Mostly she is light,
hiding a fire inside herself,
fingering the memory of matches.
She consoles herself with blood.
She consoles herself with salt.
She consoles herself with the pungent scarf
of your damp hair.
She ventriloquizes rain
as the myth of pure white
plays itself out
on the black whale’s back.
Never dropping her gaze,
Our Lady strikes fire on her bootsole.
By the graces of Free Street Baptist Church
we set off on jarring trains and carriage rides
with bandages, crackers, tobacco,
and sensibilities unaccustomed to horror.
In the madness of Antietam we found as best we could
our Maine boys
first mustered at Market Square
on Sabbath day,
“No Sunday in the Midst of Revolution!”
We found them, sometimes days after battle,
festering, weeping, abandoned to die;
huddled together on pallets of foul straw.
Those who could crawl, dragged themselves out,
hung over the fire, heads covered with snow.
The blood. The smell.
Gettysburg, Wilderness, Spotsylvania
—how to tell a dying boy from New Jersey
we kept tobacco for just Maine boys?
They all became our boys.
More than one of us learned the charms
My own Hugh
wounded at Cedar Run
I found in hospital at Baltimore
absent one leg but drawing breath.
So many gone.
Now we live as invalids together,
and count ourselves fortunate
For wonders are there around you at every step, stranger than
ever opium-eater dreamed. . . .
—Canon Charles Kingsley
Chainmail sea birds, quicksilver swallows—
we mistook a small one for a dragonfly
if that gives you an idea of their motion,
scarcely touching the waves before hurtling off again.
Ocean partridges, in shimmering flock rocketing
just off our bow.
These spiny-winged marvels have no teeth,
but feed on infinitesimal medusae.
Their flesh is said to be delectable and sweet.
Iron-clad moths, they swarm to
an ephemeral bait;
hurl themselves into great nets
straining for the fisher’s torch.
Flying, they flee nothing, their flight
the flight of joy.
In this winter city
where no one knows your name,
peel away the pained, drained mask.
The lamps flicker on,
silhouettes of fog
malevolent over the damp stone street.
In your rented room
listen to the small sounds—
slap slap of wavelets against the hulls,
tomcat yowling atop the pile of dripping traps
on Widgery Wharf.
The ships down there can take you anywhere.
Tomorrow, or the next day, you can decide.
In your dreams, you are a sailor’s whore,
Awakening, you find the winds rising,
bringing their disharmonies to roost.
See your hands, still clutching scraps of silk.
See what the moths devoured while you slept.
Buff your spirit bright as lemons.
Arrange the lichens, shells,
the tiny bones.
Let the multitudes a-crawl
in this withering grass
be your small Christs.
Praise their silence.
Above you, the unkempt branches
shelter starlings in their tangles.
stroke the heavy silver light.
Be secretive, shadowed;
your sisters have burned for less.