My mother's tumor is much worse now, and is cutting off circulation
her legs, especially the right leg. And our poor cat Sita, in the
all this she is so ill, and won’t make it much longer.
- Journal, July 2, 1992
I don't know how I did it
Whether by steeling or by going slack
My elbows straightened, my fingers uncurled
And the vet turned his back with our cat in his arms.
For weeks we'd said goodbye.
Mincing steaks, liver, and shrimp
As if cost could nourish, or the gods
Be moved by expenses not spared
By love and protein lavished.
We met each other with "She ate
All the shrimp!" sure it was a sign
Though she thinned, drifted sideways
When she stood, her pink ears pale
As flowers you have to throw away
Protests! Prayers! The heart
Is that newsreel woman in the red kerchief
Tugging the cuffs of the firing squad Captain
And falling silent all at once
Pressing knuckles into her mouth.
I wrapped Sita in her blanket
And lay her small body on pine cones
At the bottom of a deep hole.
Filling the hole, heaping the earth over,
dropping flowers — It all seemed like a metaphor:
Imagine if we could do this. Heart,
If we could do this.
Last autumn Ellen almost went vegetarian.
Alone in her Haddam parlor over the river,
baby asleep upstairs, she peeked into the writings
of a famous Maharishi. Her sister Gail, two years older,
said Talk to Steve Yeager. Dr. Steve. God, he helped me a lot.
(They walked the river. October.) Now Rob and I are happy.
Ellen talked with the doctor and was convinced
the Maharishi was right after all. Sometimes,
she told Gail, I can see my life just stretched out
in front of me all the way to the grave.
Gail bought her a Cuisinart. Food, Gail said, is something
special we share. Look, everyone feels screwed up,
sometimes.... (The leaves were all down.
The river was lead.)
Tonight, Gail lays out the Christmas feast:
The gelatined salad
waves handkies from a carousel!
Beef Wellington announces to the world:
"These are people who know how to live."
The dessert, dark and giggly,
intimates treats to come.
Through the window, out over the river,
(iced), the Pleides are visible.
Constellations circle emptiness
like courtesans round the Buddha,
palm over palm
A chill enters the room.
Rob goes for more wood.
Ellen looks out the window, far.
Next door the white flags
of unconditional surrender wave
from two poles at the front gate,
and overhead from twine between trees.
They make the bright dirt road
like inside a temple.
A peddler chants, coming close.
He rounds the mango tree at the corner.
"Thoranga bharu ... thoranga bha —"
Aluminum pots and pans on his head
and red, yellow, blue, plastic bowls
in big nets in each hand!
He pads along to crookedly-parked cars
and dropped bicycles, past them,
to the white flags, under them, to the open
doorway of still mourners, past them,
and on down the road, to the next bend almost.
"Thoranga bharu!" he shouts!
Pots and pans! Hey! Pots and pans!
Walking away from here
he finds many buyers
n the houses he walks towards
down the sundrenched road.
Mary Chesnut at Mulberry House
I don’t know when I have seen a woman without knitting in hand.
Socks for the soldiers is the cry.
Mary Chesnut, Diary, August 27, 1861
Mary puts down her Emerson and takes up the socks,
her pair for the day. Birdlike hands flutter in her lap.
Needles twinkle in the slant of sun lengthening
across the silk carpet... climbing the paneled wall....
In the fields around the mansion, a thousand slaves
hoe, boil soap, milk cows, haul feed in the July sun.
As if they had not heard with their own ears
the rockets and shells bombard Sumter in the harbor.
As if they could not read Mars Chesnut’s-- the Colonel’s--
looks from horseback: Do you understand at all?
How much do they understand?
Under that July sun Eustice Hammy at Rich Mountain
stands in a skirmish line against McClellan’s troops
in line of battle firing by file: line of puffs, line of puffs....
Just like drill! Eustice smiles in wonder
even as the “bees” buzz round his head.
He levels his musket, aims--
A minie ball strikes his shinbone just above
the top of a sock knitted by Mary Chesnut
--the sound like a rock hurled
against a woodplank fence!
Two inches of tibia blow out the back
of his calf in a red spray, tossing
both legs in a jig that sends him sprawling.
Oh, destruction is the miracle
of creation turned on its head.
Not all the king’s men
could put together again
those splinters of tibia and fibula,
the gastrocnemius in tatters.
Still in its boot, in its cotton sock,
the perfect architecture of the foot.
Phalanges and metatarsals,
lateral, medial and middle cuneforms,
so beautifully knitted-- drop
beside the surgeon’s table.
The shape of the adult male foot
dangles from her needles. Done.
The sun touches the ceiling, almost.
goes the gun of a battery drilling
and her start drives a needle’s point
into Mary’s palm. The cotton sock
wicks the red pearl, and another,
and still one more. She pulls angrily
at the stains and watches stitches skip
and pop undone until the sock
is a cotton tangle in her lap.
Mary wants with her nails
to shred the yarn’s fibers,
return the fibers to balls, the balls
to the pods that vex the slaves
at harvest, picking even by moonlight,
singing so balefully as the mountain
rises... the immoveable mountain
of -- Of this life! Of discussing Emerson!
Of wit! Manners, Parisian dresses, and ballrooms!
Of savoir faire!
She finds herself weeping
as if she could feel the cold fingertip
of that demon Sherman in the wilds
hunched over his table....
has eluded him)
his day will come.
Trailing a fingertip
across the Mason Dixon.
Down to Georgia.
To South Carolina.
--He stabs his finger
onto the map--
The “Cool Springs.”
The “Mulberry Houses.”
The very heart.
The Cowardice of Corporal Joseph Hughes
His jaw vanished entirely! The length of tongue
wormed out the bubbling hash of his throat
like maggots in the beef rations I boiled.
Soldiers vanished in ranks and returned to view
out of all order in bits raining down as I ran
from that speechless standing corpse, the detritus
on the field, past comrades hobbling, crawling, as if in extreme
forgetfulness of feet and limbs left behind. Officers
waved hangers, mouths open and voiceless like the dead.
All the way to the abandoned town I fled
and in the third house found suitable clothes
and left my uniform sprawled on the floor,
no one bleeding into the blue, and departed
a live man out of a dead
in some husband’s homespun
heading north to catch up the evacuees, north
toward Providence, toward Hannah and my girls,
whose names I recited aloud as I joined
the exodus of mothers clutching babes, greybeards
staggering carts of heirlooms and chickens,
and so turned quite away from the field of honor,
of duty, of every impediment to the fealties
of my own hard-beating heart.
The Courage of Sergeant Kurt Miller
The ball took me in the reer of my hip
as I turn’d to rally the companie, our Captain
on one knee coughing blood, Lt. Hooker
tramped under a casson that run away.
So it come down to me.
Without command the boys were clos’d off,
too far forward to retreat and chew’d
by the volleys of Virginians before us.
I thought of mother and wisht I might live
just so long to be hit in the chest or face
and so not bring her shame, nor any folks at home.
My new boots nicely took up the blood
so leening upon my rifle I remained
to all apperance strong and able.
In this way I commanded the charge.
Splendidly bayonetes bristling, the boys
pitched in licketty cut and routed the rebs!
Then righting about on my command
enfiladed the ranks of sesech at our reer.
I keeled over then and was carried back
and borded upon this hospital ship
where I woke and found myself alive not dead.
But they whipped us bad in that terrible fight.
Chancelorsville. They whipped us again.
Theres worst damned things than dieing.