Thursday, October 30, 2014


Tom Sheehan

Tom Sheehan writes in two genres:  template Westerns and poetic encomium.  You could say he's two-fisted.  He writes novels as well, but those are long guns.

The short stories are mostly on  The template is Fifties TV series lasting 45 minutes. The main character is going along.  He is observant, resourceful, and responds to need.  Something unjust happens.  After considerable trouble, possibly the use of weapons, the hero restores order.  The language is old-fashioned, frontier style, and full of poetry disguised as exaggerated folk metaphors.  Very often a boy is involved.  The setting is an integrated virtual world, coherent and derived from (mostly) reading or movies -- entirely believable in terms of the story.  It's like an excellent pocket watch that circumscribes a virtual world, then takes the back off to show the springs and cogs moving the plot along.  We know what will happen, but not quite how, so the puzzle proceeds.

As an example, I’ll just discuss the latest short story, though they all meet the same criteria.  “Chase Holman” is a boy who makes miniature lead soldiers.  He’s kidnapped and the narrator, a trapper named Edward Joseph Dundeen (“Edjo”) who is a Highlander and therefore a moral man, accidentally passes the kidnappers and their victim on his way to “Juice Slattery’s” place to sell the furs on his packstring of mules.  He says, “Juice’d buy a bucket of old grease from me. . .”  But he doesn't realize he saw a kidnapping.

When he gets to town, he learns about the crime. For the mother’s sake (Grace, wearing yellow, who fainted on learning of it so that she was lying there on her back with “them big yellow you-know-whats prouder’n any mountains we ever knowed."  She's elegant and gracious, maybe like Grace Kelly.)  For her sake as well as the generous reward, Edjo sets out to retrieve the boy.  That boy, even when rolled up in a rug and draped over a horse, had the presence of mind to drop one little lead soldier at a time for clues, each little soldier with a personality and role of its own so they become characters in the story.  At the end point, he drops two together outside the hideout of the kidnappers.  The subtext of the story -- which like all Tom's stories creates a virtual world complete in itself -- is the lead soldiers creating a strategy of miniature not-quite-scouts, a virtual world inside the author's world.

Edjo’s mind is on pie.  He says the boy will be back “in his Mom’s kitchen in a matter of hours, having three-minute eggs or a day-long soup off the back end of her stove, sure as shooting.”  Just before the shooting begins, the boy pretends to drop one last little figure and kneels to pick it up, giving Edjo a clear shot at the bad guys. “It was sweet and smooth as eating lemon meringue pie.”

Maybe the best way to explain the poems is to just include one:

The Tom Sheehan Family

(For my father, blind too early.)

The night we listened to an Oglala
life on records, and shadows remembered
their routes up the railed stairway like
a prairie presence, I stood at your bed

counting the days you had conquered.
The bottlecap moon clattered into your
room in vagrant pieces . . . jagged blades
needing strop or wheel for stabbing.

great spearhead chips pale in falling,
necks of smashed jars rasbora bright,
thin flaked edges tossing off the sun.
Under burden of the dread collection,

you sighed and turned in quilted repose
and rolled your hand in mine, searching
for lighting only found in your memory.
In moon’s toss I saw the network of your

brain struggling for my face the way you
last saw it, a piece of light falling under
the hooves of a thousand horse ponies,
night campsites riding upward in flames,

the skyline coming legendary.  is one place to find “Born to Wear the Rags of War” -- difficult to find a better poem for Memorial Day.  It is printed as prose, but is surely poetry celebrating companions -- more than that -- blood brothers in the Korean War, each wearing the rags of war as they rest together where their various "fathers’ sperm has flung them" to defend a motley but beloved nation.  All Souls Day is November 2.  is the location of more poems and insightful comment on them by Laurel Johnson of the Midwest Book Review.  Tom’s dignity, bonded friendships, grand sweep of history interacting with geology, love of strategy, and homely metaphors are appreciated by women in a way that other war poetry is not.  He has a classical mind, tenderly marching through the generations, seeing that he is a link between his father and his sons.

And then there’s this:

“A few years ago we borrowed $60K from a local bank to print a book not yet written. Ten pals each signed a $6k note. It was a book about our hometown, how we wanted to keep what was escaping us, the memories, the fragile memories. We paid the bank off in five months. We sold 2500 copies at $42 each and have a self-sustaining account for scholarships for Saugus High School students. Four kids have been helped in college. It's the John Burns Millennium Book Associates Scholarship. John is 89 years old and was coeditor with me; he was an English teacher in the Saugus school system for 63 years and I know hundreds of people who say he was the best teacher they had at any level. And we wanted to keep our memories intact. The book was called, A Gathering of Memories, Saugus 1900-2000 .”

This is a way of life that has somehow slipped away, or maybe it’s just that our attention has been diverted by school shootings and football players who are rapists.  People in this Saugus life have histories that go way back, know the big sweeping foundational literary works that Europeans and Americans used to share with pride, and use their rather abundant personal resources to celebrate their heroes.  

But I snapped at Tom when he sent more poems, signing off with the advice to “enjoy.”  “Enjoy” is for pie.  This work is not bakery goods: not sweet, not consumable, not for easy praise, though he admits he’s a “praise eater” who hopes to be told it’s good work and will even go out of his way to find someone (like me) who thinks heroes are good, old friends are a worthy subject, and Massachusetts is a place to live and celebrate.  They make movies about such lives with grand old actors -- Paul Newman or Clint Eastwood -- playing the lead but they are never supposed to be poets.  Thirty-five years at Raytheon Corporation as a writer and analyst” with occasional forays into the wild world of the West or even his family roots in Ireland is a life I can’t even imagine.    Well, I can -- but I imagined it was gone since we're long since past the Fifties.  My hopscotch jobs and aborted careers don’t add up to anything vaguely like Tom’s world, but somehow we meet in print and in an appreciation of this tumbling, story-generating planet.  It’s not a matter of enjoyment because sometimes it’s a racking pain nearly unsurvivable.  Tom doesn’t deny that, meets it with dignity, family, and fine words.  That's praiseworthy.  But would Robert Frost say, "Enjoy?"

Saugus, Massachussetts

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