MY FATHER’S DOG TAGS
By Billy Malanga
My Father’s Dog Tags
The name on my father’s brass dog tags
doesn’t match his driver’s license.
The gunfire caves filled with burning flesh
and bloodshot south Pacific surf
had taken its toll. He returned home
with the smell of death on his breath.
His head was heavy like Carrera marble.
He dulled the war and his absent father
with bourbon, as pedestrian nights moved on.
My family seemed to be in love with suffering.
He needed a reincarnation, a sanitization,
something imperious like an Anglicized
shadow, to send the flamboyant flamingo
flying from his mouth.
He changed his last name from Malanga
to Marshall when he married my mother
on the other side of the track.
I am jackass William Marshall.
I am also artistic Billy Malanga, who has
been riding him for 55 years now.
Jackass William is a trigger. My father
poured gunpowder down my throat
and stamped the name Marshall into
my soul with his fists.
I began questioning my character
when I entered the middle section
of my hourglass. Billy caresses corn silk
like the hair of an angel. Billy sees autumn
leaves as red and gold wrappers drifting
like flyers into summer’s wreckage.
My internal revolt endures.
I graduated from college with a chip
on my shoulder, after injuries ruined my
senior season. Soon after, I remember
us in the kitchen during Spring break,
his eyes fixed and glossy black like
Sardinian olives. He was drying a large
kitchen knife, he was pissed off at everything.
He said, “don’t go to sleep tonight.”
The time had come for me to leave the
For years the jackass stood rider-less.
My father didn’t know what I did
for a living only that my title was good
enough for his cocktail hour.
His stories about the war and his absent
father never mentioned ethnic inferiority.
His cultural baggage linked to Mussolini,
his dark eyes and darker greasy skin,
to parents whose strange tongues couldn’t
wrap around English syllables.
Italian immigrants were being lynched,
the wine was bitter.
My father’s gritty assimilation is part of me.
Perhaps there are things we keep inside
of us that end up silently darkening
the earth, until that unimaginable hour
when daylight ascends.
Today, I wear my father’s brass dog tags
around my neck, a symbol of his
underclass renovation and my grief
that he never found his way home.
My head tilts up to the throne with eyes closed
as I wait for the demon king to touch my chin.
I swallow a burning swill of whiskey, a neat
wet sword from a swan necked still.
It stains my brain like full grain leather and
slowly slices my throat.
It releases a metallic blue Indian peacock, with eyes
of spotted plumage from deep inside my soul.
He tells lies and struts around. He takes me with
his spurs. He settles the score.
I watched the emeritus gray beard
patrol the perimeter bordering his line
and mine. He stopped to study
my beautiful Magnolia with her soothing balm
and infinite roots, she often told me
the truth if I listened long enough.
She carried the history of rain and storm
inside her rings, she didn’t need me
to manage her, I needed her. She had upset
his proud sterility and clipped lawn
on the other side with hundreds
of snow-pink colored children that she
would never know.
I could tell by the way he looked up at her
that he wanted her to end it, to stop doing
what had taken her years to do,
but his graph-papered mind couldn’t hear
the soft wind passing through her limbs.
He carried a saw-toothed harpoon
at port arms with a hasty hangman’s noose.
The manacles of law jingled and barred me
from cutting off his arms.
When he started sawing she screamed,
“look at me! look at me!”
Then the stinging break of her limb,
he stepped over it like kindling.
She was magnificent to me.
To him she was something in the way.
About the Author:
Billy Malanga (M.S. in Criminal Justice) is a first generation college graduate, U.S. Marine Corps veteran, and the grandson of Italian immigrants. He played college football and worked for many years in a state prison system. All of these influences have undeniably shaped his way of thinking about his art. His poetry reveals his small victories and also his struggles in redefining masculinity in an effort to better understand the beauty and brutality of the world around him. His recent poetry has been published or is forthcoming in The Ibis Head Review, Cold Creek Review, Dime Show Review, Rat’s Ass Review, Spindrift Art/Literary Journal, and at The Naga.org. He currently lives in Urbana, IL.