Verse > Anthologies > Harriet Monroe, ed. > Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, 1912–22
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Harriet Monroe, ed. (1860–1936).  Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.  1912–22.
 
The Metal Checks
By Louise Driscoll
 
  [The scene is a bare room, with two shaded windows at the back, and a fireplace between them with a fire burning low. The room contains a few plain chairs, and a rough wooden table on which are piled many small wooden trays. The Counter, who is Death, sits at the table. He wears a loose gray robe, and his face is partly concealed by a gray veil. He does not look at The Bearer, but work mechanically and speaks in a monotonous tone. The Bearer is the World, that bears the burden of War. He wears a soiled robe of brown and green and he carries on his back a gunny-bag filled with the little metal disks that have been used for six identification of the slain common soldiers.]

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,        5
      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.        10
    Who shall render us again
      The worth of all the slain?

  [As The Counter speaks, The Bearer pours out the disks on the table. The Bearer obeys The Counter.]
 
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,        15
    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—        20
    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—        25
    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?

  [As The Counter speaks The Bearer lays the sack over his arm and helps count.]
        30
 
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—        35
    Under that chair.

  [The Bearer finds it and restores it.]
 
    That was a man a month ago;
    He could see and feel and know.
    Then, into his throat there sped
    A bit of lead.        40
    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 finds the bag on his arm troublesome. He holds it up, inspecting it.]
 
The Bearer
    What can one do with a thing like this?
        45
    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        50
    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.        55
    I’ll burn it and let the dead bless.

  [He crosses himself and throws it into the fire. He watches it burn. The Counter continues to pile up the metal checks, and drop them by hundreds into the trays which he piles one upon another. The Bearer turns from the fire and speaks more slowly than he has before. He indicates the metal checks.]
 
    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        60
    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        65
    I thought the while I bore it on my back
    And heard the metal pieces clattering.
 
The Counter
    Four score—five score—
    These and as many more.
    Forward—march!—into the tray!        70
    No bugles blow today,
    No captains lead the way;
    But mothers and wives,
    Fathers, sisters, little sons,
    Count the cost        75
    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
        80
    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        85
    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?        90
 
The Counter
    One hundred thousand—
    One hundred and fifty thousand—
    Two hundred—
 
The Bearer
    Can this check plough?
      Can it sow? can it reap?        95
    Can we arouse it?
      Is it asleep?
 
    Can it hear when a child cries?—
      Comfort a wife?
    This little metal disk        100
      Stands for a life.
 
    Can this check build,
      Laying stone upon stone?
    Once it was warm flesh
      Folded on bone.        105
 
    Sinew and muscle firm,
      Look at it—can
    This little metal check
      Stand for a man?
 
The Counter
    One—two—three—four—
        110
 
 
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