THREE POEMS FROM CIVIL BLOOD, A Novel in Poetry and Prose, published in 1986 by Milkweed Editions

Jill Breckenridge's Civil Blood, takes John Cabell Breckinridge and his personal slave, Jacob, from their childhoods through the Civil War and Reconstructiojn.

The first poem is in Jacob's voice; the second is in Will Sommers' voice, a reluctant Confederate soldier; and the third is in Confederate General John Cabell Breckinridge's voice while he's in the midst of battle.



JACOB

CROSSING OVER

If you'd cross over the great Ohio,
first try to find her frozen, then
remember these names to meet your freedom:
Cairo    Evansville    Leavenworth
They may ride you down first, their dogs
tear off your wet clothes, and when you're
stripped, bend you over a barrel,
Madison    Rising Sun    Lawrenceberg
beat you all over your bare back
with a cobblestone paddle--its forty
holes--every hole drawing its own blister,
Cincinnati    New Richmond    Moscow
and then the Blacksnake whip, that stiff
handle, three feet of it, like a club,
and the lash, its snake mouth hissing,
Ripley    Manchester    Rome
or a cat-o'-nine tails, each one
doing its own work plowing up your back,
winding around your body, purring,
Portsmouth    Ironton    South Point
but whatever whip they choose,
they'll work it on you till every blister
breaks open, blood running down to your heels,
Burlington    Jeffersonville    Marietta
and then their salt-water wash,
strong enough to float a spoon in,
the salt and the blood and the screaming.
Wellsburg    Steubenville    Point Pleasant
But if you get there, the silence will be yours,
the trees, the earth, and the grass upon it,
the blue blue sky will be yours, all yours.
Proud to meet you, Master Freedom



WILL SOMMERS, CONFEDERATE SOLDIER

DECEMBER 30, 1862: THE NIGHT BEFORE THE BATTLE
HE PREPARES TO FIGHT, GUN NOT LOADED.

To have risen before the black rooster,
myself crowing in the new day, to have heard
the chorus of wild birds blessing the dew
on my land, to have sunk my hands up to the wrists
in dirt, dark and warm as inside of a cow,
reaching for the turned strangling head of her new one,
to have touched the silky tassel of wheat, golden,
the newly shorn rug of a sheep's back,
the white oak plank I've sanded smooth,
soft as the inside of a woman's elbow,
stroked the underwater skin of catfish, cool
and dark, that surprise of spines, to have dropped
seed into holes I alone made, firmed
warm earth down around them, to have witnessed
the first green shoots, threads of life
so strong in their push for sun they cracked
apart the earth, to have fought squirrel, crow,
rabbit, drought, army worm, drought,
weevil, flood, despair, Hessian fly,
grasshopper, blight, cankerworm, despair,
to keep new life alive, to have watched the green
blades of young corn curl under,
brown like brittle fodder in the scorch of sun,
to have mourned the hay rotting on the ground in rain,
to have held the still warm calf I could not save,
shot the delicate bay mare
mired in the mud hole, half eaten by wild boar,
to have smelled my wife's hair, long
and darkly sweet, new washed, drying in the sun,
to have caught, with my rough hands, a daughter,
then two sons and held them, heard them, slippery
red, cry out their first hellos, to have built
a tiny box from the old cedar, buried a girl,
fist no bigger than a plum,
to have watched my wife's face, a full year
vacant as a winter pasture, to have smelled,
on the coldest day, the welcome warmth of urine and hay
from the just-opened barn door, returned
to the smell of coffee in the kitchen, fresh biscuit
and bacon, to have seen my wife's face slowly
brighten, her cheek regain its wild-rose blush
when I put my lips upon it, to have picked
and tasted the wild raspberry, sun-warmed,
sweet and sour as first dumb desire,
to have been partner with so much life,
to have lived this long, to have lived...



JOHN CABELL BRECKINRIDGE, GENERAL

Quiet now...attack!

and I yell, On men! pushing them forward, when, without
warning, as drums beat out their long unbroken battle roll,
my newly captured horse, an elegant white, begins to step
in rhythm sideways, the whine of cannon ball, stops, slowly
turns around his outstretched leg, and though I rein him in,
has the bit between his teeth, shells exploding, black smoke,
begins to trot a small circle, head bobbing, then approaches
a stump, puts his front feet upon it, gracefully turning
around, the scream, the murmured prayer, as I, giving out
orders, turn a ludicrous circle, realize I've ridden a circus
horse into battle, his unyielding routine activated by drum
rolls, that relentless throb, and dismounting, I catch a
riderless bay, mount amidst clouds of powder smoke, yell
instructions, patch holes in the line, drums like hundreds
of pounding hearts,lift up behind me a wounded color bearer,
who, waving his flag, shouts over and over again, Here's your
Sixth Kentucky! his tattered, red-stained regimental flag
cut from Mary's wedding dress, death our only sacrament, men
cheering and shouting, know this round is theirs, hazy smoke
rising around us, red sun pulling itself up in the sky,
drums in my eyes, in my throat, in my chest, as far across
the field, scattered with blasted tents and hundreds of men
twisted like toy soldiers, faces contorted, I see my horse,
brilliantly white, trotting the sawdust of his own circus,
bullets hissing all around him, completing his flawless
performance to a background of dying and drums, unflinching


From Civil Blood, Milkweed Editions, 1986



Jill Breckenridge is available for readings of her poetry or memoir, and talks on various other topics about writing and publishing. You may contact Jill through this website.