Sarah Emma Edmonds
See me now: I'm a slave boy in the rebel camp. Paint rubs off my hands, and one of the other negroes says, "I'll be darned if that feller ain't turnin' white." I add more silver nitrate.
I write down the position of fourteen ten-inch mortars, and seven eight-inch siege howitzers, tuck the paper in the inner sole of my shoe. On picket duty I step into the darkness, and step again one more time, I'm gliding through forest back to the union side.
See me now: I'm an Irish peddler woman, practice a brogue. In between the picket lines I find an abandoned house.
And inside there's red ink that I use to line my eyes, mustard that I make into a plaster for blistering my face, and pepper I sprinkle into a handkerchief. So I can cry on caprice. I pull out earthenware, clothing, quilts, add them to my wares.
In the reb camp I spot a salesman I've seen before, loitering behind the union lines selling newspapers. He's talking about Yankee fortifications, he doesn't notice me.
I'm a nurse--quick, remember--man or woman this time?
I'm a nurse and I hold the one hand a soldier has left. He shifts toward death's all-shifting.
Pull back the tent flap.
Inside, warmth from the bedroll swells toward you, thin smell of bread, sweat. The tent flap in hand, you feel the grain?
Last year in Washington, McClellan and others interviewed me, a Canadian, to determine my patriotism. A phrenology test confirmed large bumps of secretiveness and adventure-love. I was hired.
I write with ink the color of skin.
I write on paper the color of skin, see me now.
Paint rubs off my face--
Back on the union side I spot him again--that newspaper salesman, in our camp, detestable spy. I finger him.
Pass back and forth each side of the line, as a hand in a coat sleeve.
That half-mile between yank and reb lines, I live there, search for left biscuits, butter, tea, and once a whole pie still warm. I eat with one leg crossed over the other.
See me now, but really you don't. You put on your coat and each time I've served dinner to reb officers, sweating under black makeup. Straighten the seam at your elbow.
Who was it held a thumb to stop a spurting artery for three hours while the soldier put his affairs in order, finally had to undo the thumb, and he died in three minutes?
If the cuff chafes your wrist I've found a soldier leaning against a tree, clear-eyed, ready to die, who recognized me and I her, for women, and she asked me to bury her and keep her cover, and I did.
See me now. The wig tilts. The voice cracks. I don't doubt doubt, I ride across the line of it.
I don't seem to be what I am, and the seeming is your weight.
Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman
You may wonder why I didn't use my Soldier name
when I got this ring engraved, but use my name from back to home,
Rosetta. I like the way Rosetta Wakeman look next to my regiment name,
Co. H 153rd N.Y. Vol., engraved under it,
in those letters that mind me of Castles and moats and such.
And me in and out of the turrets.
I send it to you, Mother, to keep for me.
Someday I'll get out and buy me a farm in Wisconsin.
On the Prairie. I'll turn up and hoe that prairie.
This ring will Spark between reins,
these small fingers no one notices. They think it fine
I guard rebs at Carroll Prison.
Right smart building for a prison.
Rebs behind bars want to go home.
Not me, I like to go asoldiering first rate.
I like to go adrilling. I think a Skirmish drill
is the prettiest drill that ever was drill.
In the prison they hold three Women. One is a union Major,
she rode her horse and gave orders to the men.
What officer wouldn't ride and give orders
if they is worth a pair of wool Socks?
But they put her in prison.
Marched past the Capitol building they is putting up.
Just a Shell and no top. Like a giant ring.
Too big to use.
Been over a year since I seen a single face I know.
I hear Henry Austin and Cousin Peter Wilder was in town
with the 109 N.Y. regiment over 'cross the river.
I went and found them and you better believe I had a good visit with them.
They tell me hay is doing good this year,
hens is laying on and off.
Their faces peel and any minute I think they will say
"Rosetta," just to keep from busting
but they hold in and say Private Lyons to me. So we talked old times
just as if our old times was about the same as ever.
On the Spreading prairie nobody will tell me how to do.
I will Dress as I am a mind to for all anyone else care.
Nobody will get into an affray like me and Father.
I am going to raise me some pigs or chickens
and no bother. I will raise what I have a mind to.
I don't believe there are any Rebel's bullets made for me yet.
Nor I don't Care if there is.
I send home a tintype.
How do you like the looks of my likeness,
my face all Serious? Now, don't I march?
I wear full uniform, them winking buttons, cap on Smart,
in my arms that bayonet is good
as a hay rake, and more Shiny.
I am as independent as a hog on the ice.
I want to hear what you think of the tintype.
Father can look at it sometimes.
Do you think I look better than I did
when I was to home?
I never did so good in my life.
I don't hurt much, except once when I move too fast.
Tell me, did you peel that hemlock that blowed down in the sugar place?
What size is that hay barn that you built this summer up on the hill?
Tell me, because I need to know.
We head further south, messes of Swamps and trees with jungle moss.
Mother, can you send me a strong box with a key?
The likeness you sent of brother looks like him,
but the artist didn't half finish it off and it rub some and that made it look bad.
I would like to stand over him with a loaded gun and fixed bayonet
and learn him how to take a likeness.
Mother, do you still keep the ring?
I like the Rosetta engraved nice in it,
cost me 75 cents. I want to see it someday
on my hand that was Soldier.
Did you see the part, Mother, about the iron box?
I need it for my things.
Did the Sugar maples last through the ice storm all right?
Do you remember to feed the Chickens that wander over the south hill?
A little one always gets caught in the ravine
and can't scratch her way back.
All I ask, Mother, is send me one box,
iron hinges and a key. I want to keep my things Safe
and not Stole by my good friends.
I don't hurt much except Nights when I try to sleep.
I eat but the taste is gone out of it.
The eyes in the swamp is gators.
Some boys use them for target practice.
Just a box, Mother, with iron hinges.
I have enjoyed my self the best
since I have been gone away from home
than I ever did before in my life.
When I buy my home on the prairie I'll get me some Chickens.
No one can Shoot nor ever be sick again.
Mother, wear the ring for me.
Here all they care about is, shoot them gators.
It will be a home where no one is going to be lonesome for nothing,
rhubarb out the back door, lilac out the side.
On the damn prairie.
I won't allow no bastard to lay down and just not get up.
We'll have Butter three times a day.
You can visit all you want.
Lowell, one of my favorite men, sits propped in bed, white face, white neck against the white tent wall.
The ice this morning over all the tents. Camp one great single-ice-sheet, turrets simple and glowing.
Lowell talks as if we're brother and sister, I feel warm for moments.
I think of saviors as those the wind sticks to, flying hair crests and levels about them.
No saviors here, but I remember them in my picture books to home from when I was little.
Yes, I wring my fingers, for the warmth.
Lowell had his right arm amputated.
Then his left.
At twilight the deer come to us. Of course their eyes are not compassionate but you do think such things in the reflection off the mauve snow.
At night I hear the Lost Battalion stepping soft as twilit deer carefully around our tents.
The men of the Lost Battalion speak fourteen languages. They don't know how to give orders to each other. But they stay here to guard us.
When he first saw his right arm on the floor Lowell thought, Good, There is the pain, and here am I.
I get used to it, amaze myself with my cast heart.
Poor Lowell told me one arm will itch and he'll try to scratch it with the other arm.
If I was missing a hand, an arm, another hand, well--
Once I forgot to put my apron on and couldn't remember if my body was hanging on the hook.
I talk nonsense sometimes, but of course I know I'm doing it.
Eight steps lead to this flap.
Two cardinals trim the elms.
The Lost Battalion will never find their commander, I don't think they know which side they're on.
They'll guard us as long as we need them, which is for eras. They mix up their cuffs with their collars.
They can say hello and sleep well interchangeably.
They say, Gut, when they walk stumblingly and Dieu!, when at ease.
A new shipment of jams coming in. Up at the Armory once we had ice cream.
To think of good things. My aunt Nettie's sewing box covered with coral-pink flowers. Mama's bracelet she'd let me spin on her arm when I was little.
Actually, the wind. My face in it.
Right outside the flaps there, the wind curves around a corner. A horse rushes to overtake something.
The smell of decay intense as vinegar. Blood that runs unembarrassed.
Forget the hole in the abdomen you could put your hand through to the other side. Forget the glossy, glossy skin on the stump.
And does the phantom limb yearn for its body?
Forget the man from Andersonville who cannot remember his name, who walks and stares--he came to us, his face green, mold growing on it.
And do I yearn for--what?
Another prisoner says he wants to go back to the front to fight, that the rebels had boarded him eight months, and he's anxious to go back and settle his bill of fare!
You start to breathe the cough.
You start to look at your own arms strangely.
Though ghosts, the deer don't blame anyone for it.
They get their bodies back during the day.
The wind might blow away their ears, might blow off every single cap of a color.
It might leave the men their skin.
I need to check the cardinals today to see if they remember how to dress in wings.
May it please the wind not to take them.
Next week Lowell will go to the Stump Hospital, that's what they call it.
He knows. He reaches for me to ask for water. Reaches with his eyes.
I see his cupping fingers.
The poems in this collection were inspired by many sources: paintings, memoirs, panels from a cyclorama, panel from a panorama, letters, engravings, diaries, songs, illustrations, and photography. Direct quotations have been italicized. Sources include the following:
"Sarah Emma Edmonds": memoir from 1861-1865, Soldier, Nurse, Spy, 1865.
"Sarah Rosetta Wakeman": letters from 1862-1864, written by Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, collected in An Uncommon Soldier, edited by Lauren Cook Burgess.
"Phantom Limb": "The Case of George Dedlow," attributed to S. Weir Mitchell, Atlantic Monthly, 1866. (Sophronia Bucklin in her memoir from 1862-1865, In Hospital and Camp, 1869, mentions the "Lost Battalion" that speaks fourteen languages; Anna Morris Holstein in her memoir, Three Years in Field Hospitals of the Army of the Potomac, 1867, mentions the soldier who wants to go back to the front because he has a "bill of fare" to settle.)
PROMPT: Google “rare historical photos” and see where you land or just follow this link to a host of interesting photos from our past. Scroll through the images and take note of those that catch your eye. Don't stop and look at them too long; let the first impression be the primary impression.
Now go back to the images that most attracted you and make a few notes as to what is particularly startling about each image. It could be that the image is of someone you recognize doing something that surprises you. It could be that the composition of the photograph is particularly attractive. It could depict an event in history you were previously unaware of. Whatever it is, it’s yours, and you are now, accountable to it, in much the way Daneen Wardrop feels accountable to her speakers in Cyclorama.
Now, pick a character whose voice you feel you can fairly easily emulate in your poem, and I'd choose an image that you can immediately attach a narrative, real or imagined, to. As in “Sarah Emma Edmonds” write in the voice of one of the characters in one of your photographs. Inhabit this voice and narrative for 20-30 minutes. Don’t worry about line breaks. Just write in prose paragraphs and enjoy imagining you are someone else. The persona poem is one of the most popular but difficult modes in poetry. But it’s also one of the most fun. Enjoy!
BIO: Daneen Wardrop is the author of three books of poetry, Cyclorama, Life as It, and The Odds of Being. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the Poetry Society of America Robert H. Winner Award. Her poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, AGNI, The Iowa Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She has also authored several books of literary history, including Civil War Nurse Narratives. Wardrop teaches American literature at Western Michigan University.