Poem of the Week | July 24, 2012

This week we’ve dug up a classic by Andrew Hudgins. From one of our first issues, the “golden apple” issue of 1981 (Summer, 4.3), this poem, as noted in the original epigraph, “is spoken in the voice of the Georgia poet Sidney Lanier and is from a book-length sequence based on his life.” This sequence of dramatic monologues was to become the award-winning collection After the Lost War: A Narrative (1988).  A paragon of wit, craft, and narrative, Hudgins has taught at many institutions including Ohio State University. He also writes bawdy children’s verse. His latest is American Rendering: New and Selected Poems (2010).

Serenades in Virginia: Summer, 1863

1

Hearing about a lady who was said
to be astonishingly beautiful
and lived not thirty minutes ride from camp,
we went to serenade her charms,
only to be denied by summer rain,
a gully washer that got in my flute
before I’d played a single bar.
So we took Clifford’s extra guitar string,
tied a note to their doorknob, and left.

 

Soon after that, we were invited back
for meals that made us laugh with glee.
The table bowed beneath their weight—
Virginia ham, stuffed eggs, roast hens,
and piles of biscuits I sopped full of honey
then ate with a spoon when they fell apart.
And when they insisted that we spend the night
a very pleasant yellow slave
brought us mint juleps as we rose.

 

2

 

To stop our wagging signal flags
the Federals sent a regiment
of several hundred men. But we
smelled out the trap and answered it
with such ferocity that they, thank God,
did not perceive we numbered less
than twenty men. Across a mile
of vines, sumac, and a second growth of pine,
which we relinquished inch by inch,
we poured great quantities of lead
into their lines and watched their men
fall down. It seemed almost a lark.
But I see clear in memory
what I ignored back then: the dull
inhuman thud of lead on flesh,
the buckling of a shot man’s knees,
the outward fling of arms, the short arc
the head inscribes before it hits the ground.
The war had been over for two years
before I understood they were human too.

 

to his father

 

But in the rush and scrabble of the raid
we lost Aurora Leigh, Les Miserables,
volumes of Shelly, Coleridge, and Keats,
and one by Heine. Secure at any price
the works of Uhland, Schelling, Tieck.
Because my flute was in my haversack
it wasn’t lost. Don’t fear for me.

 

3

 

Miss Hankins was a handsome girl.
Not pretty—handsome. Her forehead was
too broad, her lips too thin for pretty.
But she was full of life, possessed
a mind that almost rivaled mine,
and had a solemn faith—in me.
That is to say she never laughed at me.
One night as we sat talking in the swing,
I made, for her, a rough translation
of Heine’s “Du bist wie eine Blume”
and when an insect landed on my hand
I brushed it off and said, “Firefly,
fly thou away and know that once
in midst of summer greenness thou
didst light upon a poet’s hand.”
And Ginna Hankins never cracked a smile.
Is it any wonder then that after the war
I asked her to become my wife?
She didn’t want her brothers
to be left without a woman there.
Within a month I was engaged
to Mary Day. I couldn’t wait.
To this day we still correspond.

 

4

 

to W.A. Hopson

 

I should have answered long ago
but I’ve indulged myself so thoroughly
in chills and fever I’ve had little time
to spend on food or drink or correspondence.

 

Miss H. is here and presses me
to send her warmest sentiments and say
that she is full of humble satisfaction
that your single friend in Franklin of her sex
is cross-eyed, dull, and otherwise devoid of grace
because (she adds) you’ll have less call
to tarry there. We need your bass
to add a bottom to our sing-a-longs.

 

5

 

When Cliff and I discuss the war
we talk of lovely women, serenades,
the moon-lit dashes on the beach,
the brushes of our force with their patrols,
with whom we clashed with more elan
than consequence. We had enough
hair’s breadth escapes to keep our spirits high.
What a God-forsaken war it would have been
if we’d run short of decent horses!

 

But there are many things we don’t recall.
Like Hopson, who, at Gettysburg,
had one heel sliced off by a miniè ball.
He sings as deeply as he ever did
but does it leaning slightly to the left.

 

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