Elegy with Civil War Shadowbox
In the wake of the towers’ collapse, there were e-mails and memos,
strategic advice for teaching about terror. After a day off for mourning,
with class back in session—from phone-calls, floor meetings, and vigils—
students were simply tapped out. In time we’d send our support—
in the form of chocolate, baby wipes, and Skin-So-Soft—to desert troops.
But for now —collective dreams spattered with ash—comfort came
in simply in turning back to our work, one way to work through catastrophe.
And in the days that followed, we wondered how to pay tribute to what
is simply beyond words. Clearly the question haunted John Philemon Smith,
teacher and town historian, eyewitness, at seventeen, to the battle
that transformed his hometown from sleepy village to a mass grave. Over the course
of the twenty-four years that followed, in treks along Antietam Creek,
across twelve miles of countryside, in sorties back into memory’s terrain,
to phantom gunfire and visions of riflemen kneeling on the bodies of the slain
to fire at retreating survivors; into the ghost-cries of a Gaelic charge from the Irish
brigade, the pile-up of the wounded, and slow work of the Burial Crew,
he gathered whatever the ground gave up, assembling a shadowbox from battle
debris: a folding camp spoon, Union uniform buttons, fragments of spent
artillery shells, minié balls, a belt buckle, fragments of a bayonet. Across the back
and sides of the box, in Smith’s upright and legible hand, details of battle, news
clippings, lines from an official’s commemorative speech. Rhymed quatrains
citing plenteous funeral tears, the neighing steed, the flashing blade, trumpet blast and
cannonade; his hand-carved replica of the cemetery’s Private Soldier Monument
placed front and center to create a compelling visual field—one man’s memento
of hope and healing that left out conflicts still simmering—segregation’s
mark in the veteran burials from the world wars. I remember the heat-stunned
and rutted dust of Bloody Lane, scant chirp of crickets, wind, a park ranger’s
period details—shells exploding the pacifists’ church where wounded
were taken, the shallow graves “common as cornstalks” in family fields.
The emancipated would wait more than a year for the state
to rewrite the law and grant them freedom. Later, while slathering ears
of Silver Queen with butter and salt, it was hard not to think
of troops taking cover in cornfields, restless in the hours before dawn.
Around our battered kitchen table, twenty-some miles from that field,
squabbles grown silent, my brothers with their biblical names,
spared the call of conscription, bowed their heads for grace.
In Which She Considers Joining the Force
Morning’s cake & rain & cups of coffee.
I can’t see the mountain majestic
but there’s a clearing called where I might
have ended up . There’s seventeen & who
I should date (or screw) & why (or why not);
what paths I should pursue, what future dreams
& fields of study—the list goes on & on. There’s
the kitchen where coffee’s brewing & the radio
shifts between stations, Dad’s fatigues sudsy
in the daily wash. He’s not alone in saying
that of all the ways to pay for college, this
might not be a bad one, when the Commander-in-Chief
holds in reserve one hundred Academy slots
for offspring of military men & women, retired
or serving in good standing. A bookish girl could do worse
than toughen up, study English & outwit Sallie
Mae. But I can’t see myself as G.I. Jane, decked out
in olive drab. And though it’s years until the Wall’s
fall shreds the Iron Curtain, I fear a future
caught in someone’s crosshairs, sandbagged
in a squadron like some frat house with guns.
Basic training might be worse: whose hands
might hold me down, a new recruit, my body for
the taking . . . But my father only wants to help.
Some years are all unasked-for advice.
For now I’ll fold the sergeant's standard issue
tees, pour the coffee, take another sip.