Tuesday, July 14, 2009

To John



swaying in the subway lurch

pressed by strangers

yes strangers to me and to soap alike

we hit the hard turn that always

flings us back across the car

and hear the scream and crash of metal

against metal

lights flicker and go out

the screaming tunnel goes dark and receives us

did you scream john with the screaming car metal

as you flew pierced and flayed through

crashing glass to spatter

out your life my friend a smear a film

on asphalt as thin the smear we leave behind

our lives a film on asphalt

our monument a gleaming carbon film a ghost in coal

we flicker and go out

grandfather said to me

i see the marching lines

masked through the swirl

of gas and we marching through the

swollen corpses mud which

stank and burst the flesh flung up in spurts

i hear the scream and crash of metal

i see the lines of horses dead

i see the lines now still and the yellow eyes of horses

father said to me

that is not the color that a man makes

when his insides are turned out for me to see

i did not make that color when

i heard the scream and crash of metal

when my insides were turned out

that thin film you see is not my war

men fall but will soon get up

no one gets up again

what color did you make john there on your last road

were you taken up a shining film and did you rise again

john did you rise?

John Mulligan was my best man at my wedding and one of my my best friends for a few shining years after 1967, until he died in a car accident. Thinking about his death and death in general and remembering the anger and despair of those final years related to the Vietnam conflict and remembering what my father and grandfather said about their wars awoke my muse.


  1. I tell you, getting the format right on this thing was a B___D!

  2. David,
    I am not practiced at reading poetry. That said, would it be appropriate to include some punctuation to indicate your pause in cadence? Of course if you intended for the reader to inflect their own pause, and therefore meaning, then that is the way I read it (about the 4th time).
    The movement in time through (wars?) events is good and adds a greater context and frame for your words.


  3. I see where you are going here with the theme of death in both of these stories. I do enjoy the poem's ending with the question that you pose to John. In my opinion, your poem could benefit from tying these two incidents together for the reader. They are not two random events about death that you wrote about. However, as the reader, I want to see how you connected these two incidents. How were these events similar to the writer and why are they included? I know there is a thoughtful reason, I just need it spelled out a bit more in the poem. I think that would improve the flow of it.

  4. I was trying to connect the 4 scenes (subway-reflection, John's death, the wartime experiences of my father and grandfather through the repetitive images of the clashing of metal. The subway reflection is triggered by the sound and by the lights flickering out. I had punctuation, but removed it all because I saw some interesting meaning ambiguities that could be generated by varying the pauses a reader could supply herself. The meaning can change slightly with rereading, and this can initiate new chains of thought. For example, does "i see the lines now still" mean that the lines of men/horses are still in his mind's eye, or are does he see them still (unmoving) in death. A comma her might help resolve this ambiguity. Another reason I dropped punctuation is that I tend to write in a rather 19th century manner, using many more commas, for instance, than are commonly used in modern writing. So it was fun to just drop them all!

    Another connecting idea is the image of the film, which had several connections for me: actual movie film (the conversation with my father that generated that stanza took place while we were watching the scene in "Catch-22" when Yossarian opens the wounded airman's flight suit, causing his intestines to pour out), the film of gore on the road after the car accident and, more subtly, the thin film of life on earth, thinner in proportion than the skin of a soap bubble.

    Anyway, I will see what I can do!

  5. Dave,
    What a powerful poem. I could really relate to the visions you described on the subway when the lights flicker and metal scrapes on metal. I live in New York City and frequently experience eerie visions and scattered memories when I am riding the train through lonely tunnels. I was happy you shared a poem that was obviously so personal to you. Even though I don’t know you, I felt a little more connected to you, because it was as if I could see into your thought process. If you hadn’t written the brief description on top, I’m not sure I would have made the connections to the war in Vietnam and your father and grandfather. So my constructive criticism is that if you have the opportunity to present the poem again to someone for the first time, try it without the forward. This way only the poem will convey the message you are trying to get across.

  6. Matt:
    Actually, the images of the dead horses of WW1 and some of the connecting thoughts occurred to me first in 1969 while riding the 7th Ave subway from NYU down in Washington Square to my stop near 21st street, where I lived at the time, but I never wrote it down. A great place for subway-induced hallu (HALLU) cina (cina) TIONS tions tions (to quote Biff Rose)is the long pull from the City to Fordham Park late at night on a Sunday. The surroundings are very Hopperesque, the trip long, and the noise, smell and shaking very conducive for weird thoughts. But then you have to get back, of course!

    It is interesting how the ideas for this poem came together. The conversation with my father took place when "Catch-22" came out, in 1970, and John died many decades ago. These things can stew and ferment for so many years in us, and only get set down when some impetus brings pencil to paper, or, in my case, fingers to keyboard. This is an example of the inspiration and the implementation being separated by nearly a half century!

  7. Hey Dave, I wasn't sure how else to get a hold of you guys. Just wanted you to know I'd be using my fantasy piece as my week 5 assignment. I will be expanding it this week. Thank you!

  8. I like the way you reworked this. I think it is much more powerful the way the reader jumps right into the poem then reads the comments at the end. I wonder if you may want to reword or break apart that last sentence in your explanation which runs on.

  9. Technically, it's not a run-on sentence, but you're right, it does tun on. That is, however, a reasonable portrayal of the mental process involved. I beg you grant me poetic license here!