From the Ashes
My granddad’s house burned down when I was young.
I remember the family huddled around a table,
my uncle stunned, my aunt doing what she could,
and later going over to see the smolder
of what was left: a concrete pad beside
the road, smoke rising over the black
ashes, surrounded by morning and empty fields,
everything lost but for the clothes they wore.
A few years later, a tornado slammed a town
just south of us—a night my mother said
We need a storm cellar—we could hear it
at the house, the wind’s angry whine.
We drove over the next morning to see
houses smashed, debris thrown across
the fields, clothing waving like surrender
in the stripped trees. Blackville was rebuilt
though never the same after, few people
left behind, and one house left to rot,
left to bindweed and trumpet vine and rain.
My grandparents moved to a house in town.
That winter, back then, Columbia was a city
of cotton and wind, bags of cotton cut open
and carried into the trees. And the streets
looked as though covered in snow, a city
thick with cotton, waiting for Sherman.
That night the air was filled with sparks, pieces
of blazing shingles, a perfect shower of fire,
the effect of which was to light the whole city,
like something biblical, a city smitten with repentance.
The sparks were falling so thick, it was said,
the nuns fleeing the Ursuline Convent had holes
burned in their veils, burned in their black dresses.
Hundreds walked out from under burning roofs
into the cold and smoldering streets, and when
the sun came up, it was the next day.
And then the next day, and then the next.
towards the commemoration of the Burning of Columbia, SC, 17 Feb 1865/2015
I write hastily, as hastily as I think and speak, and I know full well that I often write and speak things that should have remained unsaid. – General W. T. Sherman
1. 8 October 2014, after the Supreme Court let the appeals court ruling stand / andante
Tonight, the streetlights shine the same, but some
other light limns the trees and lights
the street, glosses the lawn, the drive a glimmer
of not quite, not yet, as if the air
were filled with sparks, the air filled with sparks
and small pieces of blazing shingles, the effect
of which was to light the entire city….
but no, not yet, not now.
My bright-eyed redheaded fellow signed
a form, his grin the only hint that this
was just beginning. He’s off at an auction
tonight, sorting through the debris of history,
and I’m trying to write about what happened.
It’s the interval, the world tilts and things
rumble across the dark stage, the angels
flee the burning city, and surely Sherman
is headed this way, tonight, burning
bits of furniture and insurrection.
My mother doesn’t answer my call. Maybe
she’s heard the news, maybe she’s afraid
of what I might say. Another night
she said she gets so disheartened by what’s
happening in this country, that it reminds her
of my lifestyle, by which she means that man
she’s never met, though I’ve lived with him
for twenty years. Her porch is stacked with wood,
the cold months ahead. I’ll call again
another night. Beyond the window, the dark
city, the streetlights shining, an auction, an army,
a redheaded man sifting history, again.
The end of the world, someone said.
Or maybe this: the world moves on.
A judge, a decision, a form, a fee;
a groom signed where a bride could be.
A blaze of light in every word.
It doesn’t matter which you heard.
The air is filled with fire and light.
The air is filled with fire and light,
2. Under the flag / adagio
A soldier smuggles a vase he stole from someone’s home—
ceramic, silver, plunder.
Contrabands, a name for escaped slaves behind Union lines.
Slave marriages had no legal standing.
Sodom. Sherman. Columbia burning—
these burning cities thread a meditation on the night after we heard
what the court had done,
or not done,
and the whole fucking world changed—
or not, not yet anyway,
because we didn’t know yet what we could do.
What we would do.
It was not until after slavery was abolished
that marriage could be secured as a civil right.
Despite resistance from erstwhile Confederates,
Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866,
which extended the right to make contracts,
including the right to marry, to all former slaves.
These juxtapositions are risky, I know that—
Sherman, Bert. Marriage,
those resistant Confederates.
Fugitive slaves would appeal to military officers
to marry them under the flag.
Sherman wrote a friend, A nigger as such
is a most excellent fellow, but he is not fit to marry,
to associate, or to vote with me and mine.
I got a nice vase which I will try to get home—
(It’s broke now).
We didn’t know yet what we could do, or when.
3. What They Said* / scherzo
That he was tall and lank.
That his nose was bladelike.
That his eyes were small and bright.
That he was a bright-eyed, red-headed fellow,
who was always prepared for a lark of any kind.
That he was incapable of dissembling,
and often blurted out the truth
as he accepted it in a way that was not acceptable
to his hearers.
That his presence, the impact of him, was very striking.
That he was outsized, standing nearly six feet.
That he wore a size nine shoe.
That he would spare the libraries.
That his physique was narrow and almost effeminate.
That the pronounced crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes
would gradually spread across his cheeks.
That his rusty beard was trimmed close.
That his hair was a thatch he rubbed up with his hands.
That he had coarse red hands.
That there was a certain carelessness about his clothing.
That at best his attitude toward such things seemed to be one of indifference
and on campaign it descended to plain negligence.
That he would wear his coat flapping open
and his vest buttoned only at the bottom.
That his uniform was often wrinkled and soiled.
That the streets were covered
with wind-blown cotton as if covered with snow.
That photographs show slender hands with long tapering fingers.
That there was a restlessness about him.
That he was fitful and agitated.
That he had a vigorous distinctive gait,
that he jerked himself along.
That when he was listening to music,
his eyes danced in every direction and on everything.
That his fingers would nervously twitch his whiskers, coat buttons,
play a tattoo on his table or chair, or run through his hair.
That one moment his legs were crossed, the next both feet were on the floor.
That he would sit for a moment, then pace the floor.
That he was never quiet.
That the air was filled with sparks and small pieces of blazing shingles.
That he was cocksure, mercurial, flighty, manic.
That when excited, his speech was rapid-fire.
That his mind was a splendid piece of machinery
with all of the screws a little loose.
That he could not reason—
that is, his mind leaped quick from idea to idea.
That he reached conclusions the way women did, instantly and intuitively.
That he was given to extravagance of expression,
a tendency to exaggerate.
That he too often said what he thought, that he was frank.
that his vigorous language and free use of tongue could get him into trouble.
That to admit error was harder for him than most men,
and that he did so very rarely.
That he kept irregular hours.
That he read political news voraciously,
that he was addicted to the very newspapers he would denounce.
That he took delight in maps, and had a flawless memory of topography,
that he never forgot a house, a road, a bayou.
That bourbon was his preference, but he never became drunk,
though he did become very mellow.
That he was a member of no church, but leaned toward Deism.
That he was a barbarian, a vandal, a monster.
That he was a good, kind man.
That his friends called him Cump.
That he was unrelenting
in walking the path marked out for himself.
That this stern and relentless master of war
had a heart as gentle and tender as a woman’s.
That the utter silence after it all was so startling
that when a wild bird sang you looked around, surprised.
4. 20 November 2014 / andante
So here we are, back where we started,
a courtroom, a form, the world not ending.
The legal stay lifted like a cloud,
like a bar across a heavy door.
We dropped by the day before, paid
the fee, made our plans, went home as we had
for twenty years, wondering what the morrow
would bring. The day is extremely beautiful, clear
sunlight, Sherman wrote, with bracing air
and an unusual feeling of exhilaration
seems to pervade all minds. By then
he was grizzled and driven, his uniform surely
shabbier than usual, no longer the angelic ginger
man we saw in the national gallery in DC,
who in some uncanny way reminded me
of Bert. I sign my name in the wrong place,
at first, have to scratch it out and sign it
right, beneath the blue scribble. Something
to think about, signing outside the box,
but Bert signs the box marked Bride,
and still it’s legal, signed by both, and witnessed
by a friend, the judge, our officiant,
that very bright and very cold morning.
I gave up on writing a love poem
to Cump, instead I write one to Bert:
I sign my name. I imagine walking out
of the flames, a bird in a cage in one hand,
his hand in the other, we walk out
from the burning city into the cold
air, and hundreds, nay thousands with us,
walking with us, the air filled with fire
and light. The air is filled with fire and light.
*Phrases in the third section are taken from biographies of General W.T. Sherman and accounts of the burning of Columbia, SC, in 1865—Marion Brunson Lucas’s Sherman and the Burning of Columbia (1976) Miram Freeman Rawl’s From the Ashes of Ruin(1999), Anne Sarah Rubin’s Through the Heart of Dixie: Sherman’s March and American Memory (2014), Richard Wheeler’s Sherman’s March (1978), and especially Lee Kennett’s Sherman: A Soldier’s Life (2001).