Poetry Sunday:
“Elegy with Civil War Shadowbox,”
by Jane Satterfield

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

The title of today’s poem tells us that it is an elegy, defined in contemporary practice as a poem of serious reflection, sometimes mourning someone who has died. In ancient Greek and Latin verse, the elegy was a poetic form defined by a particular metrical pattern called “elegiac couplets”—alternating lines of dactylic hexameter and dactylic pentameter. Romantic poets reinvented the traditional elegiac stanza, defining it as a quatrain in iambic pentameter following an ABAB rhyme scheme, and Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is a well-known example.

Elegies today are defined by their subject matter and are not required to follow any specific meter, rhyme, or structural pattern. Walt Whitman wrote his elegy for Abraham Lincoln in free verse:

O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love?

Although contemporary elegies are not constrained by meter or rhyme, they typically do follow the same thematic arc, moving from grief and loss into acceptance or reconciliation, a pattern we will see in today’s poem. [Source here.]

“Elegy with Civil War Shadowbox” is organized into 18 couplets or 2-line stanzas. It’s unrhymed, though nearly every couplet contains examples of sound repetitions like internal rhyme or alliteration. In line 2, for example, “teaching about terror” employs a form of alliteration called consonance—repetition of the consonant sound at the beginnings of adjacent or proximate words—and “terror” slant rhymes with “tower” from the first line.

The poem is metered, but the meter is not strictly regular. For readers not brushed up on their scansion, it may be helpful to begin with a short review. The prevailing meter in contemporary English poetry, said also to be the meter of everyday speech, is iambic pentameter. All meters are named in this way, using two terms in which the first states what stress pattern prevails (“iambic”) and the second identifies the number of feet in a line (“pentameter”). The second term is where a little familiarity with Latin roots comes in handy: pentameter means five feet, tetrameter four feet, trimeter three feet, and so on.

Feet are units of sound identified by how stresses are patterned; the main four in English prosody are iambs, anapests, trochees, and dactyls. An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, as in the word “delay,” scanned as x / and pronounced te-DUM. In an anapest, two unstressed syllables precede the stress: intercede, scanned as x x / and pronounced teetee-DUM. Poems whose feet are mostly iambs and/or anapests are called “iambic” or “anapestic” and are said to exhibit “rising meter.” A trochee is the mirror opposite of an iamb, and it puts the stressed syllable first, as in “arrow” ( / x, pronounced DUM-te). A dactyl follows the initial, stressed syllable with two unstressed syllables, e.g., biblical, scanning  / x x  and pronounced DUM-teetee. Lines made up of trochees and/or anapests exhibit “falling meter.”

An iambic line, then, arranges its stresses in a rising pattern and consists of mostly iambs. Most lines in “Elegy with Civil War Shadowbox” are iambic, and most have seven strong stresses, suggesting an old meter called iambic heptameter (also called fourteeners). (Because all but three lines include a mid-line caesura—a pause marked by punctuation—I briefly considered another old and related long-line meter called Alexandrines, rejecting that label because Alexandrines strictly require 12-syllable lines with 6 beats.) The arguments against calling this poem iambic heptameter are that most lines have more than 14 syllables, some have 6 or 8 beats rather than 7, and a few are trochaic rather than iambic. The arguments in favor are that a clear majority of lines do have 7 strong stresses arranged in a rising pattern, and that heptameter was for centuries traditionally the meter used to treat epic subjects like war.

The metrical variations in this poem are so many, though,  that I might just settle on what Robert Frost terms “loose iambics,” in which the poet freely substitutes and adds extra syllables to a predominantly iambic line, or, perhaps, the “free iambic verse” used by T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. Before scanning today’s poem, I might even have called it free verse poured into couplets, because to my ear, the long lines and the way they are broken and end-stopped suggest the cadence, phrasing, and breath-rhythm of ordinary speech.

Labeling meter, I’ve found, can take us only so far, and sometimes it’s just down a deep rabbit hole. I use the labels to help me focus on the poet’s metrical choices and then move on to study the practical effect of those choices—how they do (or do not) support meaning. Why did Satterfield choose this form of long, heavily-enjambed lines that recall those archaic meters? One answer is the poem’s subject and the impulse to use a form fitting to it; iambic heptameter was traditionally used in epic poetry to treat large-scale and tragic subjects like war. The problem is that the contemporary ear, not trained in these meters, may reject them as obsolete. Satterfield’s more flexible approach harnesses the power of heptameter, but does it without sounding old-fashioned. Another reason for Satterfield’s choice of meter may be the shape it makes on the page, those long lines arranged into couplets suggesting the physical dimensions of the shadowbox that the poem describes. Still another might be a way to contain the poem’s outpouring of intense emotion on account of its grave and tragic subject. As with Whitman, the long, frequently-enjambed lines generate intensity and the feeling of a rushing torrent whose power can, perhaps, be better appreciated when we see it exceeding the limits of the container into which it has been poured.

Of the poem’s 36 lines, nearly half  are end-stopped, concluding in a place where a punctuation mark—comma, em dash, or period—indicates logical closure of a thought or idea, a place to pause and take a breath. The remaining lines are enjambed, meaning that the engine of the sentence chugs on past the end of one line and on to the next. Interestingly, the first four and the last four lines of the poem are all end-stopped, building a kind of frame or structural “shadowbox.” Within that frame occur both end-stopped lines and enjambed lines, at first more or less alternating but then coalescing into a block (lines 17-28) of all-enjambed lines in the middle of the poem. It’s significant, I think, that the preponderance of enjambment takes place in those lines that literally collect the physical detritus of battle; it’s as if those run-on lines contain too much sheer stuff and emotion to do anything but overflow.

Within the concept of enjambment exists a continuum ranging from “soft” enjambment (lines broken where, even in the absence of a comma, we might pause or take a breath) to radical or “hard” (lines broken where we normally would not pause, like separating adjectives from the words they modify, articles from their nouns, and in the most extreme cases even chopping words in half). Soft enjambments flow one line to the next in a way that feels smooth, natural, and expected; hard enjambments surprise and can even jar us, still overflowing their lines but in a less controlled way. It is the harder enjambments, it turns out, that offer the most interesting opportunities for proliferation of meaning.

Let’s look at some examples in today’s poem. The first instance of enjambment, in lines 6-7, is syntactically soft, the line break coming in a place where we might, even in the absence of a comma, still take a breath. Notice how line 6 by itself makes syntactic sense, a completed thought: “But for now—collective dreams spattered with ash—comfort came.” Some might call this a harder enjambment because it breaks not just across lines but also across stanzas; that is, completion of the sentence begun in line 6 is delayed not just until the next line but also by the time it takes the eye to drop down to the next stanza.

Notice how line 8 could have ended with a question mark, making a complete thought, sentence, and rhetorical question:

And in the days that followed, we wondered how to pay tribute to what?

Here is a good illustration of how enjambment and line breaks can proliferate meaning. Reading  that line by itself, I can see it as asking a question, maybe even one that raises a protest: “pay tribute to—what?” But when I read on to the next line, I understand  its primary meaning in the context of the whole sentence: “how to pay tribute to what is simply beyond words.” In any event, this is an example of a line further along the enjambment continuum, something that is a bit surprising and makes us consider alternative meanings.

An especially effective instance of  hard syntactic enjambment occurs at the end of line 15, the first line reprinted below:

to fire at retreating survivors; into the ghost-cries of a Gaelic charge from the Irish
brigade, the pile-up of the wounded, and slow work of the Burial Crew

It’s more radical to separate a noun (“brigade”) from the adjective that modifies it (“Irish”), but just look at how it can open up meaning. Ending the line on “the Irish” allows us to read “Irish” as a noun rather than as an adjective, the kind of wordplay poets love. The next line narrows the group from all Irish people to just one brigade, but notice how the enjambment makes it possible, briefly, to hold in mind a whole population that was, like American slaves before the Civil War, brutally oppressed by empire.

A similar enjambment divides “battle” from “debris” in lines 17-18, allowing us for a moment to consider “battle” in its more terrible noun form. Line 20 makes the same move, separating the adjective “spent” from its noun “shells” so that “spent” can be read as a powerful if unconventional noun meaning something like “spent-ness” or exhaustion. That move—of separating a noun from its modifier, occurs all through the poem, in each case complicating meaning.

This may all seem a bit technical, but labels aside, meter and line breaks are crucial to understanding the remarkable power of today’s poem. The subject is war, first as experienced by the speaker during 9/11 and then as depicted in a Civil War diorama. For her, the shadowbox collects and presents the terrible, personal details that can get overlooked in war narratives. The poem’s form is what allows it, like that shadowbox, to collect those objects and to express the way they accumulate into a torrent, the whirlwind rush of chaos in any war. It also allows for the dimension of time. Just as the shadowbox contains what it holds so that the speaker, a hundred years later, can look with fresh eyes on artifacts from the past, the poem contains and views them again in the present moment and for future readers.

Talking about time makes me think about the temporal movement in today’s poem. It begins in the near-past with 9/11, then moves into the slightly more proximate past of 9/11’s aftermath—sending supplies to our troops and consoling ourselves with work. The speaker’s work is studying the Civil War, and one way she accomplishes it is by examining—and reporting on—a shadowbox created by John Philemon Smith. Several lines are devoted to establishing Smith’s credentials, not just a teacher and town historian but an actual eyewitness in close proximity to battles of the Civil War. A significant chunk of the poem (lines 14-24) is essentially a list of the items Smith picked up from the battlefields, such as bullets, blades, and buttons, along with quoted lines from news clippings and poems. By reporting to us what Smith saw, collected, and curated, the speaker is able to evoke the war in gripping, personal detail. Poems like this, that are inspired by another work of art, are called “ekphrastic.”

In line 24 the speaker steps away from the shadowbox to reflect about what it meant to its creator—”one man’s memento / of hope and healing” and also on its significance now, with “conflicts still simmering.” This thought leads the speaker into personal recollection (“I remember”) of her own visit to a park that once was a battlefield. This time, the “period details” come from the park ranger, most chillingly those  “shallow graves ‘common as cornstalks’ in family fields.” The cornstalks trigger the speaker’s memory of eating corn on the cob after the battlefield visit, and that brings back another, more distant memory of eating corn with her brothers, then the same age as many young men who died in the Civil War:

Around our battered kitchen table, twenty-some miles from that
squabbles grown silent, my brothers with their biblical names,
spared the call of conscription, bowed their heads for grace.

Here is where we come, at last, at the end of this powerful and moving poem, to reconciliation, and acceptance of the tragedy of war. How beautiful is that pun on “grace”—a word that means not just what we might say before we eat, but also expresses the larger concept of mercy. The reference to “biblical names” may suggest the Christian concept of divine grace, but the poem closes by offering what is—for anyone—the only real saving grace of war: Some of us, sometimes, are spared.

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