Talisman

At the end of my drive along the Blues Trail south
Through the cotton fields and shanty towns of the Mississippi Delta
From the nexus of Memphis in the southwest corner of Tennessee
Through Clarksdale, Indianola, and Cleveland, Mississippi,
By way of actual settings, around the college town of Oxford,
From Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County,
Where Byron Bunch, Lena Grove, Joe Christmas, Lucas Burch,
Joanne Burden, and Reverend Hightower played out
The complicated history of Jim Crow in the Deep South
In Light in August, I gladly paid my entrance fee
To the Old County Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg
And, after bantering with the docent with scripted jocularity,
Made my gradual way up the carpeted nearby staircase
With a celerity stereotypical of a tourist from the North,
One creaky riser at a time, to look at precious relics, in the first
Of four galleries, that were recovered from the gangrenous bodies
Of soldiers who died on the field or in hospital tents at the rear,
As if they were talismans that I could draw inspiration from
For poetry that serves not as a laxative for constipation
But as a means of making connection, salvaging experience,
And putting to use my miseducation, a way of reaching out
To ghosts who’ve been waiting for me to pay them attention—

As if artifacts from the corpses of conscripts recruited
From small-town cottage orchards, mosquito-crazed lumber camps,
Creek-side chicken farms, and paddle-splashed fishing docks
In Alabama and Pennsylvania, the Carolinas and Maine,
Vermont, Indiana, Michigan, the Dakotas, and Louisiana
Could do more than enthrall me with their anachronistic charm,
As if the buttons, bandannas, hairbrushes, and combs, the boxes
Of hard tack, the tambourines, recorders, and corncob pipes,
The breast-pocket Bibles, dented canteens, and long dark strings
Of beef jerky still edible after one hundred and fifty years
Could take on an amusing but mystical significance
And blast me into an orbit of understanding and clarity
When I moved from that cluttered gallery to the neater one
Across the hall, where the black and white daguerreotypes
Of those martyred men, those foddered dead, awaited me on a wall.

 

 



Click here to read Scott Ruescher on the origin of the poem.

Image: Civil War Buttons by Erik Christian Photography, licensed under CC 2.0.

Scott Ruescher: As is often the case with my poems, I had to extricate “Talisman” and a few other individual poems (some of them not yet completed, others still emerging) from an amorphous mass of related images that I’d recorded in a journal on a road-trip, in this case one from Memphis to New Orleans. On earlier adventures in Central America, England, and other parts of the American South, I ended up with a handful of shorter poems, originally intended to be individual passages in a longer narrative poem. My history keeps repeating itself, as I now also seem to be working on clusters of poems about my early days in the Boston area, in the 1970s.

For a poem about this one site alone, a gallery in an old-school Civil War history museum in Vicksburg, I had to weed out not only images from earlier parts of the Memphis-to-New Orleans trip (some of those are mentioned in the first stanza of the poem) but also images from other galleries in the museum. I had to ignore images from a room dedicated to the memory of Varina and Jefferson Davis, for instance, and images from a room where mannequins stood in their antebellum formal wear, and save them for other individual poems.

In the long dependent clause that opens the poem, I accounted for, and dispensed with, some of the earlier historic sites from the road-trip (Clarksdale, Oxford, Indianola, etc.) so that I could give full attention, in the equally long main clause that begins at the end of the first stanza and continues through the second, to the artifacts from the Vicksburg battlefield that I saw in that gallery. In doing so, I strove to achieve a grammatical and emotional balance between that preliminary road-trip imagery in the first half of the poem and the imagery of artifacts seen up close in the second half.

In this way I like to think I was unconsciously emulating the vision of a soaring eagle that looked north toward Memphis in one glance before surveying the carnage of Vicksburg directly below, on the banks of the Mississippi, when the battle was over, on July 4, 1863.

Scott Ruescher
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1 COMMENT

  1. Your poem makes me want to visit Vicksburg and visit museums/memorial sites of the Deep South. Thank you!

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