previous poem table of contents featured poet


Patrick Lawler


Whole Poems

In Cambodia they have a thriving industry
in wheelchairs and artificial limbs.
Thousands of landmines are hidden
in pockets of earth
throughout the country—Claymores
and Chinese models.

In the ‘50s my father broke his back—
fell off a ladder while he was welding
at a chemical plant. For years
he had to wear a back brace and fight
a Workman’s Compensation case
he barely won.

If you walk in Cambodia, you are in danger.
The antipersonnel detonating devices.
The trip mechanisms. The booby traps.
The Soldier’s Manual of Common Tasks says:
“Install the Claymore facing the center
of mass of a kill zone.” The fragments spray
and rip and cut. With patient malice,
the mines wait for years,
thinking all the time their meaning
is undermined until finally
they exuberantly burst. The Chinese model
is propelled upward out of the ground
and reaches a level about the height
of a child’s face.

With his broken back, my father didn’t work
for years while my mother saved
Green Stamps and we lived in a cellar.
Instead of a house, we lived in a stump.
A cave with a flat tar paper roof.
With tiny rectangular windows—too far

above our heads, too small to let in any light.
Green Stamps like moss
grew all over the tables.

The ex-soldiers and farmers and mothers
and school children drag the lower parts
of their bodies like sacks
along the roads to Phnom Penh.

My father’s back brace looked like the rib cage
of a prehistoric reptile—like something
you’d find in a Spanish monastery
during the Inquisition.
I didn’t want to look at it.

There are two messages here:
whatever stays in the earth is dangerous
and whatever stays in the earth will save us.
And, of course, there’s something else.
In a lab in Massachusetts researchers
are growing human ears on the backs of mice.

Scientists grow the tissue by first creating
an ear-like scaffolding of porous,
biodegradable polyester fabric. Human
cartilage cells are placed throughout the form,
which is then implanted on the back of a
hairless mouse. I wonder

what would grow out of my father’s back.

I’ve always been aware I had a certain destiny.
Right now, I’m supposed to be in Cambodia,
making artificial limbs. I’d make elaborate
prosthetic devices. I’d gather gears and grease
and grinding things—levers and wheels.
I’d work with tubing, haywire, parts of a red
bonnet. I’d make limbs from small engines

and balsam and wax. I’d make windmills.
I’d work with putty and glue, with tintype
and spokes, guitar strings, and plastic.

I’d gather kindling and gourds—
the insides of clocks, tassels, colored ribbon.
I’d whittle crutches into ships.
I’d gather things that sparked
when they rubbed together. I’d take out
the thin insides of pens for veins.

What I want is delicate machinery to carry
pain. What I want are carousels
for fingers, music boxes for hands.

I say: Rise. Get up. Please, walk now.

But my father digs his way down into
his house, and my mother dreams of birds,
collecting them in books. And me?

Whole legs grow out the backs of mice.
Whole poems rip out the back of my father.