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
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.
It’s me that saved his life, dear mother,
he had dysentery, bronchitis, and something else
the doctors couldn’t properly diagnose.
He’s 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.