Poetry: Bonham In Extremis

(Thinkstock)
(Thinkstock)

ON FEBRUARY 23, 1836, troops from the Centralist Republic of Mexico laid siege to the Mission San Antonio de Valero—the Alamo—defended by a couple hundred American and Mexican Texians fighting for Texas’s independence. Relief expeditions organized by Major Robert M. “Willie” Williamson and Colonel James Walker Fannin never arrived.

This poem evokes the last days of Second Lieutenant James Butler Bonham, reputedly a boyhood friend of Alamo commander William Barret “Buck” Travis. Bonham was the only Alamo messenger to return and perish with the garrison. Defender Louis Rose left the mission after Travis famously asked his men to commit to the fatal last stand. Gregorio Esparza, a Mexican Texian, died with Bonham and nine others while manning the battery in the apse of the Alamo church.

 

Bonham In Extremis

by Floyd Collins

 

Only in retrospect would the blood-dimmed

Outcome seem inevitable. And despite

The fact that the Mexican generalissimo

Set snapping on the afternoon breeze,

From a makeshift staff atop the belfry

Of bronze-domed San Fernando, a red

Skull and crossbones–blazoned banner

Of no quarter, we were never men bent

On the main chance, and took all such

Blackguards for callow, comic-opera

Buffoons who loved a jest. Yet the boldest

Among us stared a spell at the line Travis

Traced deep in the caliche soil at our feet

Before seized by any impulse to step

Out of the quotidian flesh and into history,

Where the courtyard gathered us close,

Knitting us ghost and sinew in one resolve.

And, indeed, among us one Louis Rose

Chose to slip over the west wall, nettles

From a field of nopal that he blundered

Into somewhere out there near sundown

Pricking more deeply than conscience.

Buck kept in the pocket over his heart

A letter from “Three-Legged Willie”

Saying filibusters rallied at Gonzales,

Dismissing Fannin and the truculence

That refused to let him budge a half-

Mile beyond La Bahía’s stronghold.

I myself carried the fateful dispatch, riding

From settlement to presidio in weather

Both parched and torrential, the hoofprints

Of my Appaloosa oozing shut behind me.

We woke before daylight next morning

To the sound of one bugle taken up

And swelled to the swart Moorish tones

Of the “Degüello,” the regimental bands

Urging the Centralist battalions forward.

Soon but a few gunners held the platform

High in the apse of the Alamo church.

We swung about a brass six-pounder,

Plugging the bore with langrage, chopped

Horseshoes and nails; Esparza set linstock

To priming tube, the hoarse report

And rising gust of incandescent metal

Ripping an even dozen Matamoros

Grenadiers to tatters. Thronging soldados

Regrouped inside the chapel’s archway,

And muskets banked like galley oars,

Each rank fired volley after volley, bayonets

Gleaming phosphor. Smoothbore shot

Plinked off the mortared limestone interior,

Leaden spheroids spent beyond flesh and bone.

I lay riddled and blood-boltered on the scaffold,

My last breath a wisp unfurling the dawn air.

 

Floyd Collins has published four volumes of poetry, most recently What Harvest: Poems on the Siege and Battle of the Alamo, from Somondoco Press (somondocopress.com).

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