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By Thomas McGrath


God love you now, if no one else will ever,

Corpse in the paddy, or dead on a high hill

In the fine and ruinous summer of a war

You never wanted. All your false flags were

Of bravery and ignorance, like grade school maps:

Colors of countries you would never see—

Until that weekend in eternity

When, laughing, well armed, perfectly ready to kill

The world and your brother, the safe commanders sent

You into your future. Oh, dead on a hill,

Dead in a paddy, leeched and tumbled to

A tomb of footnotes. We mourn a changeling: you:

Handselled to poverty and drummed to war

By distinguished masters whom you never knew.


The bee that spins his metal from the sun,

The shy mole drifting like a miner ghost

Through midnight earth—all happy creatures run

As strict as trains on rails the circuits of

Blind instinct. Happy in your summer follies,

You mined a culture that was mined for war:

The state to mold you, church to bless, and always

The elders to confirm you in your ignorance.

No scholar put your thinking cap on nor

Warned that in dead seas fishes died in schools

Before inventing legs to walk the land.

The rulers stuck a tennis racket in your hand,

An Ark against the flood. In time of change

Courage is not enough: the blind mole dies,

And you on your hill, who did not know the rules.


Wet in the windy counties of the dawn

The lone crow skirls his draggled passage home:

And God (whose sparrows fall aslant his gaze,

Like grace or confetti) blinks and he is gone,

And you are gone. Your scarecrow valor grows

And rusts like early lilac while the rose

Blooms in Dakota and the stock exchange

Flowers. Roses, rents, all things conspire

To crown your death with wreaths of living fire.

And the public mourners come: the politic tear

Is cast in the Forum. But, in another year,

We will mourn you, whose fossil courage fills

The limestone histories: brave: ignorant: amazed:

Dead in the rice paddies, dead on the nameless hills.

Thomas McGrath, “Ode for the American Dead in Asia” from Selected Poems 1938-1998. Copyright © 1988 by Thomas McGrath. Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press.

Source: Selected Poems 1938-1998 (Copper Canyon Press, 1988)

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Poet Bio

Thomas McGrath
Thomas McGrath was born in Sheldon, North Dakota. He was educated at the University of North Dakota and Louisiana State University, as well as Oxford, where he was a a Rhodes Scholar.  McGrath also wrote over twenty documentary film scripts.  See More By This Poet

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