[a poem by ~burning woman~ ]
A strange old man, a very ancient figure,
that’s who he was,
who he is,
who he will always be.
A man of many titles in as many times:
poor Bill, mendicant, beggar and tramp.
panhandler, good-for-nothing loafer,
deadbeat, vagrant, hobo, gypsy
and in more recent times,
a welfare bum.
Sometimes this strange man
whom everybody sees, nobody knows
comes back from the sea,
sometimes from the wars or prison:
no one comes to the quay
or the bus stop to meet him
and to hug him.
carrying a damp and dirty canvas bag
he limps down some dark alley
to find a familiar den,
a smoke-filled tavern, an inn.
a halfway house.
For a few coins, a room under a stairway
a garret with drafty shutters,
a condemned house
become his home ’til the angels come
or the demons, and who can ever tell?
Sometimes he just gets tired of jostling
for position and wealth – leaves one night
never to come back. Why for?
His wife re-married, does he care?
Who’s to know? Not even he
wandering the drafty city streets
with his new title and essential wealth.
He’s a successful miner now,
mining garbage for treasures
haphazardly arranged in a rusty shopping cart
(of front squeaky bent wheel
from an accidental encounter with a taxi)
until deposited for safekeeping.
They call him homeless now, the
politically correct term
for this strange old man who never did fit,
who in his youth had a strong back
to break up the coal, carry gear and pack a rifle
walk through flooded paddies
and burn babies in their mothers’ arms
inside grass huts in a land so far away.
He knew well enough then why he did this:
for God and country and freedom
they’d told him so and he believed.
He came back from the killing fields
to log the dark green hills
until the trees were gone.
He cleaned out curbs and culverts
for a pittance in part time jobs
to bolster free enterprise and capitalism.
“It’s all good” they said with a leer
and what could he do but believe?
He doesn’t remember much of that
and really, what does it matter now?
the rich got richer and died,
the dead remain dead
and he’s got his place
behind four loosened cement bricks
under a forgotten embankment
where he hides his “Precious”
and keeps a mouldy sleeping bag,
drinks, sleeps and feeds his nightmares
of bullets and blood,
of flames that roast flesh,
of screams of pain and terror:
the voices of the dead
his last remaining friends.
It’s time to work the streets again,
push the rusty cart with the squeaky bent wheel
until the angels return again
or the demons, and who’s to know?
He’ll be there again tomorrow
and the day after that
and even after the Great Day
there he will be in his dirty tattered rags
his long stringy hair blowing wildly
in the cold, cold winds that haunt
the endless dirty, drafty, empty city streets
What will his title be
next time I pass him by trying not to notice?
I think I already know this, in my heart
as I look around and ponder this place:
he’ll be the survivor.