Lines in Long Array
A Civil War Commemoration
David C. Ward
Frank H. Goodyear
(National Portrait Gallery
It's a nice conceit for the Smithsonian: a 150th year anniversary issue dedicated to the Civil War. Get some photographs from back then. Get some more using the same decrepit equipment from the 1860s, from the same locales --- Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg --- as they exist today.
Dig up some poems about the war from the 19th Century contemporary poets. Invite twelve present-day poets to contribute verse especially for this issue.
It's a nice conceit ... as long as it stays on the rails. It's bound to be a winner. If anyone can be said to win commemorating a war as blood-bespattered and ruinous --- for both sides --- as the American Civil War.
§ § §
I recall reading somewhere that at the beginning of that war, soldiers simply stood there and fired at each other until enough fell down to declare victory or not. Geoffrey Brock catches it perfectly in his poem "James Daniel Brock at Cold Harbor: 3 June 1864,"
emerging from the cool foreshadows of dawn
wearing the faces of men trying only to die
as men. Pinned to each back: a name and address
on a fresh slip of paper.
By the order to fire
they'd come so close he would have seen the breaths
of dust, at impact, puffing from their coats.
The futility of this finally caught the attention of the generals, and the men were allowed to "entrench" themselves (they also wadded ficus leaves in their noses to get away from the ghastly smell):
A few more days, and he might have stuffed his nostrils
(many survivors did) with crushed green leaves
as the entrenched living, awaiting further word,
stared at each other across ripe fields of dead.
As a wise poet, Brock knows that he has to make every line count. The instructions from the editors were obviously:
- Write a poem (or five or ten) about the Civil War;
- Stick in a footnote for the poetically challenged, explaining what you thought you were saying or doing in the poem.
Brock cleverly uses his footnote to sneak in another poem:
[Six years it took me to make the time to findOf the other contemporary poets, two --- Tracy K. Smith and Jorie Graham --- chose to transform letters from soldiers into "poetry" using nothing more than endstops. I am not so sure this works, nor whether it is what most of us would consider original poetry.
the Confederate cemetery in Fayetteville;
it's a quarter mile from my house in the crow's mind,
but he flies over a private, wooded hill.
On foot, it's down, back up, around a bend
atop a steep road marked (oh please) DEAD END.
And why come now, I wondered, as I weaved
among the headstones of the undeceived.]
There is a certain fire not to say dignity in a letter from a black woman which comprises the first of Smith's poems, complete with original spelling (which turns the poem not only spellbinding but true):
Mr. abraham lincoln
I wont to knw sir if you please
whether I can have my son relest
from the arme he is all the subport
I have now his father is Dead
and his brother that wase all
the help I had he has bean wonded
twise he has not had nothing to send me yet
now I am old and my head is blossaming
for the grave and if you dou I hope
the lord will bless you and me
tha say that you will simpethise
withe the poor he be long to the
eight rigmat colard troops
he is a sarjent
mart welcom is his name
Jorie Graham's "Message from the Fourth Tour" turns out to be less inspiring because her endbreaks are arbitrarily short and jerky:
that I am
& I hope
The end stops not only seem arbitrary, there is always the question of whether a letter "in their own hand" transcribed by a poet could be said to be poem.
Of the dozen writers representing those who actually lived through the war, what stands out is the lack of jingoism. We would suspect that the editors had to search long and hard to find poems that treated honestly with what Edmund Wilson would later label as "Patriotic Gore."
One by Walt Whitman, "Calvary Crossing a Ford," is the source of the title of this volume: "A line in long array, where they wind betwixt green islands, / They take a serpentine course, their arms flash in the sun --- / hark to the musical clank." It's more a poetic photograph of a military scene which ends up with its own surprising touch of jollity: The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind.
Another, Ethel Lynn Beers' "The Picket Guard," shows an element of reserve about the whole business,
'Tis nothing! a private or two now and then,
Will not count in the news of a battle;
Not an officer lost, only one of the men
Moaning out, all alone, the death rattle.
And finally, there is the lovely cryptic "Poem number 1227" from the cryptic Emily Dickenson, with her own cryptic spelling,
My Triumph lasted till the DrumsThe funding for this volume comes through the Smithsonian, an institute which at times finds itself with a Congressional knife stuck in its assets (as it were), so the editors make damn sure that the Now Poets are safe and sound. It was also crucial that there be a note on the first page that states emphatically that the "opinions expressed by the poets do not necessarily represent those of the Smithsonian Institution." You know why. Sometimes tricky writers may imbed a live bomb in the last few lines. I mean with Jorie Graham god knows you're safe. But who knows what that Paul Muldoon could try to sneak in? And for chrissakes, leave Ferlinghetti out of the whole sordid mess.
Had left the Dead alone
And then I dropped my Victory
And chastened stole along
To where the finished Faces
Conclusion turned on me
And then I hated Glory
And wished myself were They.
What is to be is best descried
When it has also been ---
Could Prospect taste of Retrospect
The tyrannies of Men
Were Tenderer --- diviner
The transitive toward.
A Bayonet's contrition
Is nothing to the Dead.
Speaking of Muldoon, we've always admired him for his sheer crankiness ... and one of his poems has to do with the Now photographs. For the contemporary shots of long-gone battlefields --- photographs made specifically for this edition --- the editors went to Sally Mann, and Muldoon manages to trick out a self-referential piece (complete with 19th Century baggage) which he called, "Sally Mann: Manassas.
Less the idea of what the world might be "like"
than what it is "like photographed"
has had us lug
and --- polished mountains what we once took
for luggage, bags of hominy grits,
barrels of pork and hardtack,
of wet-glass negatives,
the tackle by which we still hold on with grim
determination to our salt codfish,
the portable darkroom
in which we've yet to cure
ourselves of the idea that art is "pure" or "impure."
Being Muldoon, he also slipped in (at the bottom of his footnote), I was very struck also by the idea that the Civil War may have been better documented than the wars, say, in Iraq and Afghanistan.Sally Mann has six shots around the middle of Lines in Long Array, but because the editors were scared silly of being accused of wasting money, in the miserable proof edition they sent to us small, unknown, testy reviewers out here in Muncie, Oshkosh or Muskogie, the reproductions are damn near impossible to figure out. It is said here that they come from Mann's collection Last Measure.
We are convinced that she used the same equipment available to Brady and Alexander. One picture titled "Untitled [Antietam #14]" shows what might be a bridge in the background, a fire-hydrant (or a dog) in mid-center, a light-pole (or a bamboo shoot) front and center, and what appears to be a large potato (Idaho) in the foreground.
"Untitled [Antietam #3]" has what might be seen by those of us with over-productive imaginations a rocket ship (in the upper third of the photo), a couple of stars or chemical glitches on the plate --- Ms. Mann says this is the blessing of using wet-glass negatives in the year 2000 --- hovering over a sea of black mud (or tar, or goo) in the foreground.
We would be the last to censure Ms. Mann (or the Smithsonian) for these detail-impaired shots, but we suggest that when doing the follow-up edition in 2063, the editors might want to give us a little better lighting in the pix. We astigmatic reviewers out here in the boonies would appreciate that.
Wikipedia lists nine photographers from the Civil War era. The majors were Mathew Brady, Andrew J. Russell, George S. Cook, and Alexander Gardner. Perhaps because he is less well known now, the editors chose Gardner for all the shots of war tools and of little mayhem and gore. If you want more, the Library of Congress has mounted over a thousand old photographs in a dandy collection listed as "Civil War Photographs." The easiest way to access these is to do Google Images under that very heading.
§ § §
Lines in Long Array could be considered a nice addition to the lore of war: well laid out, as respectable as it should be. Unfortunately, war itself is a little less beloved now. In the old days, say, in 1941, or even in 1961, we could get the country lads gung-ho for another run at the beaches of Rabaul, up the mountains of Italy, or even slogging through the jungles around Hué. But now?
I don't know. The kids now just have too much going on, what with their facebooks and ipads and twitters and tweedles and whatnot. Also, we may have worn down their youthful enthusiasm by letting our current blood-letting go on a bit too long. At least in Civil War times we could be over and done with it in a few years, but, even now, even with these new-fangled drones, it just seems to keep going on and on.
Drones? Ah, yes. We've had those too, before. Remember? How can we forget? Back in 1944 and 1945. Then they were called "buzz bombs" or "V1s" or "V2s."
Since it was the Nazis using them, they were roundly and routinely condemned by all. Mostly for their random killing of innocents.
But that was back then, when wars were expected to be a lot more brutal, not cleaned up for television.