SELECTED POEMS BY EUGENE J. MCCARTHY
I am alone
in the land of the aardvarks.
I am walking west
all the aardvarks are going east.
Aardvarks cannot look and listen
at the same time.
They are listening, now, listening
to the sound of the marching feet
of the termites they are going to eat.
The termites are behind me.
They are choice termites.
They have grown fat
on the dead wood of the tree of knowledge.
Even if the aardvarks were looking
they could not see me.
I am wearing red and green.
Their world is empty of red and green
and of pink and purple and
Roman brown. Their eyes do not narrow
in the light or widen in the dark.
They see only gray
both night and day.
They push through the red earth.
It parts before them but does
not close behind.
With their long tongues
they speak a thin language
I do not understand.
Aardvarks think always of soft food
because they have no gizzards.
I am looking for you.
COURAGE AT SIXTY
Now it is certain.
There is no magic stone,
No secret to be found.
One must go
With the mind's winnowed learning.
No more than the child's handhold
On the willows bending over the lake,
On the sumac roots at the cliff edge.
Ignorance is checked,
The coat has been hung on the peg,
The cigar laid on the table edge,
The cue chosen and chalked,
The balls set for the final break.
All cards drawn,
All bets called.
The dice, warm as blood in the hand,
Shaken for the last cast.
The glove has been thrown to the ground,
The last choice of weapons made.
A book for one thought.
A poem for one line.
A line for one word.
"Broken things are powerful."
Things about to break are stronger still.
The last shot from the brittle bow is truest.
MY LAI CONVERSATION
How old are you, small Vietnamese boy?
Six fingers. Six years.
Why did you carry water to the wounded soldier, now dead?
Your father was enemy of free world.
You also now are enemy of free world.
Who told you to carry water to your father?
Your mother is also enemy of free world.
You go into ditch with your mother.
American politician has said,
"It is better to kill you as a boy in the elephant grass of Vietnam
Than to have to kill you as a man in the rye grass in the USA."
It is easier to die
Where you know the names of the birds, the trees, and the grass
Than in a strange country.
You will be number 128 in the body count for today.
High body count will make the Commander-in-Chief of free world much encouraged.
Good-bye, small six-year-old Vietnamese boy, enemy of free world.
THE DEATH OF THE OLD PLYMOUTH ROCK HEN
It was tragic when her time came
After a lifetime of laying brown eggs
Among the white of leghorns.
Now, unattractive to the rooster,
Laying no more eggs,
Faking it on other hens' nests,
Caught in the act,
Taken to the woodpile
In the winter of execution.
A quick stroke of the axe,
One first and last upward cast
Of eyes that in life
Had looked only down,
Scanning the ground for seeds and worms
And for the shadow of the hawk.
Now those eyes are covered
By yellow lids,
Closing from the bottom up.
Decapitated, she did not act
Like a chicken with its head cut off.
No pirouettes, no somersaults,
No last indignity.
Like an English queen, she died.
On wings that had never known flight
She flew, straight into the woodpile,
And there beat out slow death
While her curdled voice ran out in blood.
A scalding and a plucking of no purpose.
No goose feathers for a comforter.
No duck's down for a pillow.
No quill for a pen.
In the opened body, no entrail message for the haruspex.
Not one egg of promise in the oviduct.
In the gray gizzard, no diamond or emerald,
But only half-ground corn,
Sure evidence of unprofitability.
The breast and legs,
The wings and thighs,
The strong heart,
The pope's nose,
Fit only for chicken soup and stew.
And then in March, near winter's end,
When bloodied and feathered wood is used,
The odor of burnt offerings
Above the kitchen stove.
Kilroy is gone,
the word is out,
absent without leave
who wrote his name
in every can
from Poland to Japan
and places in between
like Sheboygan and Racine
absent without leave
who kept the dice
and stole the ice
out of the BOQ
whose name was good
on every IOU
in World War II
and even in Korea
absent without leave
the unknown soldier
who was the first to land
the last to leave,
with his own hand
has taken his good name
from all the walls
and toilet stalls.
whose name around the world
was like the flag unfurled
has run it down
and left Saigon
and the Mekong
without a hero or a song
absent without leave
THE DAY TIME BEGAN
Our days were yellow and green.
We marked the seasons with respect,
but spring was ours. We were shoots
and sprouts, and greenings,
We heard the first word
that fish were running in the creek.
Secretive we went with men into sheds
for torches and tridents
for nets and traps.
We shared the wildness of that week,
in men and fish. First fruits
after the winter. Dried meat gone,
the pork barrel holding only brine.
Bank clerks came out in skins,
teachers in loin clouts,
while game wardens drove in darkened cars,
watching the vagrant flares
beside the fish mad streams, or crouched
at home to see who came and went,
holding their peace,
surprised by violence.
We were spendthrift of time.
A day was not too much to spend
to find a willow right for a whistle
to blow the greenest sound the world
had ever heard.
Another day to search the oak and hickory thickets,
geometry and experience run together
to choose the fork, fit
for a sling.
Whole days long we pursued the spotted frogs
and dared the curse of newts and toads.
New adams, unhurried, pure, we checked the names
given by the old.
Some things we found well titled
blood-root for sight
skunks for smell
crab apples for taste
yarrow for sound
mallow for touch.
Some we found named ill, too little or too much
or in a foreign tongue.
These we challenged with new names.
Space was our preoccupation,
infinity, not eternity our concern.
We were strong bent on counting,
the railroad ties, so many to a mile,
the telephone poles, the cars that passed,
marking our growth against door frames.
The sky was a kite,
I flew it on a string,
winding it in to see its blue, again
to count the whirling swallows,
and read the patterned scroll of blackbirds turning,
to check the markings of the hawk,
and then letting it out to the end
of the last pinched inch of
string, in the vise of thumb and finger.
One day the string broke,
the kite flew over the shoulder of the world,
but reluctantly, reaching back in great lunges
as lost kites do, or as a girl running
in a reversed movie, as at each arched step, the earth
set free, leaps forward, catching her farther back
the treadmill doubly betraying,
remote and more remote.
Now I lie on a west facing hill in October
the dragging string having circled the world, the universe,
crosses my hand in the grass. I do not grasp it.
It brushes my closed eyes, I do not open.
That world is no longer mine, but for remembrance
Space ended then, and time began.