The following are a few poems from a collection of poetry (in progress) inspired by the life of my grandfather, Owen Leach, and grandmother. They are based on over 200 letters he wrote to her during his service overseas. He had made a promise to write everyday and did his best to keep it. Many of these poems were part of my 1998 Masters Thesis in English from The City College, where I studied under the late American poet William Matthews. I lived in Paris for six months during 1997, studying French and touring many of the places that my grandfather went through such as Normandy, Le Havre, Rouen, Reims, Metz, Luxembourg and Belgium. Two of the poems, including The Cow have been published in literary magazines.
This collection is dedicated to the memory of my grandparents and all those who wrote and waited for letters during World War II.
Melinda Rollins Thomsen, granddaughter
His life began in 1909,
mine, fifty two years later.
I would visit at summertime
to breathe in Alabama stars.
At night, he sat in his deep
seated tapestry covered chair
with full round arm rests,
and watched T.V., his black
glasses perched on his head
like road signs along a highway.
There was a sacred separateness
between us, he never chatted,
or gossiped, just the necessities,
“Who wants watermelon?”
It was 8:30 and between shows.
He cut a 1″ thick disc of ripe fruit,
sprinkling it with salt. Sometimes,
we ate in the kitchen or brought
our plates to the living room on trays.
But what of those shared moments
and my need to replicate that melon
dusted with salt? It’s never worked.
The fruit is too hard or soft, the salt
too salty, the seeds, flimsy and thin,
not at all like the sturdy ebony ovals,
blanketed in bright pink flesh,
that I could spit three yards or sweet
white ones I would swallow.
The past has one time, one plate upon
which it was served if forks taste
different then so did the meals.
I look at his picture when he was forty
but I can see the same way his muscles
worked his smile and how his skin folded
over the corner rims of the lower lids
as they did when he was sixty. Places
that touch all time, showing then now.
So why do they often occur as gifts?
When I’m walking past a restaurant
and the scent of bacon instantly takes me
twenty years back into their kitchen
or the way a sip of coke in a glass, cloaked
with condensation puts me on their porch.
Now, across my desk, lay bundles of letters
tied with red frayed ribbons that have lost
their luster to the sun, an escarpment
of dried bones, waiting for sinews,
muscles, organs, flesh and breath to fill
their lungs. As each bow is untied,
letters unfold his self-censored news,
newspaper clippings of Patton’s campaign
and photographs of carnage in black,
white and gray. But what of the true
shade of these ribbons and those days
in which the letters were received?
A letter dated Sunday October 29, 1944 states that he went over to a neighboring town for a reception with some of the local people. According to a document entitled “The Historical Data and Background of the 345th Regiment”, during this time, the soldiers were given tours of London and industrial sites in the immediate locality. Mow Cop Castle is a very famous attraction near Biddulph so I chose it because there was a good chance that he saw it.
Mow Cop Castle, England
We walked to the crest of Mow Cop today,
the moors rolled below the hedges, bucking
up against naked rocks that jutted up from earth,
coughing up bits of carboniferous shale.
It was an angry terrain wedged under heavy
skies by a horizon, pouting and tear stained.
Our guide, a local woman, wore a trench coat,
full and cinched at the waist by her buxom figure
while yours, small and tapered, has an olive collar,
embroidered with your initials and mine, married
letters clasping together that over lap the way
you throw your leg over my thigh when asleep.
I could see you there, too. The damp eating
away the crispness of your clothes, pressed
pleats flat upon your hips, wrinkles etched
into your blouse like week old bed sheets
and your brow facing it all with pearls
draping your throat as the 32 foot tower
adorned with chips of limestone at its feet.
It was quiet, no raids today just the wind,
running its course like waves over the heath,
until I stood under the stone archway in silence.
It’s how we sleep in our own peace at night,
after briefly listening to each other’s breathing,
talking about the day, rolling to favorite sides,
sounder than three foot walls of stone but tied
to the same place like those ridges and vista.
At that point, the woman turned to say, “Biddulph
can’t escape its geography or geology, coal, iron,
stone and sand, or even its name, “by the diggings.”
My grandfather was called “old man” because of his prematurely gray hair. On the other hand, in many of his letters, he used the nickname “the old man” to refer to Colonel Sugg. From a letter dated, November 27, 1944, he says “From the appearance of the part of France I have seen the people over here certainly took a pounding on and after “D” day I am certainly glad that I wasn’t in on it. Huge piles of rock and brick, all that remains of large buildings – but the people seem to be happy now”. Letter dated December 9, 1944, “a lot of destruction, but I haven’t seen anything that is as complete as La Havre.”
A last drag lingered in the metal rim
of his helmet, dissipating into graying hair.
The salty wind lashed across the beach,
through his uniform, under his scalp.
He twisted the cigarette in the sand
and looked west towards lower Normandy.
D-Day was over five months ago.
The war was going well. Paris was liberated.
The 87th infantry was on to Belgium and Germany.
No, he was not there on June 6th. No one
with any sense would have this old man
jump from a plane. The kids did that.
One of his men tossed a brick that landed
with a plunk and satisfactory belch in the water
but nobody laughed. Instead, it called them back.
Drawn to attention they felt vaguely unfamiliar
and shy. He gazed upon his black boots,
sand cleaved, like fraying ropes across
his feet to restrain him from kicking
the rubble that peppered a battered Le Havre.
From a letter dated December 11, 1944, “we expect to eat very well for the next day or two – have steaks and mushrooms scheduled for lunch tomorrow. A cow accidentally got in the way of the mess sergeant’s rifle yesterday so of course we had to take advantage of it. The cow looks very good and we had the doctor inspect it and he classed it OK. I don’t think that I will get hungry with the crew that we have.”
Published in Promethean, 1997
A cow accidentally got in the way
of the mess sergeant’s rifle.
Perhaps she had ambled
too close to the fencing
and stared over the barbed
wire that fell below her eyes
like spectacles, dropping down
the bridge of her nose.
He searched her dark eyes
like a crystal ball and stroked
her coat for some recognition,
any indication of his past or his future
and presence beside this French
road that made them acquaintances.
But saw none, nothing in her irises
not even his own reflection.