Civil War Triptych
Down through Jersey’s roaring wasteland
of highways, billboard and mall,
where all the life’s leached from the landscape
by proximate Manhattan, whither all roads
and all hopes tend;
down through Pennsylvania’s tidy
Germanic farmland, quilted in crops,
high silos, patchwork of fields
striated in various green;
then the Mason Dixon, a magic line:
passing beyond it into Maryland:
the very woods
more cordial with their shade, grow fuller leaved.
Up north the stingy Yankee seed
grows (in comparison) meager trees,
scraggly and mean.
The American south is South America
in its August green luxuriance,
its humidity, and its shout-loud shrilling
Dilapidated graciousness of old veranda’d homes:
dilapidated graciousness of the southern soul.
Antietam: tactical pastures,
today, as then, farmland. Square neat fields,
like a chess-board, occasionally bristling still
here and there an infantryman — solitary bronze
monument on high granite pedestal,
a pawn left over from a chess-tournament
of gods no one quite believes in now.
Pawns in this first of modern wars:
officers fell as thick as the enlisted,
to longer range muskets rifled precise.
Flesh fell to mechanized metal
with hideous ease, mowed more than murdered,
a field of green recruits in a green Virginia field.
Brady's gray photographic stills
of brave Gray soldiers forever stilled
still flicker up at us, a panoramic
nightmare steam-punk flip-book movie,
frame by final frame.
Mathew Brady (only one “t”)
spent a hundred thousand of his own dollars
making ten thousand black and whites
of the Blue and the Gray.
After the war, the Government decided
not to buy the archive after all.
Debt forced Brady to sell his studio,
the heavy glass negative plates
were auctioned off as scrap to patch greenhouses.
Brady went blind, died in the charity ward
of Presbyterian Hospital in New York,
while sunlight bleached away his negative spectres,
the ghosts a nation didn’t need to see
to believe in.
The Adirondack lakes are long flat gleams
stretching to forests dense and tall
and abrupt at their marge.
White fog rises from them in the dawning air,
cold smoke of the mountains.
Here John Brown, creature of belief,
with a Yankee’s cold clarity
drew his red conclusions
down to Harper’s Ferry.
Brown's conclusions finally drew
Blue troops across the Shenandoah valley.
Marching Yankees looked up at the rounded
distant ranks of Massanutten mountains
hulking, huge and rounded, shouldering the sky
their silhouette an implausible powder blue
against bright azure.
Up there, on some utmost peak,
Jackson, bearded like a prophet of Jehovah,
scanned with his sky-colored eyes
the range’s heights and hills warming with the dawn,
pale vapor evanescing from their masses,
dark green islands emerging
from a ghostly sea of fog,
a tattered cloth of clouds.
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