Saturday, November 27, 2010

On the Potomac

“Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”
~Oliver Wendell Holmes

Dear Brendan,

We've been encamped in Virginia for the better part of a month now. I can't say where-- the censors will take it out-- but I can tell you that I finally saw the sea. Saw it and floated on it and got sick and hope never to repeat! It's pretty though. Writing to you about it would be like writing about Heaven. I won't try.

They say Gen. McClellen won't move on Richmond till he has forty-thousand more men and that the President just plain refuses him. He's got to make due with the grand old army he's already got! Brendan, I've never seen so many men. I'd say they look like ants dressed in blue, except I never saw so many ants! If we need more boys than this, then I think the trouble is a long way from over.

I'm writing you on the chance that we are marching soon. I've seen some queer things since leaving Iowa, and met more strange folk than I could fit in ten letters. A lot of these boys have ideas about the world that would make us laugh back in Honey Creek. One man, in particular, keeps putting ideas in my head, where they twist and torment me like a fever of the brain!

This fellow-- a captain in my company named Sinclair-- doesn't look like too much. I think I told you about him in one of my earlier letters. In case I didn't, or the letter didn't reach you, here is Captain Sinclair once again:

He is shorter than most of the other officers, with a long face and drooping whiskers that make him look awful comical. He reminds me of your Pa's bloodhound, Terrence. He's got the same sad eyes that make you think he's slowly working out some great problem. His hair is red, but real thin on top, and because he's so short it's easy to tell. He usually wears his cap.

I thought, when I first saw him, that his men probably didn't respect him and that he must have the devil's own time getting his orders listened to. In fact, most of the men around here worship the Captain, and the ones that don't keep quiet about it.

I think it's because of the way he talks. Remember that fiery preacher that stayed in Honey Creek on his way across Iowa a few summers back? The one from New York City? Captain Sinclair talks a lot like him, except he never mentions our Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, he talks about Suffrage and Brotherhood till his sad, droopy face starts to move and turn red like he's just swallowed a hot coal. And when he's done, by God, Brendan, I think I'd walk alone into Hell for the Union!

Before the war, Captain Sinclair was a journalist in New York City and London, England. That must be where he learned to talk like such a gentleman. Even though he's an officer and a gentleman though, he's companionable and mighty fond of whiskey with the boys.

A few nights back it was rainy and muddy as ever, so a few of the boys opened a cask of O! Be Joyful! and sent me to fetch the Captain for a drink. I found the Captain sitting in his tent reading something by the light of a lantern. The book he held in his hands had been leather-bound against wear, but it was too thin to be the Holy Bible or Poor Richard's Almanac.

My curiosity was up and my manners undone by whiskey, so I asked the Captain the name of the book so important he had it bound in leather. Captain Sinclair was without his whiskey and I thought he'd be angry at my manner. Instead, he chuckled and tossed the book at me.

I opened it and tried to read the title for a long time.

Captain Sinclair asked if I could read and I told him I'd learned my letters, but I never came across these words before. The Captain drew a flask from his side and I realized he was already supplied with whiskey. He took a long drink.

He told me the book was something he'd picked up in London. It was a gift, he said, from a man who he'd gotten to know there. He was sent by the newspaper to interview this man, an exile from Prussia.

Why didn't they want him? I asked. The Captain just nodded at the skinny, little book in my hands. Ideas, said the Captain. Ideas that could bring down governments.

Like what the Rebels are fighting for? I asked.

Captain Sinclair made a face like he'd been bit by a snake. The very opposite, he said.

I tried to read the title. The Sommunist Manny...

Hard C, corrected the Captain. The Communist Manni--

--festo, I finished.

The Captain gave me a small smile and I felt his hound-dog eyes measuring me up and down like I was a young spruce tree and he thought there might be just enough wood in me to make a fine table.

That's right, he said, and then, Do you know what a Communist is Corporal...?

McPherson, I introduced myself. Then I made plain that before leaving home I'd never heard of a Communist, but that I'd come across a few when we were camped in Washington D.C. Most people in the capitol told us the Communists were against God and the Constitution.

The Captain looked at me with those sad eyes. They are, he said, against the Constitution as she stands, but not against what she should be. What she must be.

I could see preacher-fire in the Captain's eyes.

You're a Communist then, sir? I asked.

He nodded, saying, Since the day the Times sent me to interview Mr. Marx.
The Captain talked a good deal then about how you can think of all people, all society, as just one man. Early in every man's life, they say and do things that they'd never do once they get some experience under their belt. Sometimes they do things they'll sorely regret.

According to the Captain, the race of Man is still very young.

We are tiny parts in a great decision being made, said Captain Sinclair. This decision, he went on, this very war centers around the government's failure to recognize the Negro as the equal brother to the white man. It shows, he said, a 'willing blindness.'

Well, I sucked in my breath at that. A Communist was one thing, but the man was starting to talk like an Abolitionist!

I fight to preserve the Union, I told him. I can count on my left hand how many men here would fight and die for niggers.

The Captain got angry then. On my word, Brendan, he spit on my shoes! To Jeff Davis and the Devil with you! he yelled at me. You almost passed yourself an educated man!

I am educated! I defended myself. I know my letters, history, maths...

The Captain took another long sip of whiskey. Then he said, real slow, like to a child, We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men...

...are created equal, I finished for him.

As I said it, I thought about Billy Rivers, back home, who uses his trousers as a chamberpot and makes animal noises instead of talking. I thought about Danial Yetsman, who never came across a difficulty he couldn't lick and has his pick of all the gals in Honey Creek whenever there's a dance. And that old line about 'all men' seemed like the grandest and silliest and most dangerous lie a man ever told.

I'll tell you something though, Brendan. I held my tongue to the Captain. He had a look on that bloodhound face like you see on a man fresh Baptized when he talks of our Savior on the Cross, or I might see in the mirror when I think of my Rosie, and the son's that, God-willing, we'll have some day. There's no use talking to a man sporting that kind of look on his face. I made to return the book.

But that old devil was too clever by half. He pressed it right back into my hands. I've just about got it memorized, he said. You take it. Give it a read and when you're done, tell me what you think. It's not long.

Then he stood, patted me on the shoulder, and led the way to the campfire where the boys were drinking O! Be Joyful! and singing to forget the hardtack and the mud.

Brendan, do you remember that poem they used to read us when we were young? The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The sailor kills a big, fine seabird, an Albatross, for no real reason other than he can. And after that he's cursed. That bird forces him to suffer mightily without a moment's peace.

I was always mighty perplexed by that poem, but now I fear I'm beginning to understand it. This little pamphlet has become the bird around my neck, Brendan. I take it in my pocket with me wherever I go. You will think me a fool, but you cannot see-- possibly cannot imagine-- the sea of men swallowing the banks of the Potomac. Nothing in this world could stop them, and they fight for an idea. What is the idea I hold in my pocket? What makes a man like the Captain fight, if not God and the Union?

I'm determined-- tonight I'll sleep sound and tomorrow I'll read the thing and put my fears to rest.

Your Brother,
Cpl. Sean McPherson
Grand Army of the Potomac

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Prompt The Third

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are beginning the third cycle. Up to now, we've had a pretty weak showing, even from The Editors.

This cycle, we will try something different. Here are your prompts:





Please have entries on the blog by Dec. 1!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Casper engulfed by my rotting flesh
nothing's real, just memories
guesses as to how I'm supposed to act
in this in-between scene that's become my life

A creature of habit, stealing my fill
another Brer Rabbit whose lost the thrill
of a beautiful tomato, picked fresh
and how it used to smell just off the vine

A future served heirloom pink
waiting to be swallowed
into another carcass to serve a purpose
that all I can do is trust in my bones

that it is trustworthy, but
I'm afraid I can't help you
it's a matter of principle
I don't make deals with ghosts

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I wanted to use this cycle as an excuse to play with a poetic form I had never tried. The result is this poem, which is vaguely inspired by prompt choice V, and is in ghazal form. The salient feature of the ghazal form is that it is composed of at least five couplets that are autonomous except for the repetition of a phrase or rhymed refrain. Most of the examples I have found in English are more esoteric than anything I can manage; I think I ended up with a sort of ineffable, free-associative theme, despite the requirement of couplet autonomy.

More information here and here.

Again this year I run through many fallen leaves;
my heart won't open like it did. I was younger then.

My head turns to see you; turns again to see you gone.
Mind runs to find you, body sits, heart pains in hunger then.

Newborn song, straining to cross continents and oceans,
rooted firm in me. Still I couldn't make my lungs heard then.

A man stands in a field before an ancient house.
Door slams; a thousand birds fly, feeling the house shudder then.

Corpses of past lives have no peace in cemeteries.
We sent those decaying selves out to sea. We were younger then.