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Walt McDonald


Grandmother's House at Kitty Hawk

No one old strolls by. Wind blows
and tides roll wide across the dunes.
Miles of condos dare the hurricanes,
homes that tumble down like sand.
Couples holding hands hike by, widows,
families with dogs. Puff clouds

miles away could be gunfire, and were
when U-Boats sank freighters in 1942.
As a boy in World War II, I skipped flat rocks
on ponds, nothing else for boys to do,
big brothers shipping out, mothers
biting their lips, our fathers looking off

and coughing. Out past the Outer Banks,
four centuries of ships went down, hundreds
of masts and hulls reduced to scuba brochures.
And still they sink, trawlers hull-deep
in troughs, freighters from Singapore
and Spain, trusting lighthouse and sonar.

Grandfather fished for flounder, croaker, drum,
his beachfront house no bigger than the shack
the Wright boys hung hammocks in at Kitty Hawk.
Grandmother heard a clatter of pistons, but guessed
it was only their glider crashing again,
and didn't watch. She huddled at night in the cold,

December wind so loud she heard the devil at the door,
ripping the roof. Storms made her fear flying
forever. She grieved for me in pilot training,
hanging a Gold Star already in her heart.
She believed I'd crash, cursed wild Ohio boys
who tinkered with wings and rudders, nothing safe

at Kill Devil Hills, not even the water
Grandfather fished, his rod bent double with mullet,
supper for children forever hungry. All year,
he brought home oysters and sea trout, conchs
and starfish as toys, until the sudden December storm
when his trawler and a dozen other boats went down.

Originally published in New Letters.


Turning Sixty Five at Galveston

What swallows shadows down like sand
is back, black hole of doubt
sapping energy at sundown,
even light. Wishes, boasts

and begging disappear, the worst hurricane
like old times long forgotten—
even mud, the rumble of thunder.
Talk hope of progress and spoil it.

The fact is, worlds collide,
stars fall and iron hulls rust,
junkyards stacked with chassis
of Cadillacs like dinosaurs,

offshore oil wells almost depleted,
time for crushing ferns and bones,
ooze to make the oil for engines
millions of years from now.


August on Padre Island

Wading beaches our children combed
decades ago, we leave the tracks we can.
A starfish gathers nothing it can hold

for all its arms, and jellyfish sprawl
like gaudy, flattened balloons.
Who would believe sandcastles were here,

protecting Barbie dolls from pirates
along these dunes: our children
marked the spot, but even they

can't find it, footprints washed away
by curled, obsessive waves insisting
smooth sand is the best. The beach is rich

with driftwood, shells we collect like clocks.
Out there on rubber rafts, our children
ride the waves with their babies

as we did decades ago, the Gulf sun
burning the haze of old horizons.
It all comes back, the shells,

a bone-smooth tree, a beached canoe.
Tomorrow, they'll drive a thousand miles
to their jobs, travelers we can't rescue.

For decades, we'll stroll the coast,
hoping for good news corked in bottles,
Dear ones, hello, we're safely home.

Originally published in Outerbridge.


Walt McDonald was a U.S. Air Force pilot, taught at the Air Force Academy, and was the Texas Poet Laureate for 2001. His recent books include All Occasions (University of Notre Dame Press, 2000); Blessings the Body Gave and The Flying Dutchman (Ohio State University Press, 1998 and 1987), Counting Survivors (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995), Night Landings (Harper & Row, 1989), and After the Noise of Saigon (University of Massachusetts Press, 1988). His poems have also appeared in such journals as The Atlantic Monthly, JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), The Nation, Orion, and Poetry.
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