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

Elegy with Civil War Shadowbox


In the wake of the towers’ collapse, there were e-mails and memos,
strategic advice for teaching about terror. After a day off for mourning,

with class back in session—from phone calls, floor meetings, and vigils—
students were simply tapped out. In time we’d send our support—

in the form of chocolate, baby wipes, and Skin-So-Soft—to desert troops.
But for now—collective dreams spattered with ash—comfort came

in simply turning back to our work, one way to counter catastrophe.
And in the days that followed, we wondered how to pay tribute to what

is simply beyond words. Clearly the question haunted John Philemon Smith,
teacher and town historian, eyewitness, at seventeen, to the battle

that transformed his hometown from sleepyvillage to a mass grave. Over the course
of the twenty-four years that followed, in treks along Antietam Creek,

across twelve miles of countryside, in sorties back into memory’s terrain,
to phantom gunfire and visions of riflemen kneeling on the bodies of the slain 

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,

he gathered whatever the ground gave up, assembling a shadowbox from battle
debris: a folding camp spoon, Union uniform buttons, fragments of spent

artillery shells, minié balls, a belt buckle, fragments of a bayonet. Across the back
and sides of the box, in Smith’s upright and legible hand, details of battle, news

clippings, lines from an official’s commemorative speech. Rhymed quatrains
citing plenteous funeral tears, the neighing steed, the flashing blade, trumpet blast and

cannonade; his hand-carved replica of the cemetery’s Private Soldier Monument
placed front and center to create a compelling visual field—one man’s memento

of hope and healing that left out conflicts still simmering—segregation’s
mark in the veteran burials from the world wars. I remember the heat-stunned

and rutted dust of Bloody Lane, scant chirp of crickets, wind, a park ranger’s
period details—shells exploding the pacifists’ church where wounded

were taken, the shallow graves “common as cornstalks” in family fields.
The emancipated would wait more than a year for the state

to rewrite the law and grant them freedom. Later, while slathering ears
of Silver Queen with butter and salt, it was hard not to think

of troops taking cover in cornfields, restless in the hours before dawn.
Around our battered kitchen table, twenty-some miles from that field,

squabbles grown silent, my brothers with their biblical names,
spared the call of conscription, bowed their heads for grace.


“Elegy with Civil War Shadowbox” appears in Apocalypse Mix (Autumn House 2017) and is reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Jane Satterfield is the author of five books, most recently Apocalypse Mix, winner of the 2016 Autumn House Poetry Prize, selected by David St. John. An Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, she is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowship, the 49th Parallel Poetry Prize from Bellingham Review, the Ledbury Festival Poetry Prize, and more. Her previous books include Her Familiars (Elixir Press; finalist for the 2013 Julie Suk Award for best poetry book on an independent press); Assignation at Vanishing Point (Elixir Press Book Award), and Shepherdess with an Automatic (Towson University Prize). Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond was published by Demeter Press in 2009. With Laurie Kruk, she coedited the multi-genre anthology Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland (Demeter 2016). Satterfield’s poetry and prose have appeared in American Poetry Review, Antioch Review, The Common, Crazyhorse, Diagram, Hotel Amerika, North American Review, Notre Dame Review, Pleiades, and many more, as well as on Verse Daily and Poetry Daily. The daughter of an American airman and a British mother, she grew up near Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland. She is married to poet Ned Balbo and lives in Baltimore, where she is an associate professor at Loyola University Maryland.  (Cover art for Apocalypse Mix by Tanja Softić, Migrant Universe: Departure Landscape, 2008, acrylic, pigment, chalk on paper mounted on panel, 60” x 120”/152 x 304 cm.)

Read reviews of Apocalypse Mix here and here. Read poems from Apocalypse Mix on the WWI Writes blog, and listen to Satterfield talking about the book’s origin and apocalyptic literature at Superstition Review’s Authors Talk site.


Poet’s Note

“Elegy with Civil War Shadowbox” is a meditation on the challenges of memorializing war. The poem was inspired, in part, by the shadowbox I saw in a 2012 exhibit called “Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War.” The Antietam National Cemetery Memorial Shadowbox, ca. 1886, created by Smith, is part of the Maryland Historical Society’s collection. Initially, I was struck by the artist’s tribute to a battle observed up close and recollected over time; the assemblage of battlefield debris—real objects once held by living people—is a powerful reminder of the human cost of war, a visual lament for lost lives. At the same time, the piece is a reflection of the way the Civil War has been deeply mythologized. The limitations of the artist’s vision are manifestly clear: some voices are foregrounded, and others are cut out of the frame altogether—in particular those of enslaved African Americans who achieved freedom in a piecemeal fashion in the aftermath of the war’s chaos. Line 29 quotes a letter written by Samuel Michaels, the son of a Sharpsburg, Maryland farmer whose home was commandeered as a makeshift hospital. The landscapes we inhabit are richly layered with voices and presences; the consolation elegies offer is that they summon those stories that haunt us and give them a name.

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