Spring 2016

Volume 11, Issue 1



Three American Civil War Photographs: Ekphrasis



A. J. Russell’s Union Soldiers Entrenched along the West Bank of the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Prior to the Battle of May 3, 1863.

He rejoices in man’s lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die--
- Robert Lowell




We all have had to wait for busses and trains, for our appointment at the dentist, for class to begin (for it to be over), we wait for the waiter finally to come, for the infant to be delivered, for our hair to dry (or the paint, the floor, or the washing), for the war to end (or begin), for the election results, for the diagnosis.  These expressionless men and boys are waiting to go into battle - waiting to get their first sight of the enemy, anxious to know (once they get where they’re going) if they’ll even be able to fight, and they are waiting to see if they will be one of those who will be killed.

most of them look like
uncles of mine, as average
as grocery clerks
their ordinary faces
revealing the truth of war

its banality
overshadowed by the deaths
likely to come, casualties
on both sides roughly the same

life interrupted
by mythologies of war
the two officers
standing there to oversee
the procession to slaughter





You might be young, perfectly strong, and healthy, and looking forward to a regular life - to love, family, children, and work. You might one day own your own place, see your children grow, marry, and have children of their own. You might pass through the normal stages of life, from youth to maturity to middle age; you might live to be elderly, and even to senescence. You might progress from a dollar in your pocket to great wealth, from obscurity to fame. You might die one day, surrounded by your family. You might do all these things, but not if you were killed this morning.   

a photo captures
one single moment, a gesture
caught in the middle -
someone’s timid crooked smile
another who turns away

eleven hundred
of these soldiers would be dead
their eyes dulled over
by the end of the battle
all of it inconclusive

imagining you
in the chaos and confusion
of the wild fighting
others falling around you
waiting for your own bullet





I can’t get over the calmness, the ordinariness of this picture.  It really does look like they’re waiting for a bus or something. I see no terror in their eyes, read no tension in their postures. They are just men waiting for something to happen. Soon, someone will shout, “Off and on, you lazy bastards,” or some other profanity designed to cut through the lethargy. Someone else will shout, “Fall in!” And they will lumber to their feet, shuffle around getting into line, and they’ll march off toward the guns.

when I was a child
we played at war, fell and died
but got up again
to carry on, the bullets
were make-believe, the wounds too

there are symbolic
wars, of course, games like football
or more quietly
chess, vanquishing others seems
to be naturally human

in the photograph
they wait forever to be
called, they cannot die
just as long as they stay put
their images will survive




Mathew Brady’s Bodies on the Battlefield at Antietam

The price is great—Sublimely paid—
Do we deserve—a Thing—
That lives—like Dollars—must be piled
Before we may obtain?
- Emily Dickinson





The difference between the value of a thing and its price; the price is what someone would be willing to pay for it; value must be intrinsic. The price paid by those men scattered in front of the fence above was the highest one can pay - everything. Who can even speculate the value of what was gained (if anything)? It is a cheap thing, indeed, to say that they were heroic, and they died for a cause. They died; that’s all.

are they just sleeping
or were they thrown from a train
like human refuse
discarded when their value
became the accepted price?

their uniforms seem
so stupid now and wrinkled
were they so unkempt
at inspection that morning
they can’t hear the bugle now

more than a bushel
of their laughter and joking
macerated now
their blood seeping in the dirt
their eyes dull; nothing to see





In the study of politics there are, of course, theories of how wars come to be. Economic conflict, nationalist sentiment exaggerated by the slightest affront, and religious tensions always ready to rise. One class, or religion, or region, or race demonizes another, making it easier to kill. Some symbol arouses everyone's loyalty - from slavery to Jesus - and becomes the nation’s emotional center. Then something sets it off, and the mechanisms of the state turn to destruction. These awkward and crumpled boys were unlucky enough to be there at the end of the exercise.

look how the one’s knee
is sticking up casually
as if on the beach
the others look to be blown
to pieces or knocked senseless

it’s hard to find words
for it the scene so simple
and revolting all at the
same time here they were
and then they’re gone,
just husks left

black and white pictures
make it difficult to tell
if they’re dead Yankees
or Confederate farm boys
- as if it mattered at all





Other than dead boys, what’s insistent in this picture is the enduring split rail fence. Long before the caissons rumbled by, before the rifles cracked and popped, or the cavalry clattered forward in rows, some farmer and his son cut and split hickory posts with axe and wedge, used the twibil to mortise each one, and then carved tenons on the railings to make this fence. It has withstood the war. Where is the farmer’s boy now?

they might be napping
after such a hard day’s work
crouched behind fences
waiting for the charge looking
into someone’s bayonet

when you go to sleep
and often you’re not dreaming
the blackness that falls
is the same as death it is
a question of waking up

the battle’s over
let’s get on with the sluicing
collect the bodies
people are going to want
to use that road in future




Mathew Brady’sThree Confederate Prisoners at Gettysburg

He that fights and runs away,
May turn and fight another day;
But he that is in battle slain,
Will never rise to fight again.
  - Tacitus





I try to imagine what going into battle might be like. Big time generals, like a Patten or a MacArthur, could equate combat with character or duty with manhood, but, of course, they were, strictly speaking, no longer fighting. What do the average soldiers think and feel before a bloody battle? Dare they hope to be victorious and live? Surrendering and surviving may be nearly as good. The noise and smoke and confusion of battle are over for these Confederate soldiers. They are well out of it; how could dying for a cause ever compare to that?

the man who’s speaking
of glory for the fallen
is not himself dead
lending some hypocrisy
to his pious empty words

you can pinch yourself
make the final argument
when you’re dead that’s it
we make flag salutes and drums
for rotting bones in a hole

someplace no one hears
there’s an emptiness just like
when the train has gone
and the station’s quiet as church
throwing your money away





You can’t tell from the photograph whether these men were young or old; their beards disguise their age. But, you can tell that the photographer pulled them aside, arranged them there by the stacked logs and beams, and posed them nonchalantly for his photo. Each of them stares into a different middle distance. Is it likely, having been taken by the enemy, they’d be so relaxed, so pensive, so theatrical? What are they looking at?

they are neither here
nor there these sad lost ones
are posted at the edge
where they stay on the lookout
trying to see the future

death has passed them by
came through the Confederate
camp the night before
and secretly marked the dead
leaving these three bewildered

could be they’re making
a Western movie “outlaws
wait at the crossroads”
heroes or villains depends
on what they’re planning to do





Shakespearian! English noblemen, perhaps, come together to await their unpredictable king. They seem thoughtful, maybe even expectant. I think of them as instruments of some cold vengeance, spiteful and resentful. They are waiting for orders. [Enough! Don’t be silly! We know they are captured Confederate soldiers, their fangs have been pulled, they might even be hungry. They wait for nothing in particular. Go ahead; ask them what they’re waiting for.]

poets sing of cold
when it’s too warm, about peace
as battle threatens
they’re always behind the time
making something from nothing

what do you suppose
the fate of these three will be?
they’re right on the cusp,
just waiting, what do they see
down the road as their future?

would you say it was
lucky the photographer
came by when he did?
are there troopers watching them
off camera, that we can’t see?



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