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Visit to Antietam
Alone I arrive, walking from Frederick over the gaps, across gentle hills out onto a knoll overlooking this burnished landscape. Before me I see countless writhing rows of indiscernible shapes gathered in terrible rituals mid fire and smoke darkening the sun. From distant corners I hear the rhythmic thud of cannon, and from fields astir with figures converging the eerie muffled rumble of drums. From behind, hoofing sod aloft couriers gallop past straightway up to lines of men where a ruffled slanted flag is held, to a figure mounted, with sword drawn, about to unleash his flexing array to collide with columns coming on. I watch them shift, align, then clash head-on as distant volleys crackle in long orange ribbons where smoke is rising— after which shattered lines rejoin like healed limbs, smaller now but whole, to lunge once more into spiraling bursts of yellowy orange. Is that a cornfield on the distant plain not far from where a white church stands? I see stalks moving like men advancing and falling back in wild infernal whirling, while savage yelling rips through space. Before my eyes a field of buff cornstalks being reaped now by frenzied swathings slashed now, then shredded, ravaged in fiery geysers spewing red and orange. I see you, men in blue, your backs to me— barrels and bayonets glistening in the sun your lines plunging forward like waves, cresting and curling to splash in smoky spume onto a road that cuts the fields in two— Facing you there in sunken trenches long streaks of reddish gold bursting in continuing ordered alternation repelling your forward drive— You fall where carnage itself piling high staves off all further senseless slaughter. And far off to my left a long snakelike movement bloats at a bridge behind which the hills with fire erupting become hell's crucible spurting its ghastly flow of fiery orange from what seemed to be a thousand pores down toward that stony arched crossing. On this side amassed, clotted lines surge and retract ramrod-like, propelling one small bluish artery over into that brimming inferno to thrust its way forward, unscathed, as if 'twere led through a red fiery sea inside a slender shielding sheath. As they advance random shooting stutters, from farther distance fired. Then of a sudden out of nowhere at my left, one last yelping onslaught, one final vicious blitz. What had advanced seeks refuge now falling back to that bridge, as if to protecting water. As with the suddenness of their arrival, the spirited gray chargers now quit the field, scampering back up over their hill to regroup and await the hour of fiery retribution. Then a quiet moaning can be heard over the twitching fields whilst nightfall settles in.. II From what vision am I awakening? These are but fields, hills. There a church, a bridge. I must linger here, listen to silence, hear it speak— of homage, of gratitude, of loss. Silence hovering over sacred soil, its canopy spread over rituals once performed here to form a sanctuary to enshrine that offering, that atonement, that oblation for a had-to-be war of our own making. Forbid all levity here! Bar all distraction! Ban every cloaked entrepreneur! Granite, even marble disturb. There is no enactment, no fitting into frames. Silence alone befits this hallowed space— . . . as does the hidden violet that blooms for you in spring, for you who left your life here that dire September seventeen eighteen hundred and sixty-two. You, unknown, unsung brothers mine from Georgia, Connecticut and Carolina. . . . as does the windhover riding on air on wingsbeats stalwart and soft holding perfectly still above the plot where you fell, a crest of valor, a living marker cross emblazoned on high, above you valiant brothers mine from Maryland and Tennessee and Iowa. . . . as does the lark climbing aloft on eager wings as morning dawns trilling scales of gratitude to you for daring to die for convictions you held, contrary, insoluble—that war alone could settle for those before you, for those who followed, determined brothers of mine from Texas, Mississippi and Colorado. . . . as does that ancient tree on the slope still standing there on weary feet, the agéd veteran, presenting arms, saluting you whom it saw fall, itself to fall, last of all, but still rooted and abiding where you fought and died unforgotten brothers mine from New Jersey, Rhode Island and Arkansas. . . . as does the solitary girl walking o'er the fields with grace, her head erect, her feet treading light on soil moistened with a spirit soaked into it with blood you shed there. From it she takes strength to live despite her loss, her grief her pain. 'twas your gift for her, dear brothers mine from Wisconsin, Alabama and Maine. . . . as does the murmuring stream that winds through these Maryland fields, that living, pulsing emblem, that watery banner unfurled, Holocaust inscribed thereon but Antietam called, that plaintive name for the deed you rendered: the cleansing required, the bloody fusing, the burnt sacrifice, consumated by you, cherished brothers mine, from Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia. III As I turn now to leave mighty towers of white clouds rise mid rumblings of distant thunder off to the west beyond these silent fields. On parting the pace quickens. There is no laming. Led by a knowing hand to this temple of silence a fresh awareness of what here was wrought has been instilled, awakened. The bravery, honor, courage, the horror, pain, the dying— knowledge such as this waxes, transforms, makes happen. Farewell, holy fields. Farewell, brothers mine whom I have found in the stillness enshrining this hallowed ground. Found you arisen, alive, Heard your voices begging, clamorous, pleading that what was here begun be completed, be done: That finally we become one in our thinking, our dealings, in the living of our lives— that the struggle find end in the change required of heart and mind to make us worthy of this our country, our land.
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