Three Mathew Brady Photographs

1. Confederate Dead behind a Stone Wall at Fredericksburg, Virginia

Where the glass negative broke:
A silky, liquid black,
Like spilled scrivener’s ink,
Pools in the print’s margin.

                        : :

Mouth gone slack, eyes upward,
            Face glazed with blood, the man—
Lifeless, slumped, and tangled
            In a tarp—looks for God.

                        : :

Two leafless trees hold up
            A scratched sky’s leaden weight.
Autumn? Winter? No wind
            To sway the upright trees.

                        : :

Such a long exposure
To affix the fallen,
(Staged or happened upon,)
Abandoned to this ditch.

 

2. Wilderness, near Chancellorsville, Virginia

It is a slow process:
                               fallen and standing trees,
Propped, bent, a clutter of intersections—

All moss- and lichen-ridden,
                                             woodpecker pecked,
Bored by grubs, antler-scraped, bark rubbed free—

Hard to tell from the decay
                                           the living from the dead,
The dead from the almost dead—

A tree—
               horizontal across the creek,
Uprooted when a flash flood cut the cut-bank—

Still leaves, blossoms, bears fruit.
                                                    Without a buttress,
A long dead sycamore remains upright.

 

3. Burying the Confederate Dead at Fredericksburg, Virginia

Jesus said, Let the dead bury the dead.

Two caskets and five or six canvas-
Covered bodies wait beside a trench
Three black men have spent all day digging.

Given their druthers, they’d obey scripture.                       

More by Eric Pankey

Epitaph


Beyond the traceries of the auroras,
The fires of tattered sea foam,
The ghost-terrain of submerged icebergs;
Beyond a cinder dome's black sands, 
Beyond peninsula and archipelago,
Archipelago and far-flung islands,
You have made of exile a homeland,
Voyager, and of that chosen depth, a repose.

The eel shimmers and the dogfish darts,
A dance of crisscrosses and trespasses
Through distillate glints and nacreous silts,
And the sun, like fronds of royal palm
Wind-torn, tossed, lashes upon the wake,
But no lamplight mars or bleaches your realm,
A dark of sediment, spawn, slough, and lees,
Runoff, pitch-black, from the rivers of Psalms.

Light By Which I Read

One does not turn to the rose for shade, nor the charred song of the 
      redwing for solace.
This past I patch with words is a flaw in the silvering, 
                                                         memory seen 
        through to.
There I find the shallow autumn waters, the three stolen pears,
The horizon edged with chalk, loose where the fabric frayed.
Each yesterday glacier-scored, each a dark passage illumined by a 
       honeycomb.

                                  *

I begin to fathom the brittle intricacy of the window’s scrim of ice.
For years, I managed without memory—stalled, unnumbered, 
       abridged— 
No more alive than a dismembered saint enthroned in two hundred 
       reliquaries.
Now, it is hard not to say I remember, 
                                      hard, in fact, not to remember.
Now, I hear the filament’s quiver, its annoying high frequency, light 
       by which I read.

                                  *

River mist, mudbanks, and rushes mediate the dark matter 
Between two tomorrows: 
                      one an archive of chance effects, 
The other a necropolis of momentary appearances and sensations.
One, a stain of green, where a second wash bleeds into the first.
The other time-bound, fecund, slick with early rain.

                                  *

As if to impose a final hermeneutic, all at once the cicadas wind down.
The gooseberry bush looms like a moon: each berry taut, sour, aglow.
The creek runs tar in the cloud-light, mercury at dusk.
Then the frogs start up. 
                        Clay-cold at the marrow. A hollow pulse-tick.
And it seems, at last, I’ve shed my scorched and papery husk.

Field Note

An arctic, oblique light—
Grave, earthward—
Roughs in a snowfield's scoured basin,

A curved pine-flecked horizon,
As if onto a province
The door of an Advent calendar

Opened—parenthetical
Whispered as an aside,
Tallies and marginalia 

Erased, yet readable still
In the sleet-lacquered gullies
And scored rock,

A province severed
From the present,
Marooned in the tectonic

Slippage, in the stress 
Fractures of the mythic.

Related Poems

The Buttonhook

President Roosevelt, touring Ellis Island
in 1906, watched the people from steerage
line up for their six-second physical.

Might not, he wondered aloud, the ungloved handling
of aliens who were ill infect the healthy?
Yet for years more it was done. I imagine

my grandmother, a girl in that Great Hall’s
polyglot, reverberating vault
more terrible than church, dazed by the stars

and stripes in the vast banner up in front
where the blessed ones had passed through. Then she did too,
to a room like a little chapel, where her mother

might take Communion. A man in a blue cap
and a blue uniform—a doctor? a policeman?
(Papa would have known, but he had sailed

all alone before them and was waiting
now in New York; yet wasn’t this New York?)—
a man in a blue cap reached for her mother.

Without a word (didn’t he speak Italian?) 
he stuck one finger into her mother’s eye,
then turned its lid up with a buttonhook,

the long, curved thing for doing up your boots
when buttons were too many or too small.
You couldn’t be American if you were blind

or going to be blind. That much she understood.
She’d go to school, she’d learn to read and write
and teach her parents. The eye man reached to touch

her own face next; she figured she was ready.
She felt big, like that woman in the sea
holding up not a buttonhook but a torch.