Alone I arrive, walking from Frederick
over the gaps, across gentle hills
out onto a knoll
overlooking this burnished landscape.
Before me I see countless writhing rows
of indiscernible shapes gathered
in terrible rituals mid fire and smoke
darkening the sun.
From distant corners I hear
the rhythmic thud of cannon,
and from fields astir with figures converging
the eerie muffled rumble of drums.
From behind, hoofing sod aloft
couriers gallop past
straightway up to lines of men
where a ruffled slanted flag is held,
to a figure mounted, with sword drawn,
about to unleash his flexing array
to collide with columns coming on.
I watch them shift, align, then clash head-on
as distant volleys crackle in long orange ribbons
where smoke is rising—
after which shattered lines rejoin
like healed limbs, smaller now but whole,
to lunge once more
into spiraling bursts of yellowy orange.
Is that a cornfield on the distant plain
not far from where a white church stands?
I see stalks moving like men
advancing and falling back in wild infernal whirling,
while savage yelling rips through space.
Before my eyes a field of buff cornstalks
being reaped now by frenzied swathings
slashed now, then shredded,
ravaged in fiery geysers
spewing red and orange.
I see you, men in blue, your backs to me—
barrels and bayonets glistening in the sun
your lines plunging forward like waves,
cresting and curling to splash in smoky spume
onto a road that cuts the fields in two—
Facing you there in sunken trenches
long streaks of reddish gold
bursting in continuing ordered alternation
repelling your forward drive—
You fall where carnage itself piling high
staves off all further senseless slaughter.
And far off to my left a long snakelike movement
bloats at a bridge
behind which the hills with fire erupting
become hell's crucible
spurting its ghastly flow of fiery orange
from what seemed to be a thousand pores
down toward that stony arched crossing.
On this side amassed,
clotted lines surge and retract ramrod-like,
propelling one small bluish artery
over into that brimming inferno
to thrust its way forward, unscathed,
as if 'twere led through a red fiery sea
inside a slender shielding sheath.
As they advance random shooting stutters,
from farther distance fired. Then of a sudden
out of nowhere at my left,
one last yelping onslaught, one final vicious blitz.
What had advanced seeks refuge now
falling back to that bridge,
as if to protecting water.
As with the suddenness of their arrival,
the spirited gray chargers now quit the field,
scampering back up over their hill
to regroup and await the hour
of fiery retribution.
Then a quiet moaning can be heard
over the twitching fields
whilst nightfall settles in..
From what vision am I awakening?
These are but fields, hills.
There a church, a bridge.
I must linger here, listen to silence, hear it speak—
of homage, of gratitude, of loss.
Silence hovering over sacred soil,
its canopy spread over rituals once performed here
to form a sanctuary to enshrine that offering,
that atonement, that oblation
for a had-to-be war of our own making.
Forbid all levity here! Bar all distraction!
Ban every cloaked entrepreneur!
Granite, even marble disturb.
There is no enactment, no fitting into frames.
Silence alone befits this hallowed space—
. . . as does the hidden violet
that blooms for you in spring,
for you who left your life here
that dire September seventeen
eighteen hundred and sixty-two.
You, unknown, unsung brothers mine
from Georgia, Connecticut and Carolina.
. . . as does the windhover riding on air
on wingsbeats stalwart and soft
holding perfectly still above the plot where you fell,
a crest of valor, a living marker cross
emblazoned on high,
above you valiant brothers mine
from Maryland and Tennessee and Iowa.
. . . as does the lark climbing aloft
on eager wings as morning dawns
trilling scales of gratitude to you
for daring to die for convictions you held,
contrary, insoluble—that war alone could settle
for those before you, for those who followed,
determined brothers of mine
from Texas, Mississippi and Colorado.
. . . as does that ancient tree on the slope
still standing there on weary feet,
the agéd veteran, presenting arms,
saluting you whom it saw fall,
itself to fall, last of all,
but still rooted and abiding
where you fought and died
unforgotten brothers mine
from Arkansas, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
. . . as does the solitary girl
walking o'er the fields with grace,
her head erect, her feet treading light
on soil moistened with a spirit
soaked into it with blood you shed there.
From it she takes strength to live
despite her loss, her grief her pain.
'twas your gift for her, dear brothers mine
from Wisconsin, Alabama and Maine.
. . . as does the murmuring stream
that winds through these Maryland fields,
that living, pulsing emblem,
that watery banner unfurled,
Holocaust inscribed thereon but Antietam called,
that plaintive name for the deed you rendered:
the cleansing required,
the bloody fusing,
the burnt sacrifice,
consummated by you, cherished brothers mine,
from Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia.
As I turn now to leave
mighty towers of white clouds rise
mid rumblings of distant thunder off to the west
beyond these silent fields.
On parting the pace quickens.
There is no laming.
Led by a knowing hand to this temple of silence
a fresh awareness of what here was wrought
has been instilled, awakened.
The bravery, honor, courage,
the horror, pain, the dying—
knowledge such as this waxes,
transforms, makes happen.
Farewell, holy fields. Farewell, brothers mine
whom I have found in the stillness
enshrining this hallowed ground.
Found you arisen, alive,
Heard your voices
begging, clamorous, pleading
that what was here begun
be completed, be done:
That finally we become one
in our thinking, our dealings,
in the living of our lives—
that the struggle find end
in the change required
of heart and mind
to make us worthy
of this our country, our land.
Copyright © 2006
|Civil War Poems 1
Visit to Antietam
We are All Brothers
Charles L. Cingolani