Triptych, Ending in Antietam

By AMY TUDOR

POETRY FINALIST

for Jamie and Stevie Freeman

I.

In the Prints & Drawings Room, V&A,
a pencil moves across paper, the soft sound
rising in the morning air. On the table before me,
a blue box of Cameron’s photographs, the heavy lid
creaking like old wood when I lift it, the photographs
in their thick mats stacked neat inside, a sheet
of rice paper covering each like a shroud.

The Double Star, Grace with Love, My First Success,
the images burned to the paper on a thin skin
of silver halide, egg whites. Hosanna, the women’s faces
lost in the depth of field. Only the child peers out, as if
from history, with her clear bright eyes and for an instant
I cannot help but be certain that my son, had he lived,
would have looked just like this.

Across the table, a Rembrandt etching is lain out
on a light box, two curators murmuring
about chain lines to one another as if in prayer.

On Portrait of Henry Taylor, a faint, ragged shape
like a hoof print on the photograph near his hand,
unfixed silver rising out from the surface in a specter
of itself. I show it to the curator. She shakes her head.
“That’s the death of the print,” she says, explaining
the dangers of light and hands, of too many years
between now and then. I ask how to stop it
and she shrugs, her face lined and pained.

“Close the box and never open it again.”

II.

I break the ice in the horse troughs, the ex-racers
from the slaughterhouse auction caked with mud
from a roll in last week’s thaw. Stiff work gloves,
cut twine, hay pulled to tufts and scattered
on the ground. The old mare, swayback, ribs
like a skipjack’s rigging, lowers her head to drink.

Most racers are descended from Native Dancer,
they say, and looking at this group I believe
it’s true. Same boot-brown faces, same too-thin
legs, same frail ankles prone to break.

Later, barn doors closed against the winter air,
two rough tabbies tuck themselves together
on the water heater’s top. The vet is there
to check the new ones brought in: loose horses
found on state park land, a wild pony wandering
the highway’s edge, a thoroughbred in a blanket
and halter marked with Victory Lap, his betting name.

He is favoring the right front. The vet bends the ankle
and the leg shakes from pain. “Trot him out,” he says,
and I take the horse up and back again, his breath
a deep wind in the great bellow of his chest. The vet
crosses his arms and looks at me. He shakes his head.

At dusk, the birds scatter at the shot’s sound.
I hang the bridle in the tack room with all the rest:
Bicentennial. Bluegrass Baby. Take a Chance.

I come back in Spring, new grass in the field.
In one link of the chain that holds open the barn door,
two hummingbirds have built their nest.
Tiny thing, a walnut half it seems, but specked
with bits of leaves and grass like a frill of lace.
They sit so close together that they seem one bird
at first. Then the male lifts off on his impossible
wings, throat wreathed with feathers like gold
sequins that catch and hold the morning light.

They were wary at first, but as the world rushed to green,
the new horses stitching across the pasture’s side,
they got used to me at last. They took turns brooding
on eggs small as orange pips. The female, warm,
watched the fields. The male foraged on fence lilies
and trumpet vines. I did my simple work of filling
troughs with oats and water, brushing out winter coats,
the birds’ wings thrumming music in the bright air.

III.

After I said goodbye to the man I called my father,
too tired to keep going and too far from home, I stopped
in another field known by names I knew well:
Antietam, Dunker Church, The Cornfield, the swath of land
blanketed now with millet for birdseed instead.
In one day in 1862, twenty-two thousand men fell
with some five-thousand horses, one white plow horse
found with its legs folded under him, his head turned
toward the ball shot in his ribs as if he’d simply tucked
his face and fallen asleep there. Now, only silence.
The clouds breathe the last of the sunlight on the wind.
One blank monument at the field’s center, draped
urn high on an obelisk, the ancient language for Eternity.

Alone as night’s coals are set to burning, I know
that I, like this place, have lost too many to name.

But if the earth’s duty is, as Whitman said,
to cover over, to renew with its lilies and roses,
then let this soft blanket of autumn grass cover me,
watched by statues of soldiers soothed creamy bronze
by too many winters at the field’s edge. Let the earth turn
and turn again and change what happened at that century’s
close, change all its sorrow and restlessness, its talk of hope
but its stubborn emptiness, so much the same as this new age
as it wakes. Let me close my eyes, forget, and begin again.

 

Amy Tudor’s first collection of poetry, A Book of Birds, won the Liam Rector First Book Prize for Poetry from Briery Creek Press and was published in 2008. She is also the author of three chapbooks, The Land of Intention (Devil’s Millhopper Press, 1996), The Professor of Bees (Finishing Line Press, 2011), and The Secret Museum (Finishing Line Press, 2014). She has also published short fiction, essays, songs, and photographs. Her honors and awards include an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, as well as individual artist grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Virginia Commission for the Arts. She holds both a doctorate in Interdisciplinary Humanities and a master of fine arts degree in creative writing, and she teaches at Bellarmine University in Louisville.


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