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Walt, the Wounded

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The whole world was there, plucking their linen,   
half-bald, mumbling, sucking on their moustache tips.   
Broadway was still in business and they asked no favors.

All the cracked ribs of Fredericksburg,
the boys who held their tongues at Chancellorsville   
as the bandages, mule shit, skin and shot

overran the Rappahannock’s banks   
and poured it in our mouths   
that summer.

He sat up half the night reading to the Army of the Potomac   
poems about trooping goats and crazy fathers   
chewing grass in the wilderness.

         Its me that saved his life, dear mother,

         he had dysentery, bronchitis, and something else   
         the doctors couldnt properly diagnose.   
         Hes no different than the others.

         I bring them letter-paper,   
         envelopes, oranges, tobacco, jellies,   
         arrowroot, gingersnaps, and shinplasters.

         Last night I was lucky enough   
         to have ice cream for them all
         and they love me each and every one.

The early teachers stretched on canvas cots
with their bad grammar, backs smeared by caissons,   
a heap of arms and legs junked beneath a tree

about a load for a one-horse cart. At night,   
campfires peaked by shebangs in the bush.   
He’d find the stagedrivers laid up there—

Broadway Joe, George Storms, Pop Rice, Handly Fish,
Old Elephant and his brother Young Elephant (who came later),   
Yellow Joe, Julep Tarn, Tick Finn, and Patsy Dee—

the pinched khaki drifting down the gangways,   
homecomers looking for those not waiting there,   
bamboo lays and punji sticks alive in their dreams.

A small fire still burns in the nursery.   
Rice and molasses simmer on the stove.   
Children will have to learn to ask for less,

less from the elephant dawn that chilled   
across the heights where Lee held his ground.   
The sky curled its wrath about the land

and they brought America’s fire home.
Fire on our hands, ashes at Bull Run, buckets from Pleiku   
while he stood watching on the shore, pulling his beard.

         America seems to me now, though only   
         in her youth, but brought already here,   
         feeble, bandaged, and bloody in hospital.

Our roughed-up beauties dead or dying,
he sang them goodnight with his hands in his pockets
who would have kissed them and warmed their flesh forever.

When Oscar F. Wilbur asked if he enjoyed religion:   
Perhaps not, my dear, in the way you mean,   
and yet may-be it is the same thing.

To worship the fire in the nursery, fire in the hills   
and in the mouths of those I love. I do know why   
our wounded died.        I do know.       I know.

W. S. Di Piero, “Walt, the Wounded” from The Dog Star. Copyright © 1990 by W. S. Di Piero. Reprinted with the permission of The University of Massachusetts Press.
Source: The Dog Star (University of Massachusetts Press, 1990)
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Walt, the Wounded

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