Visit to Antietam
Alone I walk
into this quiet landscape
from the east, up to a knoll
to look out upon
hordes of dark color
gathered in terrible rituals
mid fire and smoke
that darken the sun--
I hear sounds now,
the rhythmic thud of cannon
from distant corners
and from the hills
a muffled rumbling of drums.
From behind, couriers gallop past me
straightway into throngs
up to where ruffled flags sway,
to those mounted high with swords drawn,
about to unleash their flexing lines
to collide with columns coming on.
I watch them shift and fan
then clash as distant volleys crackle
in long orange ribbons where smoke is rising--
then, like healed limbs, broken lines rejoin,
smaller now but whole,
to thrust once more
into spiraling bursts of yellowy orange.
Is that a cornfield on the distant plain
not far from where the spire stands?
I see stalks moving like men
advancing and falling back
in wild infernal whirling,
hear savage yells ripping through space,
while as I watch,
that field of green
is reaped by frenzied swathings
turns brown now, then grayish,
is slashed and shredded,
then ravaged in geysers of fire.
I see you, man in blue, your back to me--
in haste your lines heaving forward
like waves, cresting and curling
to splash in smoky spume onto a road
that cuts the fields in two--
alas, facing you I see
four fixed columns of reddish gold
bursting as one,
halting your forward drive--
there where dark mounds are rising.
And far off to my left
a long snakelike movement
bloating at a bridge
behind which the hills
are streaming with fire
as if hell's crucible were spurting
out a thousand pores
directing its flow of sparkling orange
toward that crossing,
while on this side
clotting masses keep swelling
until one small dark artery,
giving way to pressure,
breaks over into
that brimming inferno
to wind its way forward, slowly,
as if protected by
some wondrous wall.
From what vision am I awakening?
These are but fields, hills.
There a church, a bridge.
But listen to the silence--
silence speaking of loss
of homage, of gratitude.
Silence hovering over sacred soil,
a canopy spread over rituals
once performed on these fields:
our sacrifice, our oblation,
our holocaust that made us whole.
Forbid all levity here!
Bar all distraction!
Ban every cloaked entrepreneur!
Even marble disturbs.
There is no enactment
no fitting into frames.
Silence alone befits this hallowed place--
As does the hidden violet
that blooms in spring for you
who left your life here
that September seventeen
eighteen hundred and sixty-two,
from New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Maine.
As does the windhover
standing perfectly still on the breeze,
head high, breast thrown forward,
emblem of valor, image of yours,
from Texas and Carolina and Rhode Island.
As does the lark
climbing aloft on eager wings
mornings in June to sing
of gratitude to you,
from Mississippi, Texas, and Tennessee.
As does the lone tree on the slope
standing there still,
the áged veteran, presenting arms,
now with effort, for you,
from Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
As does the solitary girl
walking slowly in the fields,
her eyes fixed on the ground
her heart on you,
from Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia.
As does the water in the stream
winding through this landscape,
a watery emblem, a banner unfurled,
Holocaust inscribed thereon,
or Antietam, place of your sacrifice,
and ours, brothers mine,
from New York, Virginia and Vermont.
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 from this landscape
the pace quickens,
there is no laming.
Led unawares to this temple
I have been awakened.
This memory, implanted,
from this day forward
it will transform every doing of mine
to fit into my changed world.