— 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.