When I visited the Seattle
Art Museum some years ago as part of my ongoing exploration
of the city I discovered a large part of one floor devoted to an
installation of Civil
War tintypes and other photographs. These pictures of veterans,
each man with one or more amputated limbs, had been enlarged and
enhanced with color. Incorporated into a huge montage, they made
the most poignant anti-war statement I had ever seen.
camps of the wounded—O heavens, what scene is this?—is this indeed
humanity—these butchers' shambles? … One man is shot by a shell,
both in the arm and leg—both are amputated—there lie the rejected
members. Some have their legs blown off —some bullets through
the breast—some indescribably horrid wounds in the face or head,
all mutilated, sickening, torn, gouged out—some in the abdomen—some
Whitman, “Specimen Days”
Almost all the men pictured
were startlingly young—some seemed no more than teenagers; all were
survivors of wounds that had killed thousands of their comrades.
Most were still handsome but seemed to carry the weight of the carnage
that had torn apart their bodies. I stared into their eyes and they
stared back with a simple question, “why?” It was a question with
no answer possible, then or now. I left deeply moved. All the anti-war
chants and folksongs I had heard in the 1960s could not convey what
those photos conveyed.
I dress the
perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound, Cleanse the
one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and
-Walt Whitman, “The
Those photographs reminded
me of my fellow Brooklynite Walt Whitman, who had nursed the Civil
War wounded. I knew that Walt had cared for countless young men
like the ones whose pictures had so moved me, had wept over bodies
young and ripe, torn to pieces by the taking of sides. Walt cradled
the dying knowing that any one of them could have been a lover.
so handsome, athletic, with profuse beautiful shining hair. One
time as I sat looking at him while he lay asleep, he suddenly,
without the least start, awaken'd, open'd his eyes, gave me a
long steady look, turning his face very slightly to gaze easier
-- one long, clear, silent look—a slight sigh—then turn'd back
and went into his doze again. Little he knew, poor death-stricken
boy, the heart of the stranger that hover'd near.
-Walt Whitman, “Specimen Days”
Soon after seeing the
Seattle exhibit I wrote a poem inspired by it, dedicated to David,
an amputee from Las Vegas with whom I’d been corresponding. In one
of his last letters to me David wrote with a combination of bitterness
and pride that he knew that some men were impressed by his nine-and-one-half-inch
cock and six-inch leg stumps. Most likely it was one of those men
who would rob and murder him. David had fought in no wars except
the personal war of a man with good looks, endowment, and in the
end, no legs and no life.
I sit by
the restless all the dark night, some are so young, Some suffer
so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad, (Many a soldier’s
loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested, Many a soldier’s
kiss dwells on these bearded lips).
-Walt Whitman, “The Wound Dresser”
I sent David’s poem to
a magazine called “RFD,”
which published it. I wish it could have been published with some
of the Civil War photos that were its inspiration.
Now we are at war once
again, and the pictures that record today’s dead and the thousands
more wounded and maimed seem as grim as those I saw in Seattle.
was very bad, it discharg'd much. I felt that he was even then
the same as dying. He behaved very manly and affectionate. The
kiss I gave him as I was about leaving he return'd fourfold. …
He died a few days after …
-Walt Whitman, “Specimen Days”
Max Verga writes BENT’s advice column, Bear
in Mind. He wants to hear from you.