Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Matt's Own Favorites - Picture Of My Grandfather At War

I've become a big fan of pictures---looking at them, taking them, and, yes, even posing for them. I'm sure my mom would contend that last little bit, but I'm fairly sure I've learned the value of pictures. Viewing my parents, grandparents, and greatgrandparents (not to mention myself!) at different stages in life is magical. Seeing them at times and ages that I'm passing through or have recently passed through allows me to draw valuable corollaries. Not being alive for many of these pictures, my perspective of these people I love pre-me is a strange and unquantifiable thing. A few years back my mom was going through some boxes of photos from her dad's days in the Marines and the Korean War. I joined in the sorting of these pictures and found one of my grandfather in Korea rising from the hatch of one of the tanks he worked on. On his boyish face was a bad attempt at a goatee. He looked so young and then I realized that he was younger than me. I was in my early/mid twenties, but he was younger than me in that picture. He was at war and he was younger than I was. This realization sent shock waves through my body. I thought my stresses were difficult, but I was wrong. The picture stuck with me and, like a seed, planted itself in my mind. Over the next day or so I loosely fictionalized my grandfather's life, taking elements from both of my grandfathers' military experiences to create the character in this poem. I also took elements of their great loves with my grandmothers and elements of their shared hometown of Chicago to texture the poem with a setting and story. It was challenging to write a family history that loosely stuck to the facts, choosing frequently to steer off course for the sake of the poem's story. In the end, I'm proud of this poem for a few key reasons: I gave it to my grandfather and he read it; I created a story within the tight constructs of family and history; I revised this poem until every word was necessary, causing the whole poem to reflect a craftsmanship and concision I wish for all my poems.


He’s too young to have this firearm
holstered to his waist. At boot camp,
they told him when to run and puke
and crap until he was Semper Fi,
breaking the boy but not his blue eyes,
clear enough to see through, back
to jumping turnstiles at Chicago Stadium
to watch the Golden Gloves, shiny boxers
toeing canvas, bruising under hot lights.

A letter peeks from his shirt pocket
and I wonder if its white lines are worn
with my grandmother’s loopy script,
and if after each letter he remembered
sweaty nights on the south side
throwing stones at her windows
until she snuck down to take tulips
he’d picked, and send him off with a kiss,
sticky lipped, sweet with berry juices.

In this fuzzy edged picture, he pops
from the hatch on one of the tanks
he repaired to load artillery shells.
Shrapnel will slice his torso and legs
leaving fleshy spider webbed scars.
I rotate the picture; nothing changes.
My grandfather, younger than me,
smirks and dreams of outlasting
the black and white that’s captured him.

---Matthew Kaberline

First appeared in Tar River Poetry, Vol 45, Number 2, Spring 2006

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