Among the gallery’s pieces of Spanish
Colonial silver, a bull adorned
with filigree stood out, soldered by its hooves
to a platter, its horns cast in gold.
Having viewed enough of silver, I sit
on a bench outside, take in
the drift of magenta bougainvillea
climbing the stucco wall.
The song of a single bird
bubbles from the roof, or I should say pieces
of songs, one strung to the next.
Long-tailed mockingbird, he delivers
urgently, as though to rid his throat
of songs he stole from others.
A cousin of this mocker, Polyglottoes,
would sing from bouganvillea that clung
to the stucco of my childhood house—
my imaginary Alamo in San Diego.
Bougainvillea, mockingbirds flourish
in bygone colonies edging the Pacific.
The family Mimus, the bird
so plain in its grays and browns,
the song so varied its pieces could stand
for Chumashan, Yuman, Mayan,
Mixtecan, Quechuan… languages
the Spaniards intended to silence
not long after their rowboats hissed ashore.
The Dead of Antietam
Those in whose judgment I rely tell me I fought
the battle splendidly, and that it was a masterpiece of art. — Union General George McClellan, 1862
Because I misread the Visitor Center’s map,
we walk the Union charge backward,
begin at the sunken farm road, Bloody Lane.
Carved over time by spoked wagon wheels
as though by a round-bladed chisel,
the road’s two straight lengths,
joined at an obtuse angle,
formed a trench for men in butternut and gray.
Unfolded from our brochure, photos
allow us to populate the ditch:
Confederate bodies, fallen in layers,
random as leaves that fill a rain gutter.
We bestir ourselves away from the point
of assault, imagine we could pull them up
from the dead, holding to our backward course.
Of the aftermath, one farmer said, I saw a man with a hole in his belly about as big as a hat, and about a quart of dark-looking maggots working away.
Sixty-three hundred dead, sixty-five hundred,
sometimes rounded to over six thousand,
the numbers range the battlefield,
shifting, never exceeded: most
Americans killed in a single day.
Which number did today’s locals use,
the locals who counted out the paper bags
and votives, who placed lanterns across
these acres, anchored with handfuls of sand,
the lanterns of September seventeenth
riddling the night?
John Willson is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize and awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Artist Trust of Washington. His poems have appeared in journals including Bellevue Literary Review, Coachella Review, Crab Orchard Review, Kyoto Journal, Northwest Review, Notre Dame Review, Sycamore Review, and Tahoma Literary Review. A two-time finalist in the National Poetry Series, John lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington, where he has been designated an Island Treasure.
Header photo by StockSnap, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of John Willson by Luciano Marano.