Death Is a Lady
After the Reading of the Names
by Steve Mason
He who was their father
sinks into the mud of his shame.
He rises (somehow) later
empty into his rage.
Across the no-man's land
of barbed wire and national borders
(a distance beyond geography)
the lights of San Diego dance
to the rhythm and the promise
of high-tech immortality.
before life (really) begins,
forty thousand boys and girls
(from everywhere and nowhere)
before our very open mouths.
(Never) any questions in our eyes.
they give up the need
for a 2 bowl of rice
or a 6 vaccination for measles.
Or a priceless drink
of untainted water
which doesn't drain their guts
into the sand.
Or into the gutter.
Strange, even in the end,
the little ones never give up dreams.
How gentle must be God's hand
to pry such small fingers
from such simple wishes.
Six or seven thousand mornings ago,
somewhere along a scary border, in bad times,
a Cambodian mercenary at my side,
said, in his tongue, to no one in particular,
"Death is a Lady."
Something like two hundred seconds later
(each sharp enough to split an atom)
the Cambot lay dead (his boots at odd angles).
I, smoking what I thought was my last Pall Mall,
looked past him through the much heavier smoke
and saw the face of God
(something like jelly dripping from His mouth).
CBS News did not carry the events of our day.
Not too many knew at the time, and none care today,
that my buck-toothed friend with the bowed legs
played soccer with courage and pride and grace
for the Cambodian National Team in the '52 Olympics.
Nobody cared at the time and few care today
that I decided never to war in another jungle-
and to take the fight into the streets as a poet.
I do not know to what grand dispersal
my friend has gone or what he does there,
but I quit smoking and I'm trying to write.
Death may be a lady,
but God is no gentleman.
(Shared at the Peace Memorial, Old Town, San Diego, Memorial Day, l984)
I just call him Johnny;
like in Johnny went off to war
and Johnny didn't come home.
And remember him,
like Johnny was a helluva ballplayer
and Johnny's girl believed in dreams.
And I can find him,
like in Johnny's folks
moved away that year-
some say, Minnesota;
but his name's still here
not two miles from his old high school
on a Peace Memorial
(which is a funny name for it).
Sometimes like today,
we read All the names
some call it "the reading of the names."
Me, I just call it Johnny's song.
And as much as I love the words,
I've come to really hate the music...