Catherine Jagoe




Prisoner of War

 

For my grandfather


The night—October, 1945—that he reached home in Ireland
at last, he stayed up all night talking,
and then never spoke
of it again, captive
until he died.

What he'd seen, unspeakable.  Three years of slaving
on a diet of slugs and rice, hewing a railway
through the mountain jungle of Siam,
its heat and monsoon slime,
along the river Kwai.

No news of him for eighteen months until a Red Cross postcard:
I am interned at the War Prisoners Camp in (blank).  
I am well/not well/in hospital.
From (blank).
Postmarked
in Thai.

When reunited with his eleven-year-old son,  
whom he'd last seen aged seven, he shook
the boy's hand.  They remained
virtual strangers
all their lives.

The lesions on his back would suppurate for years,
as would his loathing of the Japanese
and his remoteness, fed—it's said
now—by guilt at having
survived.

He never spoke the litany but it is written:
dysentery, malaria, beatings, lice, forced labor, beri-beri, stench.
Our family inheritance
the roar of hunger,
silence.

His children knew never to spurn any food
on their plates, but his first grandchild
one day stopped speaking and began
to starve herself, as if, obscurely,
to honor him. Bones strained
up through her skin, death
donning shape before
our eyes.

Maybe the great-grandchildren will bear the damage
lightly, wear no scars of distant fathers.
Still, they'll know the camp names:
those forgotten places—Chungkai,
Kinsaiyok, Non Pladuk—
where men died
like flies.

 

 

The Secret Heat of Trees

After the last, piled snow sublimes
but before the ground's greening,

when dust from the tiller rises
like smoke from the prairie burning,

the naked maples start bleeding
their draggled, red litter of buds,

the way a bitch in heat drips rust,
blooming on a single afternoon

when the air turns wanton.
Remember, every tree's a lover.

Even plain old ash, box elder, elm,
oak, yew boast stamens straining,

anthers opening, pistils soft as dew.
Their sperm dancing on the wind

besieges our moist cavities, inflames
us, causing wheezing, itching, ooze.

Attempting to avoid a ravishment
by trees, we stream, weep, sneeze.




Catherine Jagoe has translated two novels from Spanish and recently completed an English translation of Desert of Water, a memoir about the Arctic written in Catalan.   Her first poetry collection is Casting Off (Parallel Press, 2007).  Her poems have appeared in Atlanta Review, Sow's Ear Poetry Review, Rattle, Kalliope, qarrtsiluni, diode, Wisconsin Academy Review, Poem, Red Wheelbarrow and other journals, and on The Writer's Almanac and Poetry Daily.









                                    

 

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