The Hospital Ships
They might have freighted the exotic
(ebony, cinnamon, porcelain, camphor)
from the port cities to small uptown towns.
But these days they carry farmboys, mostly.
Like this load of New Yorkers in stacked
white hammocks stained red, none of whom
ever before traveled 20 miles from home.
Under the crescent moon the ships
churn into Baltimore harbor, slowly rocking,
creaking, so that many of the boys, dreamy
with anodynes, smile into their mother’s faces.
Some will be delivered dead. Others
without the hands, left, feet and arms dropped
beside the surgeons’ tables for burial in pits.
Many expected to heal in days will die.
Soiled gauze must be removed, slough washed off,
fresh lint and bandages reapplied. The boys will need
someone to write a letter, read the Bible, someone
to return the next day, and promise to return again.
This time of night in Baltimore
whorehouses and barrooms ring with revelry
(the good citizens all tucked long since abed)
as these ships steam in from Chancellorsville.
At the end of Wharf 6, in the dark,
a sack of oranges at his feet,
Walt Whitman stands waiting.
– Carmine Sarracino, from The Idea of the Ordinary