Armory Square Hospital, Washington, D.C., January, 1863
— Carmine Sarracino, 2003
In Ward E, cot nearest stove: Erastus Haskell,
Company K, 141st New York Volunteers.
(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.