Further to my last post reflecting upon Remembrance Day – which is now two days hence – I am adding my own poem. Inspired by John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” my own is an addition to the literary collection regarding the symbol of poppies.
As mentioned previously, John McCrae’s home, now a museum, is in Guelph, Ontario. My husband and I finally visited it two summers ago. Wandering around McCrae’s childhood house, I could not but help remember my dear grandmother, for when I was a small child I sat at her side as she told me about the war and about Flanders Fields. She painted an incredible picture that remained in my mind, of the vividly coloured fields of poppies, under which lay thousands of soldiers who died whilst protecting us. She told me about this man – a soldier but also a poet – who wrote a famous and beautiful poem about those poppies and what they meant. She read the poem to me. You can imagine how I felt when, all these decades later, I set foot in that man’s house, and saw the original, hand-written poem! Ah, dear Nana, I mentally held your hand as I stood gazing at that written sheet!
And now – Mr McCrae, and Nana, and all soldiers and their families everywhere: here is my contribution to Remembrance Day.
Old Man Selling Poppies
Hurrying uptown to meet Paula and Dee,
turning left onto Wellesley, I see
an old man selling poppies.
That time of year again?
Well, let’s give him a dollar.
As he pins the poppy to my collar,
I glance at his beret, then, “Thanks” I say
and turn away a double-second—
Then I stop, and do a double-take.
I turn back to gaze at his blazer, ablaze,
from his chin to his chest all glory of ribbon;
the front of his breast displays
a Victoria Cross and stripes, and a crest.
And tiny kings meditating
on medals of gold,
and George and the Dragon in eternal quest
to fight to the death. I catch my breath
and look at the old man, his eyes now the bold
eyes of a young man, rushing to war,
poised to protect his “maw” and his “paw”
and to guard his sweetie, who then wrote “Dear John”
and to do double-duty for those that double-cross.
His hair is now brown, he stands reckless and tall
and jumps from the boat to the dark waves below,
to creep to the beach, for a date with the foe.
Ten abreast, hundreds deep.
Weapons held above their heads,
this night and the next they’ll get no sleep
until they dig trenches to be their beds
for the next four years.
For the next four years, he fights with his hands,
making and meeting demands to purge lands
of vicious invaders. Dropping bombs on various militia on behalf
of Princess Patricia. Dropping corpses, once close friends,
into half-hearted holes.
Gunning gerries, kill ’em all dead
before they get us. With feet of lead
and leaden heart, he limps back to base camp
with a thousand scalps.
He collects stitches on his back and his leg,
which are nothing compared to the scars in his head.
A thousand scars
splinter into bleeding rain
cementing sandbags into his eyes and ears and brain.
We are now free; the world shaken from shackles.
He crawls back to his village only to learn
his mother died two days before,
rejoicing the end of the war
but pining for her son.
Somehow, he has
a life to resume, a wage to earn.
The war is won; he is lost.
Who can he blame?
I look at the young man before me.
Lose myself in his eyes: Tired eyes.
Wise eyes. Old orbs. White hair.
Old man selling poppies.
Upon reflection, I point at the medals.
“Impressive collection.” He looks at me quietly.
“Thank you,” is all he says. I look at him quietly.
My head sways and I say, “No. Thank you.”
And after we speak, I stride on
to meet my friends for lunch, but
at the next street corner—head on—
a young boy barges right into my legs
and falls onto the kerb. I pull him up.
He begs my pardon, giggling the while and with a smile,
pulls out a water pistol and points.
I catch my breath,
and look at the child,
now a grown soldier, angered and wild,
creeping forth, with chemical vials
and mysterious machines sporting myriad dials
hidden in his watch and his shoes and his smiles.
And just for extra fun, the scroll he carries
is really a laser gun.
He is going to “shake shackles” from the world.
I watch as the warrior leaps into the woods
and drums his fists against the trees and shrubs
Seventy years from now
he will stand on a street corner and sell
I stride on, a life to resume, and a wage to earn.