The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®

 

Michael McManus

Taking Leave in Pennsylvania

 

Two years after I solemnly swore
to support and defend the Constitution,

back in Lycoming County,
a green place of steep, knob-like mountains,
deep, narrow valleys carved by prehistoric glaciers,
my Jeep throws its high beams on the locked gate,
the stringer beads still visible on the steel
my father welded years ago
here at the entrance to the cabin road.

I have been a pilot traveling through the darkness,
my face visible in the instrument panel’s soft glow
as I go on searching for the abandoned voices,
a world in which the dead never know what has killed them.
Children continue to slip away like field mice.
Old men fall from their branches,
they litter the earth like spent leaves.
But for all of its final endings,
who among us wouldn’t rule the world
for a day if we had the chance
to make it as Holy as we pleased.

Outside, alone, alive in the sacred hush
everything waits to be born again
from its sarcophagus-
like quiet. I am waiting on the morning glow
to run through me like water,
my body a stream
on which the shadows must disappear
from its surface.

Early this morning I went back to Mosul,
where I remembered how the dead were beyond any ceremony—
They swam to the horizon and disappeared
the way a cloud does when you turn to smoke a cigarette,
or listen to the Gunny’s joke
about Viagra and ex-lax,
how he didn’t know if he was coming
or going.
                I came home to write a novel
about living under the freeway,
how I won the Academy Award for cutting my wrists.
How someone took my childhood memories
and stacked them in a pyre and burnt it
to the ground, my brother and sister fighting
for position in the spiraling smoke.

When they discovered that gravitational waves existed,
I didn’t know what it meant, if there was an inside story to it,
just like the time Geraldo opened Al Capone’s vault
and found nothing, which might have meant the end
for most journalists,
                                    but not Geraldo,
who went on exclaiming dark matter
was in everything, even the empty spaces where dinosaurs existed—
Many years later, so no one would recognize me,
I changed my name because I wanted it straight
from the experts, even god, if he was not
busy with breast implants and liposuctions—
So that morning I set out through the snow,
imagining it was Valentine’s Day,
and women were coming to me in waves,
just as the experts predicted,
except I found myself walking a narrow path
through the bare trees, until I reached Lycoming Creek,
where I stood along the water’s edge,
sipping whiskey from granddad’s silver flask,
praying before the graves of mosquitoes
as the first big snowmelt was underway.
Then I cried out—Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
                            Once again I am seeing those roiling waters
racing through a wild gorge at Lycoming Creek,
a current too strong for any swimmer.
I swim across it very carefully in my mind.
On the other side, hidden among spruce and pines,
I find burnt-out ruins, smoking craters, twisted machines,
the war a mangy bitch,
growling because we are never young again.

I have many memories of the war—
Caged birds, which I douse with gasoline,
set on fire, and open the cage.
The tiny hearts race as they try
flying back to the freedoms
they were born to,
the safety of treetops,
branches bright with spring.

But one by one they blaze back to the crematorium.
I cannot turn away from their fiery song,
each word turning to ash.
                                            Afterwards I sit inside an armored Humvee,
a letter that never reaches home.
Our platoon advances on patrol,
                                cautiously moving through the living
sheen of the labyrinth, a narrow valley,
bomb-blackened mountains—
jagged, glistening peaks worthy of prayer,
if you believe in its power,
as the Taliban do—
                                They are as faithful to their beliefs
as mountains are to their stones,
as others are to their Holy Ghosts.
They fashion Heaven for their personal use—
Murder. Mayhem. Martyrdom. God bless
digitally fused enhanced night vision,
thermal weapon sights,
the welcome flash from 500lb bombs.
When we come across them: a wreckage
of charred bodies, crushed heads, missing arms and legs,
I never look away.

So slim it seems it might collapse,
a pink glow emerges from a crease along the horizon.
Stars slowly wash away like stains on a sheet.
Trees gradually appear like silent men
who have come to stand in a silent field.
A cardinal honors the coming light
with its fertile song.
                                    As I listen to it,
I am sitting before my piano,
of which the keys are thorns—
the pain is not enough
to make me stop my practice,
even as the fingers bleed—
because bleeding is not enough,
so I continue playing,
and playing,
until, at last, my song is a bloody hallelujah
who dances in a strip joint,
gyrating inches from my face
as I toss dead presidents at her feet.

I don’t feel like unlocking the gate,
so I ease between a large oak and the No Trespassing Sign
on the old pine pole
that shows me how tall I was
that summer when I turned ten.
That rhythm is long gone,
unlike this road that descends into a sunless bottom
and its dark greeting—
                                        I take three steps
and the journey ends with an obscene roar.
Through the trees and into my blood it goes.
I am not dead, it tells me, as I fall
to one knee and try to settle my mind
the way a Zen master does with a Koan.


The sleeper inside of me has now awakened.
He expects me to be brave
as we return to that bright afternoon—
A kid is practicing with a soccer ball
by an open door,
doing what kids do
when given the chance.
                                        With me on patrol
is Randazzo, he’s halfway through a lie
about fucking Beyoncé, his Texas drawl stuck on her
name’s final stress—
                                    sayyyyyyyyyyy,
as if he’s going to ask a question,
when, quite literally, he loses his head—
at least most of it, the sickening thwap
unforgettable as the round pierces the back of his skull
and his cranial vault explodes like Hemingway’s,
or the fallen princess who’s run out of Oxy,
her eyes misty as the as she goes down
one last time on the pistol she holds in her mouth,
alone, unlike Randazzo, whose face sprays on mine
like a defective paint gun, his body pitching forward
into the dusty street as another lifetime is wasted
on the homeland’s made-up war.

Hunting season does not begin for four months.
I am waiting for that unsettling silence
out of which all things are born,
and into which all things must return—
Be it birdsong, knowledge, intention, or this
all-encompassing disquiet
in which I believe Hadji is hiding
just over there, or over there, or there—
a determined, intelligent enemy
on his belly among the rattlesnake ferns,
waiting to detonate this day’s IED.
                                            What a fool
my fear has made of me.
I am no longer king of everything I need
to stay alive. It is an act of faith to remember how to live.
In my kingdom of familiar ghosts,
a gravel road becomes brightly lit;
a washed-out culvert needs another fill-in.
                                I am standing up,
telling myself that this is the only kingdom.
It holds reflections from childhood.
A still life with King snakes, hellbenders, and crawdads—
nights when fireflies burst into stars.
                                I am leaving Perryville again.
Its tiny rural tribes come out to watch me
disappear from rural Pennsylvania
to go and become a Combat Medic—

So I was. Immortal. I thought.
Death defined who I was not.
I was. Gung ho with inexplicable courage.
A budding metropolis,
trained by the world’s most powerful Army.
But there was no training
that could have prepared me going downrange,
nor the emotions that followed—
shock, disbelief, anger, and the inability to understand
the sudden violence with which men inflict upon on other men—

Our first lieutenant had been dead for three hours.
My BDU was covered in blood from trying to save his life,
by wrapping his stumps with tourniquets,
as his legs lay twenty yards away,
with his feet still wearing the desert boots
that the FOBBITS would place at his Battlefield Cross.

In the Suck, I appeared as healthy as an altar boy
who knew the priest would bang him
after confession.
                            Bless me father,
I chanted at night as I slept
with a spit cup beside my rack—
for the sins of my father,
and forgive me for my unsteady hands
as I attempted to administer miracles—
Like giving morphine to a dying man,
my hands the last sacrament
he will ever know
as I try stuffing his intestines back
into his stomach as he smiles.


I arrived home with a fear of spiders.
And the certainty that someone would die—
maybe someone close to me.
                                                Or an illegal alien,
or the pigtails getting off the school bus,
or a presidential candidate who shook my hand
and flashed a rhetorical smile,
or a Jewish deli owner who later choked on his pastrami,
his face turning purple on the floor.

I had nightmares             about a headless priest
performing a baptism in which he sprinkles holy water
from the muzzle of an AK-47
onto a screaming infant—
The water turning into blood,
then spreading
                        across the polarized Oakley goggles
of Myerson after he was shot through the left eye
by a sniper who we never found.

I cracked into too many pieces.
The Army gave me convalescence leave.
On the flight home I gave up
on god at thirty-five-thousand feet—
And, as expected, he gave up
on me.
            I love the smell of cigarettes in the morning,
ashes spilling over the ashtray
and into the world where my local church
is run by aliens. I love the priest
who does not know that he is an alien.
It’s raining when I return his Catholic strictures
and fear-based dogma that teaches self-gratification
was a pathway to hell.
                                    It’s still raining
when I’m sitting in my bedroom jerking off
to internet porn.

I was reborn and baptized by the comfort of fog and rain—
Gray, misty, darkened hues that made me thirsty
for Fentanyl patches, which I wore in two and threes.
That was 1970, but only for a day,
before I feel in love with Jackson Pollock.
We painted for a year.
We resurrected Marilyn Monroe from the grave
and made her stand nude against the canvas.
It all ended when I became an idealist who prayed
for a world in which wars were fought with paper swords.

The road levels out along the bottom,
The sun is a welding torch cutting through the clouds.
An avalanche of light comes racing down Bobst Mountain.
The moment at hand is novel that opens to the first page
of portable universe that I tried to carry with me
in the past. The template remains unchanged—
I am flanked by a second-growth forest.
It is overgrown with Kudzu and privet,
each twisting tangle remains an intricate example of intimacy.
And ballads?—There are many—
The cicada’s thrum. The bickering crows.
The artful dodge of the dragonfly
as it gives its iridescent body to the sky.

I am approaching the tiny wooden bridge.
It has no sides. The warped, weathered planking
curls upward at its edges
in a collective strain above the waters
—of Hoagland’s Run,
which rushes by; feverish, muddy
from last night’s storm—
Now there are no signs of it ever slowing—
It’s as if someone opened the prison doors,
and told the prisoners they have one hour to escape.

Halfway across the bridge, I am imagining my life
as one in which I will walk into a brilliant, ethereal
blazing fire, the flames
are dancing around my body,
lustrous, leaping things—a seething chorus
from which I emerge wholly healed.

I want to lie down and sleep on the roughhewn planks,
curled, fetal, delighted by the dreams
which will promise no shame for living
in simple discomfort.

I am experiencing a different kind of discomfort
when the giant whitetail refuses to run.
It appears artificial, a fake the game wardens use
to catch hunters killing out of season.
The distance between us is a free throw—
(how did I not see it standing there before?)—
a tawny, muscled creature
quivering with a primal, instinctual fear
that shows in its eyes.
Stonewalls, wire fences, declivities,
everything he once bounded over like a wild ballerina
released from the stage, have vanished.
His wildness leaks from his side…

Shot out of season.
The gods are napping again.
Someone must answer for such perditions.
My mind races towards a burning Bethlehem.
Bullets shatter a boy’s bones and a mother keens.
The lieutenant’s legs have resurrected.
They walk towards me, ready to run a marathon.

In this perfectly violent and perfectly senseless world,
the dead return to die again inside the bloody zoetrope,
a series of sequential deaths that play out in forward and reverse.
On this small planet I will never forget them—
                                            Hindigner, Resig, Gibbons, Gonzalez.
Men who were primates of the highest order.
I have pictures showing them in heroic poses.
                                    Unlike this whitetail—
Lonely symbol of unremitting effluence.
It struggles to stand. Wider and wider the nostrils flare.
It shakes its head and grunts
as it tries to free itself from this strange ecology.
                            But it is unsuccessful—
Instinct cannot save anything from its final evolution.

The front legs buckle from the weight of the inevitable,
and the rest of the body follows,
collapsing, like a fallen empire into the current
that’s strong enough to take it downstream,
in a surreal, clockwise spin.

The next day I find it half a mile from the bridge
on a bed of rocks, where the flies are
already having their way
with the carcass—
The great beast is no longer mythical.
Its tine will bleach and break and vanish
from the living eyes.
The body will bloat as the dead always do.

I look to the sky. The light is bright,
all-encompassing like the woman I love.
I toss my pistol into the water.
Not this time. Not today.
Fear fossilizes the human heart.
I turn away from it. And step by step I return
along the path that brought me here.

 

 

 

MICHAEL MCMANUS's work has appeared in numerous publications. He is the recipient of an Artist Fellowship Award from the Louisiana Division of the Arts and numerous Pushcart Prize nominations. He has received The Virginia Award and The Oceans Prize for poetry. He attended Penn State and The University of Louisiana at Monroe. He currently lives in Millheim, Pennsylvania. He is a Navy Veteran and 100% service-connected Disabled Veteran.

 

 

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