Holding on

By Deirdra Kessler, Charlottetown, PEI

Prince Edward Island Poet Laureate, 2016-2018

    for James Francis Feely (1894-1973)

 

Our grandfather was wiry and strong all his life;
at the end, he was an oak leaf,
clinging to the stem through winter winds,
not letting go until spring.

“What happened, Jim?”
We always called him by his first name.
We little children would stare at the back of his neck.
How we longed to touch the scars. Never dared.

“Watch out!” Jim’s voice gruff, gravelly.
“Or the pollywog will jump out and get you.”
This was how we learned the word pollywog.
We never figured out how one would live inside Jim’s neck.

Our grandmother told us Jim was wounded by shrapnel,
and he was gassed. Mustard gas. His voice never the same.
This was how we learned about war.
When he returned from France
he weighed eighty-eight pounds.

“Don’t ask him about the war,” she said,
but we asked anyway. It was two wars ago, Jim.
Why won’t you tell us about it?

“I was always at the front of the line,” he said.

Cold rain fell into the trench where Jim crouched.
Water pooled under planks of ripsawn oak
torn from a disappeared barn.
Bloated dead horses on the battleground.
Across a field, trenches of the enemy.
All the men longing for a parting glass of the water of life.

I imagined Jim Feely the way he looked at sixteen
in a photograph—thick black hair,
handsome Irish face, fierce eyes and stance;
he’d run away from home at twelve.

“Yep. I was always at the front of the line…
…when we were retreating.”
All he ever said about the war. A joke.

An oak leaf holds fast through bitter weather.
When April promises warmth, signals new growth,
it is time to let go.