Grandpa's War: An Anthem by Cortney Lamar Charleston


To hear voices in the hollow of a spent shell casing, or salute a
spine at half-mast, or put on the uniform that is my family
name: whichever it is, I’m sitting at this kitchen table, talking
to my father’s father. His tongue tends to get stuck on the
same stories like the trigger of a jammed carbine, coughing on
things that should’ve passed through like the shape of a life
through wall, but no. His stories bleed together: comrades
fallen in a field far from home. I have their dog tags in pocket,
but I play audience anyway. With every exchange, he explains
that he’s inching closer to the grave, and I suppose a solider
thinks in no other way; the last step is freshest in the dirt,
and since I grew old enough to read the writings on the wall, our
relationship has been his feet coming clean to me: clear water.


              See, Grandpa was with the Signal Corps in France. Came back
              another black veteran with his signals crossed, says the word
              nigger as if he believes they actually existed. I’m confident he
              can use a gun. Used to wonder if he ever killed someone in a
              name that wasn’t his own. Never asked him. Eventually found
              out he pointed the barrel in that direction, and felt my
              curiosity cool, as willingness is the only gunpowder any man
              ever need. He tells me he felt threatened, so he returned a
              threat in-kind. Black men then didn’t have the luxury of moral
              absolutes. Bravado had to be his bread when broke was
              brother in barrack. The army was segregated just like
              everything else was, and he never forgets to mention it. And I
              know Grandpa will deny belief in specters, but I’ve spectated
              his fists form as fully as thoughts of revenge inside empty
              rooms. Those knuckles can still feel the cheekbone of his
              commanding officer; I wonder if it feels like justice or simply
              feels just. After all, pride predates honor and I’m not sure on
              which side of the latter he was born. I know Mississippi
              molded him like red river clay, that he knows no fear in
              fighting, that he has only flinched twice in his lifetime. The
              first time was Margie, my grandmother. The second was
              fatherhood. I know he drove a truck for his livelihood, that he
              owned it himself, that his wife delivered ten children while he
              made deliveries, and I know he softens whenever we meet
              eyes, so maybe, after all this time, he’s finally letting go of all
              the bones to pick, toothpick still dangling on his lip like a cuss.

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Contributor Notes

Cortney Lamar Charleston lives in Jersey City, NJ. He is an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania’s performance poetry collective, The Excelano Project, and a founder of BLACK PANTONE, an inclusive digital cataloging of black identity. His poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Rattle, Beloit Poetry Journal, Eleven Eleven, Folio, The Normal School, Chiron Review, J Journal, Storyscape Journal, Winter Tangerine Review, CURA: A Literary Magazine of Art & Action and elsewhere. He has received nominations for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.