- Collateral Damage
It is the war, again, that wakes me, and not wind shaking our locust leaves. "Screaming," my wife whispers, "as if you'd seen murder." And this time the source is easy to figure: footage of fresh casualties in Iraq. Yet it was not tonight's news and mortar-torn civilians I dreamed, but the image from Gardner's deadly Sketchbook called "Devil's Den," the soldier – "Rebel sharpshooter" in the caption – photographed [End Page 41] after Gettysburg. Indelible, but faked for posterity and the flash pan. The corpse was dragged from a nearby slope – "Valley of Death" or "The Slaughter Pen" – where he was struck "rushing uphill," as forensic experts tell us. The cameramen were worried, combat scholars have guessed, that mortuary crews would get every wrecked body under the earth too fast for the documentary harvest. Not even the rifle is right for a sniper, leaning against the cairn, vivid on the negative (wet glass collodian, patent pending). It's a photographer's prop. Still, what a composition: it haunts back a century and a half, a nation torn, a witness behind the lens asking how far the art will reach to render the tragic in two dimensions and address the heart's measure. Again, tossing the sheets, I see the brilliant configuration – two boulders wedged in a vortex where someone stacked stones for a fortress, a killing pit, the whole image grayscale and grim, except the dead man's white shirtover the belly where his tunic is ripped back. A cartridge box, a fallen cap and blanket. It was July five, after the rain, so much debris and violent light assailing the eyepiece, [End Page 42] and in this dream, I surprised my own face clear and thoughtless as the cadaver's, motionless in the stone shambles.Posterity, and my own eye opens behind the shutter for exquisite exposure, to collect the "evidence" and give history a ghost to listen for. After the artillery, comes burial detail, desperate to get agony under ground, to conceal the mirror we wince from, and who is surprised if we thrash amid phantoms when we can manage to sleep? Who is astonished that we wake from the Devil's Den screaming a new century's central lamentation, fearing we have all lost the power to weep?
R.T. Smith is the editor of Shenandoah. His collection, The Hollow Log Lounge (U Illinois P), received the 2003 Maurice English Prize for Poetry.