Paulie’s War by Matthew E Henry

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These poems are part of a special section of the Mid-Atlantic Review, Celebrating Black History, and selected by editors Khadijah Ali-Coleman, Carolivia Herron, and Rebecca Bishophall. To learn more about this series read a blog post on the Day Eight website here. 

Paulie’s War

by Matthew E Henry

when Paulie came marching home again the whole town turned out
for the finest thing I’d ever saw. steppin’ off that bus,
the right side of his crisp uniform a hog’s mash of colors.
the left holdin’ only the green-grey sliver bearin’ his name
but puffed just as proud. we women gathered ‘round him like hens
at the farmer’s hand, noticin’ how good and grown he looked.
the men stood shakin’ his hand and slapping his back like it was on fire,
as if war had aged him beyond his twenty-one years.

Rosie was all smiles and pride introducin’ his niece Cynthia,
who looked like God had done snatched two twinklin’ stars
from the night sky to fit her eyes. Paulie stood there holdin’ her,
goo-gooing all that nonsense men spit at little ones. ‘till he stopped.
he turned ‘round and ‘round, finally askin’ where his Mama was.
we all got real quiet then.

you see Mama Williams never wanted her boy to go off
and fight no white man’s war. her daddy had fought the war
that won him his freedom, but from the way she tells it,
he just traded massas and fields. our blood still filled trenches.
Paulie said the army would show he wasn’t no field nigger.
he would gain rank and soon white boys would have to salute him,
show him some respect. his Mama laughed in his face,
said he wasn’t goin’ nowhere. Paulie said he was a grown man
and could do as he pleased. that was the only time Mama Williams
ever laid a hand on one of her children in anger. before the heat left
his cheek, Paulie had packed his things. Mama Williams sat stone-still
at her kitchen table. Paulie kissed her on forehead before he left.
she died six months later, but there was no way to get him word.

Rosie told him how the doctors had no answers. Mama fell
asleep one night and woke up with Jesus. Paulie began walkin’
towards the church yard. said wanted to be alone. everyone nodded
and gave him his space. havin’ somethin’ of a crush on him back then,
I followed at a distance. was the only one to see what happened next.

thirty minutes later, halfway down Main street, the two Parson boys
came down off the barber shop porch and blocked Paulie’s path.

they was a silent white wall staring at his uniform with a hate
I had never seen, like they was fittin’ to tear it off with their eye-teeth.
Paulie just stood there, fists unclenched. your mama ain’t comin’
with no shotgun this time, boy one of them snickered, referin’ to an event
nigh twenty years past, when all three Parson boys were present,
before the youngest had gone off to fight in Paulie’s war and not come home.
some nights Paulie would lie in our bed and tell me ‘bout seein’
friends ripped in two by flying metal, and the smell of burnt flesh
lingerin’ for weeks under his nails. ‘bout killin’ with his gun, his knife,
once with his helmet and fingers. this afternoon, Paulie slowly lowered his bag,
his eyes never leaving their hands. he reached into his left breast pocket
and pulled out a folded scrap of cotton paper. he held it at eye level
and spoke words I was too far away to hear. words he never told me.

it got deathly quiet then. no one spoke. no one moved. my spirit shrieked.
I turned to run back to the station to fetch the men: if there was to be a lynching,
by God they would have to kill us all. I still don’t know what held my feet.

the oldest Parson boy stepped up and snatched the letter from Paulie,
and I swear that white hand was tremblin’ more than my heart.
as those pale-rose lips moved in silence, his blue eyes teared up
like a calf long absent his mama. his hand and head dropped.
suddenly he took a step toward Paulie, then collapsed into hisself.
he turned and pushed his brother aside. Paulie picked up his bag
and walked on. five strides past them there was a holler. Paulie turned.
the eldest Parson boy took a half step and raised his hand to his forehead in salute.
Paulie nodded and walked on to see his Mama. 

Matthew E. Henry is the author of six poetry collections, including the Colored page (Sundress Publications, 2022), The Third Renunciation (New York Quarterly Books, 2023), and said the Frog to the scorpion (Harbor Editions, 2024). He is editor-in-chief of The Weight Journal and an associate poetry editor at Rise Up Review. The 2023 winner of the Solstice Literary Magazine Stephen Dunn Prize, Henry’s poetry appears in The Florida Review, Massachusetts Review, Ninth Letter, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, and The Worcester Review among others. Henry is an educator who received his MFA yet continued to spend money he didn’t have completing an MA in theology and a PhD in education. You can find him at www.MEHPoeting.com writing about education, race, religion, and burning oppressive systems to the ground.

Featured image: “African American Soldiers During World War II”, unattributed author, creative commons via Wikimedia Commons

Editor
Editorhttp://www.dayeight.org
Bourgeon’s mission, through our online publication and community initiatives, is twofold: to increase participation in the arts and to improve access to the arts. Bourgeon is a project of the not-for-profit Day Eight.
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