Civil War Poems

 

 

In 2003, Parallel Press published a chapbook of my Civil War poems, The Heart of War.  Then, in 2008,  Orchises Press published the complete collection Sarracino-large, entitled The Battlefield Photographer.

 

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Here are a few poems from The Battlefield Photographer.

 

Armory Square Hospital, Washington, D.C., January, 1863

 

In Ward E, cot nearest stove: Erastus Haskell,
Company K, 141st New York Volunteers.
Typhoid. Diarrhea.
(Killers deadlier than the minnie ball,
the canister shot, the bayonet.)
For the typhoid, stimulants: whiskey,
and wine punch. For the diarrhea:
cotton felt bellyband. Though burning
with fever, he shakes with cold.
Still-tanned face – waxy. Eyes glazed. Breathes
in shallow gulps and gasps. Dreaming, he moans.
He will die tonight.

Next cot: Thomas Haley, Company M,
New York Cavalry, shot through lungs.
Whiskey stimulant. For lungs, turpentine.
(Expected to die within a day, yet he lives.
Strong, 16-year-old farm boy, he lives
another five days. Dies quietly,
in a manly way,
to make his parents proud.)

Next to Haley: Oscar Wilber, Company G,
154th New York, shot through right hip.
Wound probed to remove bone fragments
and foreign matter. Packed with lint, bandaged.
Stimulants administered. Blue Mass for constipation.
Back on a farm just outside Brooklyn
mother calls father from beyond the fields,
where he cuts wood. She waves a letter
over her head. “Oscar is in Virginia!
He is well! – Says he is gaining weight
while – oh, heavens! – he is gaining
while all the others are losing!”
She shouts as father lifts his knees,
hurrying uphill through snow.
White puffs around his head.
“Been there ‘most a week …
– must be two now – Place
by name ‘a Fredricksburg.”

See that man with the bushy grey beard?
Walking the aisles cot by cot –
who gives Samuel Frezer a small jar of jelly …
and Isaac Snyder cut plug for his pipe,
as per request … and an orange for Lewy Brown,
left arm cut off…. Moving slowly, smiling,
responding never to the gagging stench
of gangrene, the sight of oozing wounds,
(“Mother,” he writes home, “I see every day
such terrible terrible things. One day
I shall have bad dreams …)

– who goes to Oscar Wilber and leans close
whispering encouragement in his ear
like the father, pulling up the blanket
around his shoulders like the mother …

– who sits by Thomas Haley, 16,
and slowly reads Psalm 23:
“… yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death, I fear no evil …”
then kisses his hair, as he was kissed
to sleep in his bed at home …

– who goes at last to Erastus Haskell near the stove,
his breath a low rattle, and takes his hand …
sits there long into the night … then folds
the hands, closes the lids, and remains,
silent, through the night.

In his heart he hears every tongue that was tied:
Wilber, Haley, Frezer, Snyder, Brown, Haskell.
With original energy, each speaks to him his life
in this war, his death. Without check they speak.
At times he covers his face with his hands.

Come dawn he hunches his shoulders,
pushes palms down on rests –
his arms shake –

and he rises to go and tell it now,
rises to go and tell it all.

 

The Hospital Ships

They might have freighted drygoods-
blouses and trousers, spools of bright
gingham- from ports to upriver towns.
But these days they carry farmboys, mostly.
Like this load of New Yorkers in stacked
white hammocks stained red, none of whom
ever before traveled 20 miles from home.

Under a crescent moon the ships
churn into Baltimore harbor, slowly rocking,
creaking, so that many of the boys, dreamy
with anodynes, smile into their mothers’ faces.

Some will be delivered dead. Others
missing the legs, hands, feet and arms dropped
beside the surgeons’ tables for burial in pits.
Many expected to heal in days will die.

Soiled gauze must be removed, slough washed off,
fresh lint and bandage reapplied. The boys will need
someone to write a letter, read the Bible, someone
to return the next day, and promise to return again.

This time of night in Baltimore
whorehouses and bar rooms ring with revelry
(the good citizens tucked long since abed)
as these ships steam in from Chancellorsville.

At the end of Wharf 6, in the dark,
a sack of oranges at his feet,
Walt Whitman stands waiting.

 

Day ofJubilo
I.
Thursdays was the whipping day.
They lined and caned us slaves
no matter we done wrong or not.
So come a Wednesday I felt blue.
On such a day misfortune fell.
In the shed, the monkeys picking our heads
that biggest called Caesar screams-
for he can find no boogies in my nap-
and thumps me with his fist. Damnation!
Mr. Jennings and even Aunt Mary laughed.
But the only one thing in my head was this:
Be whipping me tomorrow anyhow.
So I grab Caesar both hands on his foot
spin him round and slam him on the wall!
He lays out cold. Everybody stares.
Jaws so dropped I might have hung oil lamps.
There.
Now whip me for the wrong I done.
Next day they brought two men
special for my whipping.
One with a great beard and long lash
looped in coils. Both wore guns.
They come in the gate and to my surprise
from round the house here comes Ma at a run-
and lights on them a hawk on rats!

Grabbing the great beard in one hand
the long lash in the other. Kicking
and clawing like she was crazy
until Master Jennings screaming Caroline!
Damn you Caroline! pries her off.
I pounced the other, kicking him hard
in just that place to make him crumple up.
Cussing on his knees he pulled his gun.
Use your gun I yelled at him, Use it
and blow my brains out ifyou will!
2.
That night Ma touched my face.
She said Cornelia is the spit of her ma
and pushed a bundle in my hands.
You can't stay here no more.
Girl they will whip you dead.
She told me run wherever you can run.
Listen for the paddyrollers' dogs.
Look and pray for a Union camp.
If you're caught fight she said.
If you carnt fight
kick. And if you can't kick bite.
We cried against each other a while
then she pushed me out into the night.
3.
Fifth or sixth night running in the dark
a whole hillside rose up all aglow with lights!
Back of that the next slope just the same,
and even the furthest gold with fires.
I prayed the Lord and walked in Jesus' name.
Halt comes a shout. Who goes there?
Praise God it was a Yankee voice!
Who goes?- Who goes?
I thought on this every day I hid.
Who was I now? What was my name to be?
Daddy was called Johnson till we were sold.
Then he was Jennings, new master's name.
In the dim I seen the soldier point his gun.
And another at his side leaned in looking hard.
I am Cornelia Caroline from Eden Tennessee.
The soldier looking hard, I heard him say
That be a nigger?

Come forward! calls out the other with the gun.
    Come forward and identify yourself!