BODY PARTS

By Max E. Verga

 

 

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.

Then the 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 mere boys.
-Walt 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 pail.
-Walt Whitman, “The Wound Dresser”

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.

Poor youth, 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.

The wound 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”

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Max Verga writes BENT’s advice column, Bear in Mind. He wants to hear from you.

 

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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/July 2006