Still Life: From the Notebook of Ambrose Bierce, 1862

After Shiloh, with smoke still scumbling the air,
the Harper’s artist paced away
from the sunken road where a full brigade
had been strafed and decimated.
The flies had begun to swarm, lighting on the eyes
and open wounds of the fallen, the stench
already gut-wrenching, heartrending,
as were the groans of injured pack animals
weighted down by tack and baggage,
as well as that last shadow beasts can divine,

but the artist spread out his charcoals and chalk
on a blue blanket and leaned against the trunk
of a smoking blackjack pine.
The Rebel rear guard occasionally launched a volley,
as Federal cooks gathered wood to ready the mess
in case any survivors could muster a hunger.

Stroke by stroke, the draftsman began his sketch,
three peaches slowly forming, their delicacy almost sexual,
shade and shadow, amplitudes unblemished, colors
of dawn fire and sunset, the fuzz nearly palpable
enough to make the skin itch,
scent so nearly visceral my tongue
and lips went moist whispering, Peach.

An Illinois corporal peering over the artist’s shoulder
broke his silence to say, “Fellow, can’t you see
all them soldiers blown apart or in pain right here?
How the hell can you ignore the horses,
the jack mules, that wagon yonder still in flames?
Peaches, what the hell?”

But the correspondent kept his focus, summoning
the delicious, the elegant repose
in earshot of the surgeon’s tent, the work of the saw
and the miserable screaming, where the faces of casualties
were twisted and hideous. Orderlies
splattered in blood rushed about weeping. An officer
with an eye badly patched oversaw the burial
detail spading dirt into the trench already filling
with scrapped bandages and grisly limbs.
“‘Still life,’ we art makers say,” was the sketch artist’s answer,
“meaning both ‘motionless’ and ‘not yet dead,’
though the phase after ripeness is not so lovely,
and the pit clenched in the fruit’s core
is redder than carnage, rougher
than your musket balls, a full bore
.54 caliber, if I reckon correctly.”

And then he looked from the soldier’s angry eyes
to the empty sky before he resumed.

“Peaches, maybe, are what I need to see, what my weary
heart yearns to remember.
Better than any green shoots or delicate petals,
better than family toasts and a sister deft at the piano,
I know the bloodbath we inhabit, sir,
against which I can offer only a fragile
moment as counterpoint to our surround.
Here’s the reason, I would imagine, the French call
such compositions, whether fruit or meat
or a vase of mint sprigs and zinnias, nature morte.
The merest feast of grace, all
there is, as there is no remnant God,
no other rebuttal to trust,
while even Pity wears a mantel of feeding flies.”

Just a witness, I held my tongue but had no more appetite
for the taste of his beautifully rendered fruit.

And the corporal’s retort?
“Mister, get yourself a rifle,
see if you can still puke out them jackass lies.”

Copyright © 2017 R.T. Smith. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in The Southern Review, Spring 2017.