November 1, 2014


Tom Sheehan has 24 Pushcart Prize nominations. 375 western stories on Rope and Wire Magazine.  His published books include: In the Garden of Long Shadows, From The Quickening, A Collection Of Friends, and The Nations, about Native Americans, all available from Pocol Press.

 The Westering (appeared in Word Catalyst, 2009)               
               Born to Wear the Rags of War  (appeared in collection, This Rare Earth & Other Flights, 2003)
               A Last Moment Caught (appeared in Ken* Again, 2009)

The Westering
                 It is brittle now, the remembering, how we drove you East
with your backpack like a totem in the rear seat, so that
                 you could walk westerly across the continent’s spine,
                across the sum of all the provinces, through places
                you had been before, and we had been, and the Cree
              and the Owlcreek bear and wolves envisioned
            when night screams upwind the way stars loose
their valid phantoms.

Now it seems the ready truth
that juxtaposition is just a matter of indifference,
because we have all been where we are going,
into selves, shadows, odd shining, all those places
the mind occupies, or the heart, or a lung at exercise.
You had already passed places you would come into
when we knew your hailing us down, thumb a pennant,
face a roadside flag,

halting our pell-mell island rush.
To go westerly, to walk across the world’s arching top,
you said you had to go east, to know Atlantic salt, kelp
girding rocks at anchor, clams sucking the earth down,
to be at ritual with Europe’s ocean itself, that mindless
sea of barks and brigantines and lonely buoy bells
arguing their whereabouts in the miseries of fog, sing-
ular as canyon coyote.

We promised you holy water
at Cape Tormentine, reaching place of The Maritimes,
a fist thrust ready for Two-Boat Irish Islanders, tenting,
the soft sands at Cavendish, a holy trough of journey,
a wetting place, publican’s house of the first order,
drinks hale and dark and well met and Atlantic ripe
as if everything the bog’s

known the drink has.
It’s more apparent now, after you moved outbound,
or inward on the continent, trailing yourself, dreams,
through wild Nations once ringing one another,
your journey was endless. Nine years now at it,
horizons loose on eternity, trails blind-ending
in a destiny of canyons too deep to be heard,
and your mail comes

                          like scattered echoes, horse
shoes clanging against stakes in twilight campgrounds,
not often enough or soon enough or long enough,
only soft where your hand touches hide, hair, heart
caught out on the trail, wire-snipped, hungry, heavy
on the skewers you rack out of young spruce.
Out of jail, divinity
school, bayonet battalion, ice-
house but only in winters, asking Atlantic
blessing for your march into darkness, light,
we freed you into flight. You have passed yourself
as we have heading out to go back, up to go down,
away from home just to get home. Are you this way
even now, windward,

wayward, free as the falcon
on the mystery of a thermal, passing through yourself?
You go where the elk has been, noble Blackfoot
of the Canadas, beaver endless in its palatial gnawing,
all that has gone before your great assault, coincident,
harmonic, knowing that matter does not lose out,
cannot be destroyed,

but lingers for your touching
in one form or another, at cave mouth, closet canyon,
perhaps now only falling as sound beneath stars
you count as friends and confidants. Why is your mail
ferocious years apart in arrival? You manage hotels,
prepare salads, set great roasts for their timing,
publish a book on mushrooms

just to fill your pack anew
and walk on again, alone, over Canada’s high backbone,
to the islands’ ocean, the blue font you might never
be blessed in. Nine years at it! Like Troy counting
downward to itself: immense, imponderable, but there.
A year now since your last card, Plains-high, August,
a new book started,

but no topic said, one hand
cast in spruce you cut with the other, your dog
swallowed by a mountain, one night of loving
as a missionary under the Pole Star and canvas
by a forgotten road coming from nowhere.
We wonder, my friend, if you are still walking,
if you breathe,

if you touch the Pacific will Atlantic
ritual be remembered as we remember it: high-
salted air, rich as sin, wind-driven like the final broom,
gulls at havoc, at sea a ship threatening disappearance,
above it all a buoy bell begging to be heard,
and our eyes
on the back of your head.

Born to Wear the Rags of War
The day had gone over hill, but that still, blue light remained,
cut with a gray edge, catching corners rice paddies lean out of.
In the serious blue brilliance of battle they’d become comrades
becoming friends, just Walko and Williamson and Sheehan
sitting in the night drinking beer cooled by Imjin River waters
in August of ‘51 in Korea.
Three men drably clad,
                                             but clad in the rags of war.
Stars hung pensive neon. Mountain-cool silences were being earned,
hungers absolved, a ponderous god talked to. Above silences,
the ponderous god’s weighty as clouds, elusive as soot on wind,
yields promises. They used church keys to tap cans, lapped up
silence rich as missing salt, fused their backbones to good earth
in a ritual old as labor itself,
                                             these men clad in the rags of war.
Such an August night gives itself away, tells tales, slays the rose
in reeling carnage, murders sleep, sucks moisture out of Mother Earth,
fires hardpan, sometimes does not die itself just before dawn,
makes strangers in one’s selves,
                              those who wear the rags of war.
They had been strangers beside each other, caught in the crush
of tracered night and starred flanks, accidents of men drinking beer
cooled in the bloody waters where brothers roam forever, warriors come
to that place by fantastic voyages, carried by generations
of the persecuted or the adventurous, carried in sperm body, dropped
in the spawning, fruiting womb of America,
                                             and born to wear the rags of war.

Walko, reincarnate of the Central European, come of land lovers
and those who scatter grain seed, bones like logs, wrists strong
as axle trees, fair and blue-eyed, prankster, ventriloquist who talked
off mountainside, rumormonger for fun, heart of the hunter,
hide of the herd, apt killer,
                                             born to wear the rags of war.
Williamson, faceless in the night, black set on black,
only teeth like high piano keys, eyes that captured stars,
fine nose got from Rome through rape or slave bed unknown
generations back, was cornerback tough, graceful as ballet dancer
(Walko’s opposite), hands that touched his rifle the way a woman’s
touched, or a doll, or one’s fitful child caught in fever clutch,
came sperm-tossed across the cold Atlantic, some elder Virginia-
bound bound in chains, the Congo Kid come home,
the Congo Kid, alas, alas,
                                             born to wear the rags of war.
Sheehan, reluctant at trigger-pull, dreamer, told deep lies
with dramatic ease, entertainer who wore shining inward a sum
of ghosts forever from the cairns had fled; heard myths
and the promises in earth and words of songs he knew he never knew,
carried scars vaguely known as his own, shared his self with saint
and sinner, proved pregnable to body force,
                                             but born to wear the rags of war
------Walko: We lost the farm. Someone stole it. My father
loved the fields, sweating. He watched grass grow by starlight,
the moon slice at new leaves. The mill’s where he went for work,
in the crucible, drawing on the green vapor, right in the heat of it,
the miserable heat. My mother said he started dying the first day.
It wasn’t the heat or green vapor did it, just going off to the mill,
grassless, tight in. The system took him. He wanted to help.
It took him, killed him a little each day, just smothered him.
I kill easy. Memory does it. I was born for this, to wear
these rags. The system gives, then takes away. I’ll never
 go piecemeal like my father.
                                             These rags are my last home.
------Williamson: Know why I’m here? I’m from North Ca’lina,
sixteen and big and wear size fifteen shoes and my town
drafted me ‘stead of a white boy. Chaplain says he git me home.
Shit! Be dead before then. Used to hunt home, had to eat
what was fun runnin’ down. Brother shot my sister
and a white boy in the woods. Caught them skinnin’ it up
against a tree, run home and kissed Momma goodbye,
give me his gun. Ten years, no word. Momma cries about
both them all night. Can’t remember my brother’s face.
Even my sister’s. Can feel his gun, though, right here
in my hands, long and smooth and all honey touch. Squirrel’s
left eye never too far away for that good old gun.
Them white men back home know how good I am, and send me here,
put these rags on me. Two wrongs! Send me too young
and don’t send my gun with me. I’m goin’ to fix it all up,
gettin’ home too. They don’t think I’m coming back,
them white men. They be nervous when I get back, me and that
good old gun my brother give me,
                                             and my rags of war.
------Sheehan: Stories are my food. I live and lust on them.
Spirits abound in the family, indelible eidolons; the O’Siodhachain
and the O’Sheehaughn carved a myth. I wear their scars in my soul,
know the music that ran over them in lifetimes, songs’ words,
and strangers that are not strangers: Muse Devon abides with me,
moves in the blood and bag of my heart, whispers tonight:
Corimin is in my root cell, oh bright beauty of all
that has come upon me, chariot of cheer, carriage of Cork
where the graves are, where my visit found the root
of the root cell---Johnny Igoe at ten running ahead
of the famine that took brothers and sisters, lay father down;
sick in the hold of ghostly ship I have seen from high rock
on Cork’s coast, in the hold heard the myths and musics
he would spell all his life, remembering hunger and being alone
and brothers and sisters and father gone and mother
praying for him as he knelt beside her bed that hard morning
when Ireland went away to the stern. I know that terror
of hers last touching his face. Pendalcon’s grace
comes on us all at the end. Johnny Igoe came alone at ten
and made his way across Columbia, got my mother who got me
and told me when I was twelve that one day Columbia
would need my hand and I must give.  And tonight I say,
“Columbia, I am here with my hands
and with my rags of war.”

I came home alone. And they are my brothers.
          Walko is my brother. Williamson is my brother.
             Muse Devon is my brother. Corimin is my brother.
                Pendalcon is my brother.
                    God is my brother.
                               I am a brother to all who are dead,
                                             we all wear the rags of war. 

A Last Moment Caught

It comes again,
without prejudice,
in another millennium:

I know the weight of an M-1 rifle
on a web strap hanging on my shoulder,
the awed knowledge of a ponderous steel helmet
atop my head, press of a tight lace on one
boot, wrap of a leather watch band
on my wrist,

and who stood beside me 
who stand no more.


~Tom Sheehan

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