The Things I Carry


Image Credit: James Speed Hensinger | Vietnam 1970

That dream returned last night, the one where shadows
dressed for bed crawl toward my resting place.
All I can do is lie there and wait,
knowing it’s coming, pickled in a perspiration
exotic, torporific, frantic, paralytic.
I dream these nights of being in-country,
asleep in a faraway land I did not know,
but in a bed I do.

The dark figures, with faces vaguely familiar,
sometimes raid my slumber when I see
their waking work in an old friend or
in scorching color on television.
My dream-self awakens to the nightmare pop-pop-pop
of small arms fire, the b-r-r-rap-b-r-r-rap
of the M-60 spitting All-American fireworks
into three-dimensional silhouettes, and then
comes the tripwire boom of upright, soaking reality
in which I do not wear olive armor on my back 
nor upon my shoulders lug a sackful of
the things they carried.

My burden has no measurable weight but that
which I give it. My rank is guilty civilian,
a lifer who lucked out in the 1970 lotto
that saw boys next to me busted by
an insane spin of numbers.
Awake in this safe and dark bedroom,
I envision bodies and lives broken,
maimed, lost. And God help me, there are times
when I lie back down and stare at those ghosts
on the dark ceiling, and in some distorted sense
of shame and confusion, I may envy some 
their losses.

I had a hard time with this one. I wrote a very “Joe” fireworks poem yesterday in its place, but every time I looked at the photo up there, a prompt from my friend Kellie Elmore, this new (too darn long) poem came exploding back at me. It’s something that’s been simmering inside me — even wrote a short story about it — since long before I ever saw that photo. I post it with great reservation because I revere what these guys suffered and endured and don’t wish to diminish or dishonor that with the prattling of some stupid hump of a middle-aged “poet.” I guess what I’m trying to say is I had to write this someday.

16 thoughts on “The Things I Carry

  1. Please don’t take it down! It honors those who had to go or chose to go, while also being very honest about your feelings related to not having to go. My brother Joe was over there, by choice not draft lottery, and it did leave a mark on him forever, but he survived well until he was killed in a car accident at the age of 43. Can you imagine? Going to Vietnam twice and being killed in a car accident? Anyway, my point is, you are an excellent poet. This is an excellent poem that says exactly what you needed to say and I love it. I wish I had written it.

  2. I’m speechless.

    Why you doubt your abilities, I’ll never know. You move people with your words.

    And this. I think you were the only one who looked at the image. Thank you. These things needed to be brought out of the shadow of bottle rockets.
    Like Christ…hidden behind bunnies, painted eggs and old fat guys with toys.

    Just so happy you got it.

    • Thank you, dear Kellie.

      Can’t say I doubt my talent, but the gatekeepers do. And I’m too tied up and tired to do anything about that…today. Soon enough, though. I’ll never doubt myself as long as I have you on my side.

      About that stirring photo: I’m never surprised when people miss that which is burning right in front of them. I’ve lived too long and seen more than enough forest/trees POV antics for that. Bless you, lovely lady. Now leave them all Withering with that book of yours! 🙂

  3. Joe never realized what a talented cousin I have. Just started reading your poetry and stories .Loved reading about your great grandfather and great grandmother. I have some great pictures I would love to share with you . Please let me know through E mail where I can send you these pictures. They are great pictures too of G pa and a few others you may like. I will continue to enjoy and read your poems and stories. Maybe someday there will be one on the street and people of Bradford St. Glad to reconnect even if its through the computer. Keep up the Good work. Cousin Chris OBrien Van

    • Thank you, Chris. Keep the alleged “talent” thing under your hat…especially from relatives. LOL! I’ve written a piece I (surprisingly) like about my relationship with G’Pa Hesch and my aging that’s in a poetry collection that I’m publishing in the next month. Part of the inspiration of it was a photo you showed me of him and my dad (as a boy) shoveling the snow in front of the old house on Bradford Street. Thanks for reading! 🙂

  4. A war poem written from a completely new perspective, for me, Joe. I hadn’t envisaged it. Very moving; I can feel that in your expression. In 1970-71, I met a girl in Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve. Went out to see her in Florida in the summer and met her brother. He had been drafted to Vietnam and, shortly after I left for home, he went off to serve his time in that seemingly pointless and Godforsaken war of attrition. I never heard of him again, nor her (a serious hurricane hit Jacksonville the following summer, if I recall and I often wonder what happened to the whole family. Where all that came from, I don’t know. I apologise for butting in on your parade, Joe, and a damn good parade it is too!

    • Thanks, John. You’re not butting in. I am honored by the fact that my little efforts inspire memories and feelings in readers. I just need more readers! 😉

      I recall you telling me that story when we met in London. And you feel free to butt in any time, mate. I value your impressions, observations, and insight up there with few others.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.