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poetry And Counting

On February 28 2016, Delmer Berg of northern California died. He was last known veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade--the 2800 American volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War. Here is a tribute for them all.

And Counting  

                                                Delmer Berg


On the first day, Charlie Edwards peeked

over the hill at Jarama, a shot pierced his eye—

Pennsylvania, all anyone knew about Edwards

and he should have kept his head down,

notorious Number One.


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Uncounted, they fell in olive groves,

in the dry earth of the Aragon,

shell fragments knifed the rabbi’s son,

audacious Wally Burton dueled a marksman

from the other side—and fell.

Surrender raised the score: a Queens boy

saw a fascist slap a prisoner, stood up to help,

got pistoled in the head; two painters

from Greenwich Village for months carried

Goya’s Disasters of War, collapsed under

an olive tree, names added to 800 dead.

Fifteen hundred returned with nightmares,

the wounded Brannan gulped the oven’s gas,

Nurse Hannah jumped off a tenement roof.

The next war gave 24 more their years to sleep

in Normandy, Luzon, India, New Guinea.  

Most lived to propagate, became carpenters,

electricians, typesetters, screenwriters, anthropologists,

longshoremen, engineers, agitators, atomic spies,

social workers, florists. The two best poets died

before they were 50; the gay Finn guerrilla

drank to death after a fling with an English laureate.

Later, you name it, someone had it. McLeod a slow

melanoma, Lucid his heart, George the prostate,

Sam dementia. The pancreas caught Moe at 91.

He’d kept the living names on a crossed-off list  

that tallied 39, falling fast. Jack the Kid was 90.  

When one dies, I ask Milt, do you feel worse

or better? A puzzled face, then joy, saying Sure!

Abe smirks the same, then trips off a step, never

gets up. Dave mutters yes, much better. Each

wants to be last until Del Berg stands alone.



First Sunday every other month, potluck meetings

moved like rusty clockwork for sixty years,

agendas intently argued, raucous, felt like

going to church to youngsters who heard

sermonizing adults dispute the class struggle.

One daughter remembered being summoned

by her school principal, demanding to know

if her folks were Reds. She was 8, replied with

precocious poise: I refuse to tell the answer.

The fathers, veterans of the Spanish Civil War,

loomed as heroes, premature anti-fascists

as they were denounced by the tardy ones.

Many basked in their presence, some resented

their self-importance. They had reason for pride.

In the war against Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco,

what they gave was undeniable, proven by scars

and missing limbs, these the lucky ones who

came home, but disagreements lay close

to the skin, splits as to Stalin, Khrushchev,

the Party, not to say Cuba, Vietnam, Israel.

About Spain they expressed no qualms, loved

to visit Madrid, reunion parties thrown by aged

comrades. Their glamour seemed amazing, men

with limps and canes, adored by Iberian beauties,

toasted by multitudes with paella, brandy, song.

The slender ones, more fluid on their feet, lived

longer, their spirit mixed with jealousy, old men

competing for attention. Their ages rose, numbers

fell. Delmer Berg, deaf as a doornail, reached

100, a thin man, good-hearted, sincere. He liked 

the final fuss, last of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.


Peter Neil Carroll is Chair Emeritus of the ALBA, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives and the author of Fracking Dakota: Poems for a Wounded Land (Turning Point Press, 2015). He is Portside’s Poetry Moderator.

Portions of this poem first appeared in Multicultural Echoes (Spring 2015).