Copyright © 2019 by Tom Gannon
He lifts himself on an elbow,
Peers bleary-eyed at the clock-radio
On the bedside table.
The numbers glow a bright electronic green
In the semi-darkness,
Too early to get up, he thinks,
And lies back, relaxing,
Crosses his hands corpse-like
Across his chest and listens
Through a cracked-open window
To the sounds of the world beyond.
He hears the birds first,
Three species, maybe four,
Each with its own distinct call.
He cannot identify most of them;
A birder would know,
But he is no birder.
He recognizes only one by its call,
The mourning dove, known by its plaintive cry,
The reference books say, and
He counts in his head
The four beats of its cooing.
He hears the sirens too, from multiple vehicles,
Police cruisers, fire engines, ambulances
Dispatched from the local precinct,
Fire station, rescue squad.
One siren is a high keening wail,
Another a canine wow-wow-wow,
A third sounds a harsh klaxon
Like a tugboat in a fog-filled harbor.
They mean trouble for someone, those sirens,
The victim of an auto accident or a violent crime, or
An elderly woman with a clogged artery
Who wakes to feel an elephant sitting on her chest.
He can see in his mind’s eye the ambulances,
Imagines three of them, big, white, boxy Freightliners
Filling the ER’s parking bays at a nearby hospital,
A busy day, starting early.
He has been a patient at that hospital,
Been treated in its ER and its ICU.
He can hear again
The early morning announcements
Over the public address system,
Announcements that someone is in real trouble:
“Your attention, please. Trauma Team One, incoming,
Code Two, by land, ETA five minutes.”
Then it is six in the morning,
And with the coming of that hour,
He hears the first of the jetliners,
The throbbing roar of their engines overhead
As the planes climb for altitude
In their early morning ritual,
Heading northwest out of National Airport,
Over Washington suburbs like Bethesda and
Rockville and Gaithersburg,
On their way to Pittsburgh and Cleveland,
Detroit and Chicago.
He does not know their destinations,
But he knows they are somewhere to the northwest,
For he has seen their running lights,
Blinking yellow and white from
Beneath their bellies and wings,
As they rose in the air
From lower left to upper right
Through the darkness, across the blue-black sky
While he walked to the front edge of the lawn
And bent to pick up the morning’s papers
Lying flat on the dew-wet grass
In their thin plastic sleeves.
He still lies abed, still corpse-like,
Hands crossed lightly on his chest
As the pre-dawn half-light
Seeps in from outside.
The birds twitter, the sirens wail,
The jet engines roar, and
He listens in silence
With attention and gratitude
And yes, some dismay,
To the sounds that give shape
To his twilit morning world.
East Bay Morning
A couple’s bayside getaway
On their anniversary weekend.
No long escape from their suburban home:
Instead, arrival at a nineteenth-century inn
At mid-afternoon on a Friday,
Departure less than forty-eight hours later.
Awake and dressed before seven
On the brightly sunlit Saturday morning,
A careful descent from their third-floor room
Down a narrow wooden staircase
To the deserted first-floor dining room.
Too early for the inn’s breakfast buffet
But not too early for a cup of hot coffee
From the urn on a dining room counter,
And not too early to take the coffee outside,
Across the inn’s broad bayside lawn
To two Adirondack chairs
Perched near the water’s edge.
Once settled, they surrender themselves
To the sights, the sounds,
The very feel of the early late July morning:
The high-pitched chirping of the crickets
In the trees and bushes behind them
A single line of throbbing, pulsating sound,
Rising, falling, rising again;
The gas-fired murmur of motorboat engines
Already out on the water;
The cruciform silhouette of a low-flying plane
Against the pale blue, cerulean sky,
Its engine a metallic snarl in the air;
The ever-moving, ever-rippling water,
Striped in shades of dull green, darker and lighter,
Sunlight dancing silver and gold on the ripples;
The rustle of wavelets lapping against
The tumbled rocks of the seawall;
The rocks bleached white and gray in the sunlight,
Shading brown where washed by the wavelets;
A gaggle of geese settling onto the surface of a nearby cove,
Honking noisily into the morning air;
The shorefront breeze whistling through
The stately, centuries-old trees bordering the lawn,
Caressing the cheeks of the couple;
The couple themselves quiet, attentive, mindful,
Listening to the birdsong of multiple species.
An occasion for gratitude,
Not merely for bayside
Sights and sounds and sensations,
But for life itself
In all its varied splendors.
It was no “Blackboard Jungle,”
This hundred-year-old, all male, Jesuit prep school
Whose seven hundred students
Wore coats and ties to school every day,
But there were moments.
A Friday morning in November,
A senior Latin class
In the school day’s first period,
Book Four of The Aeneid the subject matter.
The instructor a Jesuit scholastic
In his first year of teaching.
His ascetical training was behind him,
Along with a college degree
And a graduate degree in philosophy.
Theology studies lay ahead
After three years in high school classrooms.
Ordination and the priesthood.
The morning’s challenge:
To instill in his twenty-five still-drowsy students
Some sense of the Mantuan poet’s purpose
In presenting the dilemma that faced
The poem’s shipwrecked hero, Aeneas the True.
Should he remain in Carthage
As spouse of its lovesick queen,
The redoubtable Dido, or resume his journey
To found the city of Rome
At the direction of the gods
Whose images he had carried away from
Burning Troy, the kingdom a victim of
The hollow-horse ruse of the wily Ulysses?
The teacher dramatizes the choice,
Extolling Dido’s virtues,
Describing Aeneas’s brilliant future
In Carthage as her consort.
He poses a series of questions:
“Why would he do this?
Why sail off into an uncertain future?
Why leave this beautiful woman?”
Not all of the students are drowsy.
At the back of the classroom,
One of the class clowns –
Not mean-spirited, but
Ebullient in his mischief-making –
Cannot contain himself.
He cups his hand and shouts,
“Aeneas was a queer.”
The class, now wide awake,
Erupts in laughter.
The teacher’s face reddens,
His eyes narrow.
He races down an aisle
To the joker’s desk,
Seizes him by the front of his shirt, and
Says through clenched teeth,
“One more word out of you, buster, and
You’ll get flipped out of here on your ass.”
A murmur of mock fear runs through the class.
Mercifully for the teacher,
The bell ending the class rings.
The teacher gathers up his books and flees.
It is the last the class will see of him.
On Monday morning, the teacher does not appear.
In his stead, the school’s principal strides into the classroom.
He is a Jesuit priest in late middle age,
A man of vast experience
As teacher and administrator
Who will brook no adolescent nonsense.
The sexual orientation of Aeneas the True
Will never again arise.
Playtime has ended.
He was twenty-one,
About to enter a religious order
Where a vow of poverty would be taken,
Yet in response to an obscure prompting
That at some point in his life
He would become involved with poetry,
He went to a bookstore and
Bought a collection of letters
Written by an insurance executive
Famous for his poetry.
The purchase puzzled even the buyer.
He knew that the letters
Would have to be left behind
When he entered the order.
He knew something of the poet-executive,
A passing acquaintance developed
In a class on modern verse where
In a collection compiled by the dean
Of poetry anthologizers,
He had encountered a man with a blue guitar,
Had gotten an idea of order at Key West,
Had envisioned the complexities of
Women in dressing gowns on Sunday mornings,
But that was all.
Why had he bought that collection of letters?
Did he have some vague intimation that
He was not suited for religious life,
Would return at some point in the future
To the world he had left behind and
Would have time and leisure
To savor the letters of the poet-executive
As he turned his life in another direction?
But then it was time to go,
To enter the order on one of
The great feasts of the Virgin Mary,
The letters of the poet-executive remaining behind,
To languish unread for many years and
Ultimately to disappear during
A rearrangement of the family home.
As it turned out, more than a decade later,
He discerned that he was not
Ultimately suited to the religious life,
And at length that obscure prompting returned,
Not fully understood or appreciated,
But leading over the succeeding years
To the slow, steady accumulation of volumes of poetry,
Metaphysicals like Donne and Marvell and Herbert,
Symbolists like Baudelaire and Rimbaud and Mallarmé,
American classics like Dickinson and Whitman,
Englishmen like Hopkins and expatriates like Eliot.
Paperbacks in the main, new and used,
Piling up in bookcases,
Waiting to be opened and read,
Behind the accumulation a vague feeling lurking
That he would someday get round
To reading them and they would
Serve, in the fullness of time, as
Inspiration for an engagement with poetry,
Even an attempt to write poetry himself.
Not until several decades after that first bookstore purchase
Would he return to the poet-executive and his poetry and,
In a long-delayed seed-sprouting,
Begin himself to write poetry, and
In a completion of the circle of his interest,
Acquire a biography of the poet-executive
To learn more about the man
Whose letters he had not read
So many years before.
For the couple, a trip to the Basque country
To attend the wedding of a daughter’s friend,
But a week in the City of Light first,
The Left Bank, Notre Dame,
The Musée D’Orsay, the Arc de Triomphe,
Montmartre, Sacre Coeur, and the Eiffel Tower,
And in the middle of the week, a side trip by train
To the northwest, towards the Channel,
The ride from the Gare St. Lazare
Quiet, smooth, fast,
Past the towering basilica at Lisieux,
The town home to a Little Flower,
And beyond to Normandy and its beaches,
The beaches forever famous,
But not for bathing.
A change of trains at Caen,
Risen from its 1944 ruins, and
On to Bayeux, the last stop on the train.
On the couple’s way to a rendezvous
With their guide at the Place de Quebec,
They happen upon and circle around
The renowned tapestry that offers
A view of an earlier invasion.
Lunch follows at a bistro, Coady Fortier,
That appeals to select tourists
With a sign announcing “English Spoken Here.”
Afterwards, a short walk to the Place de Quebec,
A brief wait on a bench in the sunlit square, and
The arrival of their seven-passenger van with
Five people already seated within.
The driver-guide – her name is Sabrina –
Welcomes the couple, seats them, and
Drives northwest, out of Bayeux,
Towards the first stop on the tour,
The promontory called Pointe du Hoc.
En route, she provides a brief account of
The causes and events of the Second World War
In western Europe – the 1940 German offensive,
Dunkirk, the fall of France, the Occupation –
That led up to June 1944 and the Allied invasion.
At Pointe du Hoc, where on D-Day
American Rangers climbed sheer cliffs
To assault an artillery battery
That menaced the invasion beaches
Only to find that the Germans
Had moved the guns inland,
The van’s passengers descend
Into a concrete bunker and look out on
The English Channel through gunports that offer
The view the German defenders had on D-Day.
From Pointe du Hoc, Sabrina drives east to the beaches,
Passing along the way another relic of the war,
An 88-millimeter dual-purpose artillery piece,
The legendary “88” so dreaded by Allied soldiers.
At Omaha Beach, Sabrina parks the van
Near the American National Guard Memorial
Overlooking the beach,
Beneath the bluffs where the Germans
Had placed their machine-gun nests.
The memorial is well-placed.
The Twenty-Ninth Division, Virginia National Guard,
The Blue and Gray Division, had landed there,
Its men dying by the dozens.
The van’s passengers get out, stretch, and
Cross the beachfront road to the memorial,
Where they stand and look out
Across the broad sunlit beach,
The sand darker in places, wet
Where the tide has just receded,
The hundreds of yards of open beach
Reaching out towards the Channel waters,
Empty on this early September day,
But filled with ships on a June morning
Almost seventy years before.
Tacticians say that of all military operations,
An amphibious landing on a hostile shore
Is the most hazardous. The Royal Dublin Fusiliers
Who assaulted Cape Helles at Gallipoli
In April of 1915 would not disagree.
Neither would the men of the Second Marine Division
Who waded across the lagoon at Tarawa
Six months before D-Day.
Omaha Beach was no exception to the rule.
Children fly kites on the beach and
Dogs chase balls thrown by their masters.
As the couple stand watching and
Grasp how broad the beach is,
The man recalls iconic images,
Preserved in grainy, black-and-white newsreels
From that gray, overcast Tuesday morning in 1944,
Images of men, bulky figures
Burdened with sixty pounds of equipment,
Stumbling out of landing craft,
Wading slowly through the surf,
Trudging onto the sand,
Bent over as if advancing
Against a gale-force wind,
Past mine-strewn wooden stakes and
Steel hedgehogs designed
To disembowel landing craft,
Some of those men crumpling
In black heaps on the wet sand,
Never to rise again,
As the bullets from caves
In the bluffs sought them out.
The man recalls other filmed images too,
Wonders what it must have been like
For the men in the landing craft
Approaching that beach,
What they must have felt
As German bullets hammered
Against the ramps of the landing craft,
And the men knew that
When the ramps dropped and
They stumbled into the surf
In the face of that hail of bullets,
They would be as close to death
As they had ever been in their lives.
It is time for the tour to continue.
Sabrina bundles her charges into the van and
Drives east again, along the coastal road
To the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer,
Where so many of the men
Who had crumpled to the sand in death
On Bloody Omaha are buried.
The cemetery is carefully tended,
The long parallel rows of white crosses
Stretching away in the distance,
Small groups wandering among the crosses,
Searching for a familiar name.
Upon the request of the woman in the couple,
Sabrina leads the van’s passengers
To the Garden of the Missing
Beyond the cemetery’s memorial
Where on one of the limestone panels enclosing the garden
The woman finds what she is looking for,
The name of a cousin carved into the stone.
Having lied about his age in order to enlist,
He had been still a teenager, her cousin,
When in the weeks after D-Day,
His ship was torpedoed and
He was lost at sea in the English Channel.
On to Arromanches then,
Where the British had landed,
Where remains of the invasion’s artificial harbors –
“Mulberries,” they were called –
Crouch like beached whales
In the shallow water offshore.
The gift shop on the beachfront
Throngs with customers in search of souvenirs.
On Sabrina’s recommendation,
The couple buys a box of caramels,
Soon to be consumed, the guide vouching
For their quality from long experience.
They purchase no other souvenirs,
No toy soldiers or plastic models of tanks or howitzers,
No picture books or unit patches.
Their memories of the broad beach that was Omaha,
That men once trudged across to their deaths,
Of the long rows of white crosses at Colleville-sur-Mer,
Of a teenaged Vermonter’s name cut into a panel
On the wall that borders on the Garden of the Missing –
They would be enough.
The contractions start on Wednesday,
Contractions preceding real labor.
They continue through the day,
Through the night, into Thursday.
At five on Thursday morning,
The parents-to-be have had enough of waiting.
They take to the road,
Arrive at the hospital by seven,
Alert the doula and the midwife,
Inform the prospective grandparents
By text message, and so
The vigil begins.
Texts from the expectant father
Reach the grandparents-in-waiting
Every few hours –
Brief, positive, undramatic.
The vigil continues into the afternoon.
The husband’s mother joins
Her fellow grandparents-to-be for tea
With lemon and a tray of cookies.
All three try to remain calm;
It will be the first grandchild for all.
The brief text messages continue –
Labor progressing, though slowly,
The expectant mother doing well –
But do little to ease the tension affecting
The waiting grandparents-to-be.
He fears the worst, for the baby,
For his daughter, for both.
But no, there was no alarm in that cry.
When his wife holds up the phone,
The screen reveals the scrunched-up face
Of a newborn child, captioned with
A text from the proud father
Inviting his in-laws to welcome
Their granddaughter into the world.
The sixteen-hour vigil comes to an end,
The day’s tensions dissolving
In a wave of joy and
Relief and wonder.