MacNamara’s Memoirs

I live in a small town, where,

In my backyard, grackles attack

Squirrels along the telephone wire,

Guarding their nests.  Elsewhere,

MacNamara’s released his reflections.

In this town, three or four men,

Whose eyes never seem to see,

Live, too, always on Market Street.

Viet Nam veterans.  No jobs for them,

Who once saw or did too much.

They wander past the shops or lounge

Against the drugstore, silent,

Listless, half-lost.  Some days one

Wheels a bicycle, never rides it.

The bombs all dropped, what can one say

To Robert MacNamara this spring

Except: come visit our town,

The grackles might interest you.

Karl Patten

From Touch: Poems


There is very little to say about this poem.  Many will remember that when Robert MacNamara published his Memoirs, he, who had such a major role as Secretary of Defense in promoting the war in Viet Nam, had very little to say about the consequences of that disastrous war, not merely about the millions of dead and wounded Vietnamese, but of the massive number of American casualties, including the thousands of American soldiers who survived but returned home broken in body and spirit.

I was angered by MacNamara’s book, but it took the very low-key tone of a few local images to express my anger, and, in fact, rather graciously extending a visit to our small town to him.  He never came, as far as I know.

P.S. Is it simply another example of American hypocrisy in high places that we denominate our war office the Department of Defense?  Surely it should be called the Department of Offence, for it only offends other people – and us.  Long ago, it was know as the War Department, surely more honest a moniker.



submitted by Karl Patten

A photograph.  Consider.

Three Russian soldiers,

Assault rifles waving

Up and on-the-ready,

Have flushed out a house.

One glances back over

A camouflaged shoulder

At the wide-open door

Into a blackness.

A woman approaches

That door from the left,

Head high in a bandanna,

A sandaled foot stepping

Forward, her straw broom

Firm in her right hand

Pointing down at the street.

From far away, we contemplate

Three and one, one and three.

The soldiers leave in fear.

She arrives as every day,

Will enter that blackness

After they have scampered

Off to the right,

To the next house and the next.

She knows where she is.

Do I miscalculate to say

That she and her straw broom

make present the future,

Their rifles the dirty past

— Even though bullet-holes

Pockmark the open wooden door

And the house-front above?

This photograph shows that

One is a higher power than three.

– from Spaces and Lines


This is a poem rather difficult to comment on because it is based on a photograph (which I no longer have), no doubt taken in the early part of this century.  I found the photo compelling and needed to write about it.  The difficulty comes from the fact that the picture is fixed, objective, but, obviously, I had thoughts and feelings about it, making it subjective.  Upon reading it aloud to friends I became aware that the objective/subjective was far from clear.

The first line, “A photograph.  Consider.”  is intended to meet that problem with its verb.  Then, in the first two stanzas I attempted to describe (represent?) objectively the picture.  Following that, I generalize for two lines, emphasizing the numbers.  In the next stanza I enter the poem subjectively, imagining immediately futures for the four figures, then stating: “She knows where she is,” unlike the soldiers of occupation.  Then I ask if the contrast between her broom and their three rifles, she is in spirit stronger and braver that the soldiers.  Finally, I leap to a generalization – “One is a higher power than three”—based on my own subjectivity.

I suspect that this was written after the US invasion of Afghanistan and before the invasion of Iraq.  Russian’s invasion of Chechnya certainly provided a parallel.  Our own occupying forces have, over too much time, allowed us to see how ignorant and mindless armies can be.  Might they have without question, but to my mind that is as nothing compared with strength of spirit.

Karl Patten

In the Park, V-J Night

“Fuck me, honey, fuck me, please,” Shirley

Asked, more than squirming underneath me

In the park, drunk, as I was drunk, both

Celebrating, if getting drunk fast

Is what you do when a war ends, not aware

At all of what two atomic bombs had done

To Hiroshima, Nagasaki, strange names only

Headlines, bold.

I wanted to, but didn’t dare.

The whole town was dancing in that park, all

Drunk, too, but they still had eyes, and I

Still had my own eyes, so couldn’t, didn’t.

Shirley dropped me a week later, wouldn’t

Come to the phone.  I guessed it was because

Her boy-friend was coming home from the Navy.

But some of her lovely honey still sticks on me

Drips, saying I made a mistake in the park

That night, in the welcoming exulting August

Grass, green, furry, warm, as Shirley was,

Not yet know “we won the war” by dumping

Fast sizzling, printable death (with echoes

Sounding still) on places packed with people,

And so easily, almost casually,

as the loud folks

In the park would have glazed on Shirley

And me, a couple of kids, doing what we didn’t.

Nothing to see.

Shirley and I were as torrid

And young as those bombs, but their flash was aimed.

(8/15/45 – 2/1/94)

from Touch: Poems

Commentary: As with many of my poems, this one came from sleep.  I awoke one morning hearing the voice of the first line loud and clear, a voice I had not heard for nearly fifty years, but authentic, it was Shirley’s voice, indeed.  And it cast me back to what had happened (or didn’t) on August 15th, 1945.

And that made me need to recapture the whole meaning of what “we won the war” meant in its whole.  Kids like Shirley and me – and I think everyone else in the park regardless of age – did not know what those two atomic bombs had done, we couldn’t have.  Yet in time we realized what monstrous attacks had done in our name.  Guiltless, in one sense, we are all guilty, and that black hand on our shoulders insists that nothing like that should happen again.


When stout voices mutter

“Bayonets, bayonets,”

Narrower folk tremble.

A bullet, at least, kills

From a distance and makes

A clean penetration

In breast or skull, but

Bayonets will be close,

Next to next, like sex, thrust

In and twisted can disgorge

More guts and blood than

Anyone thought he contained.

This evening, the growl-snarl

Is “bayonets, bayonets,”

In the church sub-basement.

Eager to attack, sinews hard

After years of toughening,

They slip the long slim knives

Over the ends of their rifles,

Which they grip, sure, truth

Tightening, ready to go –

In which direction? Go where?

Karl Patten

From Touch: Poems

Commentary:  This poem was written several years ago when there was much talk – and evidence – of private militias of members of the radical right wing.   In fact, I interviewed at least one man who belonged to the Aryan Nation in the Lewisburg Penitentiary, and there were others there.   Now, apparently some members of the so-called “tea party” have similar ideas, e.g. nine men in Michigan who have been arrested for allegedly intending to kill policemen.  There is certainly much talk.

I decided to imagine such a group in our town here in the provinces where, unfortunately, “guns, guts and God” have a presence.  A church sub-basement seemed to be the correct habitat and the attitude a tough sense of “truth.” But the poem is optimistic, for I suspect such people are really confused, unsure of just what they want to do.  The form I chose, short, tight lines, seemed appropriate.


Dresden, Hisoshima, Nagasaki ???

 1945.  We know who decided –

 -cid is the “kill” root, as in homicide, suicide, genocide,

and too many other –cides –


but were these cities

new Sodoms and Gemorrahs?


Were any bargains made?

No, we know.


Abraham, pleading for people,

talked with God.


Abraham is dead.



from Spaces and Lines

by Karl Patten

 Commentary:  I think what struck off “We Know” was the fact that I know a survivor of the Dresden bombing, a young woman then, who told me in detail her horrible experiences – and my long-time guilt about the bombing of the Japanese cities.  Apart from Hitler’s Holocaust, the three greatest horrors of the World War II, and perpetrated by us, the “good guys”.  But the cid root played a part, too, turning the guilt directly on us.  But two cities had been destroyed in Genesis.  There, God destroyed them, but only after giving Abraham a chance to argue and save a few lives; our leaders didn’t think of asking God first or giving any warning, which shows his irrelevance in our time.  Perhaps the last line should be “God is dead.”  I suppose I did not shoose it to avoid sounding like Nietzshe.