(after the Battles of the Seven Days)
You need demonic language to unfold
this scene: the chopped legs in piles, the inch-thick scabs,
men whimpering like beaten animals,
and devilish fast, the surgeon with his blade.
A boy quivering from shot nerves is humming.
He tries to lift his eyes; he wants to meet mine.
He can’t. They dart back like a frightened bird’s.
He’s seventeen, but could be ninety-five.
Another grabs me with his calloused hands,
tries to wrench me down. I push, fight back.
His eyes are skeletal and set soul deep
inside his ashen sockets. He wags his head,
gritting his teeth and giving off the growl
a dog makes when he’s scrapping for a bone.
I fight my way to air and fan myself.
Outside, the grass down Chimborazo Hill
is thick with summer clover. Taking breaths
deep and slow I draw the clean air in,
fresh life, sweet, pure. The lemons mother sold
come back to me, the yellow rind, beside
the stench the mud flats made, the dying rats,
or when they left the Vesey slaves to rot.
I breathe again and thank Almighty God
for giving me this moment, here, alive.
What a cold man I’ve let myself become.
I think of nothing but gun costs and wine.
I’ve turned into a ink-confined esthete,
a connoisseur of St. Emilion,
foie gras, bon bons, well-placed artillery.
I can taste a fine Partagas even here.
I wonder if death’s stench deranges them.
Now the dog boy has grabbed a nurse’s hair.
She screams. He yanks her back and forth, then pulls
her backward on him grabbing at her breasts,
blubbering. Violently, she frees herself,
and stares, not knowing whether she should curse
his stinking naked body or curse all
the sights that dashed to bits the girl within
or should she throw herself on top of him,
to heal like old Elisha or just hold
him, hold the loneliness this war has brought
to every man and woman in this town.
Using her skirt, she wipes her face, then spots
me watching her and blushing, dashes off.
The devil’s sobbing when I pass his cot.