Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, DC
I know this ground. I walked here once before,
alive. A septic smell, still. In this place,
tents, and my nursing, all through ’64.
Or call it mothering. I looked in the face
of dying boy after boy. But now this black
winged wall, and other ghosts, their strange words:
Da Nang, Khe Sanh. But I know soldiers’ talk.
And these dates. Sixteen years? Such a long war.
With the sun now come the living. A stream,
as if to board a ferry. Alone, or two,
a family, and all–they’re reading the names.
Just that. America’s great reading lesson.
I can be at home here. Mingle. Listen.
And lean against the wall, waiting for you.
— Philip Dacey
Collected from Beltway Poetry Quarterly
Published in Volume 7, Number 3, Summer 2006.
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.
— Stanley Plumly, 2002
Whitman among the wounded, at the bedside,
kissing the blood off boys’ faces, sometimes stilled
faces, writing their letters, writing the letters
home, saying, sometimes, the white prayers, helping,
sometimes, with the bodies or holding the bodies
down. The boy with the scar that cuts through his speech,
who’s followed us here to the Elizabeth
Zane Memorial and Cemetery, wants
to speak nevertheless on the Civil War’s
stone-scarred rows of dead and the battle here
just outside of Wheeling equal in death to
Gettysburg because no doctor between the war
and Pittsburgh was possible. Boys dressed like men
and men would gangrene first before the shock of
the saw and scalpel. Three days between this part
of the Ohio River and Pittsburgh. He
knows, he is here since then a child of history
and knows Elizabeth Zane saved all she could.
Keats all his wounded life wanted to be a healer,
which he was, once at his mother’s bedside, failed,
once at his brother’s, failed. Whitman in Washington
failed: how many nights on the watch and it broke
him, all those broken boys, all those bodies blessed
into the abyss. Now the poem for Lincoln,
now the boy with the scar almost singing, now
the oldest surviving poet of the war
reading one good line, then another, then
the song of the hermit thrush from the ground cover.
Lincoln’s long black brooding body sailed in a train,
a train at the speed of the wind blossoming,
filling and unfilling the trees, a man’s slow
running. Whitman had nowhere to go, so I
leave thee lilac with heart-shaped leaves, he says at
last, and went to the other side with the corpses,
myriads of them, soldiers’ white skeletons,
far enough into the heart of the flower
that none of them suffered, none of them grieved, though
the living had built whole cities around them.
Keats at his medical lectures drew flowers.
Not from indifference, not from his elegance:
his interest couldn’t bear the remarkable
screams of the demonstrations. He sat there, still
a boy, already broken, looking into the living
body, listening to the arias of the spirit
climbing. So the boy at the graves of the Union
singing, saying his vision, seeing the bodies
broken into the ground. Now the poem for Lincoln.
Now the oldest surviving poet still alive
weaving with the audience that gossamer,
that thread of the thing we find in the voice again.
Now in the night our faces kissed by the healer.
Stanley Plumly was born in Barnesville, Ohio, in 1939, and grew up in the lumber and farming regions of Virginia and Ohio. He is the author of six books of poems, most recently Boy on the Step and Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2000. His work has been honored with the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award and nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the William Carlos Williams Award, and the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. He is a Professor of English at the University of Maryland.
Collected from Beltway Poetry Quarterly
Published in Volume 3, Number 3, Summer 2002.
A Civil War Veteran from Indiana
Recalls Visiting with Walt Whitman in a Washington Hospital
— Robert, Krapf, 1993
Even now, as I stare into the fire,
I can see him sitting there, that
lonely old man whose eyes fluttered
like quail roosting beyond the snowy
white bush of his whiskers and hair.
At first when I came to at dusk
and saw him sitting there, through
my fever, I was suspicious. As you
can imagine! What could an old man
want in a ward of wounded and dying
solders that reeked of gangrene
and piss? But when he spoke,
I relaxed. I had never heard
such a voice. His words were salve
to my wound. He talked like one
of us, but somehow gentler.
He asked about my pain, if it was
better. I nodded. When I admitted
I was thirsty, he put water to my
lips. He wanted to know where my
folks lived, whether they’d heard
about my injury. When I shook
my head sideways and mumbled “Indiana,
southern Indiana,” he said: “Oh, yes,
the hills. A Hoosier from the hills!”
He’d once sailed up the Ohio River
past Troy, he said, on his way back
from New Orleans. He wrote a letter
like I’d never read. It arrived like
balm for my mother’s fears, beer
to my father’s thirst for news. Mother
saved it till she died. “Don’t worry,”
he wrote, “your brave son will be back
eating pawpaws soon.” When I got back
enough strength to become a good listener,
he explained he’d gone all the way
from New York to Virginia looking
for his brother George; he’d been wounded
in the first Fredericksburg battle.
My God, how he loved to talk! Sometimes
I wondered who was the patient and who
was the aide. Outside the hospital
at Fredericksburg, he said, he found
“a heap of feet, arms, legs, and hands. . .
Enough to fill a whole horse cart!”
He shook his head, shuddered, and
sort of moaned: “and dead bodies
covered with brown woolen blankets.”
He took a deep breath, then sighed:
“But George was alive and whole.”
Sometimes when he looked into my eyes
from behind that white bush, I thought
I might have once been his brother,
in some other world. I was by no means
the only soldier he visited. He’d come
into the ward coat and trouser pockets
bulging with gifts: apples, oranges,
sweet crackers, figs. Once he came
in carrying a jar of preserved raspberries
“donated by a lady.” A few times I saw
him slip a coin into someone’s moist
palm. Once I saw him lift a twist
of tobacco to an amputee’s jaw.
Many’s the time I watched him tear off
a sheet of paper from a pad, write
while he asked questions at the side
of the bed, and seal a letter into
an envelope. How that man loved
to write! To people from all over!
You’d have thought he was a parent himself.
He once confessed that he’d written many
a tender love letter for the wounded.
That made him chuckle. The night before
I left, he read to me from a book.
I had never heard anything like it.
It was like the person in that book
was talking right to me, had known
me all my life. He spoke my kind
of language. It was beautiful without
being fancy. It was natural as sun,
rain, and snow. The rhythm swelled
like the sea, as I imagined it to sound.
I could see leaves of grass growing
on the graves of soldiers. I could
see a young boy growing up on an island
with an Indian-sounding name. I could
feel the sun on my shoulders, hear
the surf splash on the shore. When his
voice ebbed like that tide, I looked
into his soft eyes, and told him how
good it was. He smiled, thanked me,
said he wrote the book himself.
Watching the fire fade, I can still
hear his salty voice roll like the sea.
Collected from Inward Bound Poetry
— W.S. Di Piero, 1990
The whole world was there, plucking their linen,
half-bald, mumbling, sucking on their moustache tips.
Broadway was still in business and they asked no favors.
All the cracked ribs of Fredericksburg,
the boys who held their tongues at Chancellorsville
as the bandages, mule shit, skin and shot
overran the Rappahannock’s banks
and poured it in our mouths
He sat up half the night reading to the Army of the Potomac
poems about trooping goats and crazy fathers
chewing grass in the wilderness.
It’s me that saved his life, dear mother,
he had dysentery, bronchitis, and something else
the doctors couldn’t properly diagnose.
He’s no different than the others.
I bring them letter-paper,
envelopes, oranges, tobacco, jellies,
arrowroot, gingersnaps, and shinplasters.
Last night I was lucky enough
to have ice cream for them all
and they love me each and every one.
The early teachers stretched on canvas cots
with their bad grammar, backs smeared by caissons,
a heap of arms and legs junked beneath a tree
about a load for a one-horse cart. At night,
campfires peaked by shebangs in the bush.
He’d find the stagedrivers laid up there—
Broadway Joe, George Storms, Pop Rice, Handly Fish,
Old Elephant and his brother Young Elephant (who came later),
Yellow Joe, Julep Tarn, Tick Finn, and Patsy Dee—
the pinched khaki drifting down the gangways,
homecomers looking for those not waiting there,
bamboo lays and punji sticks alive in their dreams.
A small fire still burns in the nursery.
Rice and molasses simmer on the stove.
Children will have to learn to ask for less,
less from the elephant dawn that chilled
across the heights where Lee held his ground.
The sky curled its wrath about the land
and they brought America’s fire home.
Fire on our hands, ashes at Bull Run, buckets from Pleiku
while he stood watching on the shore, pulling his beard.
America seems to me now, though only
in her youth, but brought already here,
feeble, bandaged, and bloody in hospital.
Our roughed-up beauties dead or dying,
he sang them goodnight with his hands in his pockets
who would have kissed them and warmed their flesh forever.
When Oscar F. Wilbur asked if he enjoyed religion:
Perhaps not, my dear, in the way you mean,
and yet may-be it is the same thing.
To worship the fire in the nursery, fire in the hills
and in the mouths of those I love. I do know why
our wounded died. I do know. I know.
— Sharon Olds, 1980
You move between the soldiers’ cots
the way I move among my dead,
their white bodies laid out in lines.
You bathe the forehead, you bathe the lip, the cock,
as I touch my father, as if the language
were a form of life.
You write their letters home, I take the dictation
of his firm dream lips, this boy
I love as you love your boys.
They die and you still feel them. Time
becomes unpertinent to love,
to the male bodies in the beds.
We bend over them, Walt, taking their breath
soft on our faces, wiping their domed brows,
stroking back the coal-black Union hair.
We lean down, our pointed breasts
heavy as plummets with fresh spermy milk –
we conceive, Walt, with the men we love, thus, now,
we bring to fruit.