Strolling the Dead Angle
—Then out spoke brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate:
'To every man upon this earth, death cometh soon or late;
how can man die better, than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his gods…’
—Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Horatius,” recited by Col. Daniel McCook, Jr. of the
Union Army to the men of his brigade before leading them in an unsuccessful assault against the Confederate entrenchments on a slope of Cheatham Hill, which both sides would come to call the “Dead Angle,” during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (Atlanta Campaign), June 27, 1864
White milkweed wakes at the threshold
where fields break from woods. Foxtails,
thistles, their crimson crowns open to sun,
oxeye daisies, false dandelions, and a host
shod in yellow, white, lavender stir within
shadows of waist-high weeds and grasses.
A phoebe hawks wasps near a road
Confederates crossed, and that we cross,
our way from Burnt Hickory to Cheatham Hill,
past the Illinois Monument at the Dead Angle.
My daughter settles in her stroller,
knows that I am not yet ashes, a knowledge
as that of the phoebe now perched on a pine branch:
The world, though bent, bleeds providence—
these roads, these fields, these broken woods.
A trail crew cuts blackberry, poison ivy, saplings
storming the edges of a red clay path. I stop a moment
as my daughter sleeps, say hello to a white-haired man
wearing glasses, an orange vest, weed-eater in hand,
who tells me he doesn’t know how babies sleep that way,
wedged in stroller corners, though they do, all the same;
he says he remembers walking this trail with his daughter,
who slept that way, long ago.
She wakes near Sherman’s post, his command
now confined to a subdivision. She wakes
like the milkweed, around the loop by Kolb’s Farm,
where three deer stand, spooked, unwilling to move,
their choice between stillness and traffic
channeling Powder Springs Road.
She cries, and I stop to feed her on a bench
where wounded boys once burned alive,
left behind, moving colonels to call a truce,
ashes of fathers becoming ashes of sons.
Here, where fires fumed, consumed flesh,
she smacks on mashed bananas, slurps milk
I’ve kept in a cooler beneath the stroller.
The price of heroes is paid by anyone awake:
She laughs, smiles, sinks back into her seat
as we pass the field where thousands fell,
Federal boys plowed by bullets from Rebels in trenches,
Rebel boys bayoneted, bludgeoned by Federals
who ran the hill, broke the line, bodies upon bodies.
I break for water, sweating, thighs chafed, tired
from nothing but pushing this child—no cannon to haul,
wearing no wool, no risk of being shot for some lofty cause,
states’ rights or secession, a rich man’s resolution to own slaves.
Hawk wasps or hawk words,
stir babies or ghosts, boots trampling
the ground, we stroll the edges of spheres,
war to walks, flesh to loam, field to forest,
the phoebe rasping its name, a psalm for the dead
who died no better than I have to this girl:
ashes contained in temples of gods,
fearful odds of a child in this world.