By: John Heacock
Spine fused to the chairback, wedged in a walled corner
side-eyeing parking lot patrons through plate-glass windows
paper promo tents for strawberry pie and Christmas
Shoney Bears aligned in wedge formation
across a Formica battlefield.
Salt and pepper shakers occupy dead space
napkin holder marks the left limit of my field of fire
glass of ice water w/ lemon is the right.
The 10% discount is a nice gesture
maybe even sincere
but it forces me to retrieve a faded ID card
lamination frayed on the corners
and I wince at the tanned face and laughing eyes of a stranger.
Toast pops up
a hot mortar out of the tube
I flinch but don’t cower—the kids are here
for fuck’s sake.
They stare not at
but through my arm
butter knife clenched in white-knuckled hand
red-berried jam drips down
a steel-blue blade.
I ignore their eyes and drive on:
finish making the PB&Js
screw the lids on tight
wipe down the counter
and toss the rag in the trash.
Sore from ten hours chasing Zees, faux-velvet curtains
welded to walls by hundred-mile-an-hour tape
a spear of furtive sunrise slices
through a thin linen gap and glides
dead center—piercing my retinas
as it bounces off the square-cut base of a Jack bottle.
A swig and a spit and
try to remember your training
center the front sight post in your rear site
identify the target, maintain breath control
feel the cool steel trigger
let the fleshy ball of the index finger caress it
so smooth and gentle, the shot should come as a surprise
get behind cover and lay down suppressive fire.
Slow is smooth and
smooth is fast.
Move in three-second rushes and count each second:
Count the three seconds:
Count the three seconds:
An attorney and veteran of two tours in Iraq, JW Heacock retired from the military, earned a Masters in English, and left law to write full-time. In October 2019, JW was the NPAF Artist-in-Residence at Gettysburg National Military Park and began writing 'Freeing Gettysburg's Ghosts,' a hybrid of short fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry addressing the legacy and mythology of the Civil War. JW’s poems and stories have appeared in Beyond Words, The Esthetic Apostle, GRIFFEL, Kestrel, Lucky Jefferson, the Fredericksburg Literary and Arts Review, and The Write Launch, and "'December Sand"' was a finalist for the Iowa Review's Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award.
"Every form of PTSD arises from the disconnect between a survival strategy or defense mechanism that made sense in one context but is destructive in another. A hyper-awareness bordering on paranoia has kept infantrymen alive from the Somme to the Herat Valley, but their being unable to turn off such hair-trigger reflexes in peacetime erodes mind, body, and soul. I wanted to explore this paradox in my poem, in the context of returned veterans whose wartime experiences bleed into their everyday life..
Whenever I write about military experiences, I’m hyper-aware that today’s soldier-citizen divide means the better my words connect with the former, the latter is even more confused. Veterans literally speak another language, using certain terms and phrases almost as a challenge and password for entry in the brotherhood. This problem is most acute in poetry, where each word must have weight and purpose, so I have to walk a tightrope between using enough lingo to establish my vet cred but without alienating a broader audience.
In this poem, I kind of gave up on achieving that accessibility, and I used phrases, meter, and even imagery that soldiers will immediately recognize but will likely elude civilian readers. The four-sonnet structure imposes a formal rigidity to the poem akin to the military’s hierarchy, but the variations in stanza (5-3-6, 4-5-5, 6-2-2-3-1 and 2-4-4-4-4) signifies both the veteran’s struggle to break free of that discipline, as well as his worsening emotional disintegration.
The first sonnet uses the imagery of a defensive perimeter where each soldier delineates their weapon’s range of fire, emphasizing that he feels surrounded by an invisible enemy. The second sonnet focuses on the shame of needing help, especially in view of how society often lionizes veterans, symbolized by the red, white and blue color scheme. The third sonnet depicts the soldier’s descent into depression and seclusion, even as he recalls the lessons of self-control learned on the firing range, which supplies a possible means of escape, as well as self-destruction. In the final sonnet, the soldier has morphed back into an infantryman moving against an attacking enemy, using three-second rushes to avoid exposing himself for too long. Those techniques have been seared into muscle memory by hours of repetition, but as the last line reveals, ultimately cannot save this soldier."