dreams of soldiers killed
in action—Japanese, Iraqis, old Marines
who died for flags and causes, but in the end,
among their souvenirs, we only find
old snapshots of their wives and women friends.