‘Only such men could tell what once could be,
Hear what we hear, see what we see.’
Donald Davidson, “Late Answer: A Civil War Seminar”
The wind is all but silent in the pines
Around a glade whose light comes down from fire,
Not filtered or aslant through needle, cone,
A heightened brightness passing as it stays.
And there, alone, a ghostly statue stands
Through which both beams and shadows make their way
From morning until evening, and at night
Stars twinkle down, then up, from sky and blade.
The statue is a private, dressed in gray,
Coat, musket, powder horn as though of stone,
Feet wrapped in rags, the very ground his base,
His piercing gaze fixed like a bayonet.
Now palpable in recollection’s flesh,
A solid wraith, the boy can never be
Defaced or toppled, scorched, or spat upon.
Flung paint would splatter only earth and air.
A legend on a plaque no fingers trace
Is like a graven shade, the wording worn
And in a language hard to understand
Except by those who heard it at their birth.
Beside this hidden glade the woods are still,
The trees the last of old growth longleaf pine,
Their birds those birds that winter in the South
Or stay year round in this their native place:
Rare pinewood sparrows perched on topmost limbs
Where quiet and a breeze bring them to sing,
Pine warblers sending down their liquid trills,
Nuthatches who will never leave their trees.
Who shaped a statue made of words in air?
What story does its silence have to tell?
Who now can speak the long forgotten tongue?
Who passes through a woodland’s public square?
The soldier knows humility, defeat,
Complexities of history and its myths,
Given to inwardness while others judge
Him guilty who will never judge themselves.
He did his duty, held the line, and saw
That his condition is the state of man,
Its “Ye shall be as gods” the fatal choice
That all men make and thus should understand.
Those boys who charged up Cemetery Ridge,
Then fell back with their chests toward Yankee fire
So not to be thought cowards shot from behind—
Picked off by quick repeaters on the crest.
And one slain there no bullet now tears through,
A marble specter, in and out of time,
Who gave his country all he had to give,
This boy, who knew he had not long to live,
Who died before his love became a crime.