Louise Driscoll

(1875-1957 / United States)

The Metal Checks - Poem by Louise Driscoll

The Bearer

Here is a sack, a gunny sack,
A heavy sack I bring.
Here is toll of many a soul --
But not the soul of a king.

This is the toll of common men,
Who lived in the common way;
Lived upon bread and wine and love,
In the light of the common day.

This is the toll of working men,
Blood and brawn and brain.
Who shall render us again
The worth of all the slain?

The Counter

Pour them out on the table here.
C l i c k e t y - c l i c k e t y - c l a c k !
For every button a man went out,
And who shall call him back?
C l i c k e t y - c l i c k e t y - c l a c k !

One -- two -- three -- four --
Every disk a soul!
Three score -- four score --
So many boys went out to war.
Pick up that one that fell on the floor --
Didn't you see it roll?
That was a man a month ago.
This was a man. Row upon row --
Pile them in tens and count them so.

The Bearer

I have an empty sack.
It is not large. Would you have said
That I could carry on my back
So great an army -- and all dead?

The Counter

Put a hundred in each tray --
We can tally them best that way.
Careful -- do you understand
You have ten men in your hand?
There's another fallen -- there --
Under that chair.

That was a man a month ago;
He could see and feel and know.
Then, into his throat there sped
A bit of lead.
Blood was salt in his mouth; he fell
And lay amid the battle wreck.
Nothing was left but this metal check --
And a wife and child, perhaps.

The Bearer

What can one do with a thing like this?
Neither of life nor death it is!
For the dead serve not, though it served the dead.
The wounds it carried were wide and red,
Yet they stained it not. Can a man put food,
Potatoes or wheat, or even wood
That is kind and burns with a flame to warm
Living men who are comforted --
In a thing that has served so many dead?
There is no thrift in a graveyard dress,
It's been shroud for too many men.
I'll burn it and let the dead bless.

Would not the blood of these make a great sea
For men to sail their ships on? It may be
No fish would swim in it, and the foul smell
Would make the sailors sick. Perhaps in Hell
There's some such lake for men who rush to war
Prating of glory, and upon the shore
Will stand the wives and children and old men
Bereft, to drive them back again
When they seek haven. Some such thing
I thought the while I bore it on my back
And heard the metal pieces clattering.

The Counter

Four score -- five score --
These and many more.
Forward -- march! -- into the tray!
No bugles blow to-day,
No captains lead the way;
But mothers and wives,
Fathers, sisters, little sons,
Count the cost
Of the lost;
And we count the unlived lives,
The forever unborn ones
Who might have been your sons.

The Bearer

Could not the hands of these rebuild
That which has been destroyed?
Oh, the poor hands! that once were strong and filled
With implements of labor whereby they
Served home and country through the peaceful day.
When those who made the war stand face to face
With these slain soldiers in that unknown place
Whither the dead go, what will be the word
By dead lips spoken and by dead ears heard?
Will souls say King or Kaiser? Will souls prate
Of earthly glory in that new estate?

The Counter

One hundred thousand --
One hundred and fifty thousand --
Two hundred --

The Bearer

Can this check plough?
Can it sow? can it reap?
Can we arouse it?
Is it asleep?

Can it hear when a child cries? --
Comfort a wife?
This little metal disk
Stands for a life.

Can this check build,
Laying stone upon stone?
Once it was warm flesh
Folded on bone.

Sinew and muscle firm,
Look at it -- can
This little metal check
Stand for a man?

The Counter

One -- two -- three -- four --

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Poem Submitted: Wednesday, April 21, 2010

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