“A Machine Gunner with Trembling Hands”–Caroline Kelly

Honorable Mention, Poetry

 

Your mother’s name was Anne, and the day you left for war

she hung a rosary around your little boy neck.

You never took it off,

not even crawling through the mud and filth in basic.

You thought, if they kill me, I want to be buried with this.

 

It beat against your chest through each day

of wind and rain and red sun

imprinting a cross of sweat and dirt each time it swung.

Some days it felt heavier than others,

and you winced as it slapped against the dried blood,

but you had three miles left to go

so you told yourself it was your mother’s hand over your heart.

 

On the days when your hands seized up,

in the barracks or in the field,

and you couldn’t crouch over and cradle them

and you couldn’t drop your rifle

you reached up a few stiff fingers and felt the cross

beating in time to the thumps of pain.

 

The first time you jumped,

you couldn’t feel it under all the other weight;

but you did hear her, asking for God to bless each of her children.

You were a child again, peering around the edge

of her bedroom doorway, seeing her knelt at the bedside

with her hands folded up and her forehead resting on them,

praying, Almighty God, show me how to love each one:

Joe and Jimmy and Jack and Babe and Anna.

Let me give them everything I have.

 

Your heart pounded in your throat as your feet

became a blur over the treacherous ground,

and your hands were always working some kind of weapon,

and your throat caught on the memories

of every buddy whose body was laid to rest by the falling snow.

The world became so much louder and you thought they

had ripped out your heart with their bare hands,

when Johnny’s body bent and fell into the snowy road.

Maybe if you had been out there with him, he would be here now,

legs crossed and jamming his hands into his pockets as you laughed

to keep warm.

 

But you weren’t, and he ain’t,

and you’re holding on to that rosary

like it’s anchoring you to the bottom of the ocean,

and they’re trying to tell you, “It ain’t your fault,”

and your grip only relaxes when it hurts to hold on.

 

They sent you out here to kill and you do it without thinking,

but what you’re really learning is how to love:

how to stay warm together in a foxhole when there ain’t no warmth in the whole forest

and how to put a cork in the dam and make it last until you’re home,

even when you’re still choking down the wounds that there ain’t no morphine for.

 

The Lord is with thee. The Lord is with thee.

You shut your eyes and hold your helmet on with one hand

and clutch the cross with the other every time the shelling starts,

and your mother’s voice laces with the shells:

Lend me unto your service, oh Lord, until Your will is done

and I am called home from the hands of Thine enemies.