Vox Populi

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Edward Harkness: My Father’s Uncles Doing Time

Their sorry, sorry asses. Bad year, 1929.

Neither one is yet 30 in the grim prison photos

I received from the state archives.

Dull-eyed, sullen—greasy dark hair on one,

fair strands drape the forehead of the other,

both faces aged and lined from the morphine

they couldn’t get out of their systems.

Bad year, 1917, the Great War winding down,

but not the “soldier’s disease,”

nor the Spanish Flu pandemic to follow.

Fifty million swept off all across

the sorry, sorry earth. Bad year, 1918.

Their mother wrote to the governor—

her penciled words will bring tears

to your eyes, as they did the governor’s.

Sir, my boys are sick. Prison

will kill them first, and I will follow.

Sir, I’m on my knees. He signed the pardon

and they walked. Too late. They were yo-yos,

in and out and in, addle-brained by dope.

One taught himself leathercraft inside:

studded belts, purses, holsters—

tooled with acorns, oak leaves, roses

you can smell. On the billfold

in my back pocket is the carved head

of a horse so fine you want to reach out,

let it bat its eyes and nuzzle your hand.

Morphine and time did its work on them.

Dad once took me to a hospital where

Sweetie—that was his name, Sweetie—

younger of the two, lay dying. Gray faced,

eyes hollowed, he turned to me, smiled,

did not or could not speak. Somehow,

there by his bed, he managed to lift one hand.

I still feel his cool fingers on my wrist.

I’d never seen needle tracks. There they were,

mapped along his splotchy arms.

Seeing Sweetie that day, I learned a lesson

about cruelty, how it peers over the top of a trench,

waits for you across the cratered expanse

of no-man’s land, takes aim and fires,

not to kill, but to disfigure, maim.

You’re never the same. You find ways

to hide the scars. It’s a losing proposition.

I grieve for their sorry, sorry asses.

for the sickness that swallowed them,

for the wounds that left them lame

all the days of their sorry, sorry lives.

Copyright 2022 Edward Harkness

The Law of the Unforeseen, Edward Harkness’ third full-length collection of poems (released September 2018) is available at Pleasure Boat Studio. He lives with his wife, Linda, in Shoreline, Washington. 

Author’s note:

I’m back home in Shoreline, WA, and I’ve attached one of many mugshots of my uncle […] Harkness (b. Iowa, 1897), this one dating from 1931. He and his younger brother, […], became morphine addicts during the Spanish Flu Epidemic. For the rest of their lives, they committed petty crimes to support their habits, as my poem details. Of course I’ve fictionalized certain details in the poem (including the name “Sweetie,”  but some details are, alas, true. After countless arrests, the pair were sentenced to life imprisonment for being habitual criminals (early charges included being “jointists,” or operators of a “joint” or speak-easy during Prohibition). Their mother, my great-grandmother, Bertha Harkness, did in fact write a letter to the Washington governor pleading for leniency, And in fact the governor granted both brothers a pardon after they’d spent years behind bars.

I seriously wavered about sending you this picture. These two brothers brought huge shame to my father’s father, Ryle Harkness, the only one of the three brothers to go straight. Dad remembers when he was in junior high and seeing a headline in the Bremerton Sun newspaper that read something like “HARKNESS BROTHERS ARRESTED AGAIN.” And I still have living relatives who might not be so happy knowing I’ve given you permission to post this photo. I do it on the grounds that this picture and others are public documents and can be viewed by anyone who searches their names on the Washington State Archives – Digital Archives. 

8 comments on “Edward Harkness: My Father’s Uncles Doing Time

  1. Lex Runciman
    July 24, 2022

    This poem is as marvelous as it is sad. It’s a memorial, in its own way, not just to the Harkness brothers, but to all the nameless like them – the survivors and the maimed. As for the photo, it looks almost contemporary; it brings the history home.


    • Vox Populi
      July 24, 2022

      Yes, the poem is a testimonial to the unnamed soldiers who died from psychic injuries after they returned home.



  2. janfalls
    July 23, 2022

    You honour your uncles who were less criminals than victims of addiction. I hope your family who felt shame can find compassion in your poetic rendition of their lives.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. vazambampoetry
    July 22, 2022

    Disturbingly honest, excellently written poem.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. loranneke
    July 21, 2022

    What a poem — and such command of tone. Feels like it has been written without interruption — what a powerful poem! It’s one of those poems that — as you read them, you **hear** the speaker’s voice although you’ve never heard him before…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      July 22, 2022

      Thanks, Laure-Anne. I like this poem because it is succinct testimony of the way the destruction of war echoes through the generations. The poet’s uncles sound much like some of the men I’ve known returning from Vietnam or Iraq.


      Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on July 21, 2022 by in Poetry, Social Justice and tagged , , , , , , .

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