Jan 30 08 by Published in: Reviews No comments yet

Carmine Sarracino arrived at the Civil War through poetry.

As a graduate student, the Walt Whitman scholar was deeply affected by the 1865 “Drum-Taps” collection based on Whitman’s years as a volunteer nurse comforting wounded soldiers in a Washington D.C. war hospital.

As a professor of American literature at Elizabethtown College specializing in the 19th century, Sarracino’s research delves into the war that defined the era and continues to shape the nation.

So it’s no wonder his latest book of poetry, “The Battlefield Photographer,” centers on what he calls “the most pivotal event in American history, so far.”

“You could see it looming from the inception of the country, and it’s still with us today,” he said of the issues leading up to the war. “I’m so drawn to this time and the people involved.”

Like Whitman, Sarracino tells the grim story of this time in our history through the eyes of the “ordinary people” who lived and died in the conflict.

He creates characters and composites drawn from real letters and journals, imagining what humanness lies between the artifacts that remain.

In Sarracino’s hands, the historical battles and particular human grief of that point in time become just as fresh and relevant today as he deftly intertwines them with contemporary concerns.

“People are wounded in all sorts of ways – psychologically, emotionally – we all carry scars with us,” he said. “Likewise, we all have the same needs for courage and strength to triumph over things that threaten us.”

To this end, he introduces the collection with “The Battlefield Museum Guide Speaks,” placing us squarely in the present in the bumper-to-bumper world of minivans and SUVs converging on the Gettysburg battlefield.

“What myth/ what delusion/ draws them…” he writes. “What do they imagine happened here?”

He shows us today’s wounded – scarred by leukemia, by the death of a child – here in search of the wounds of the past.

“And you reader?/ Haven’t you been marched/ toward what you could not bear?” he writes. “You know, then, don’t you/ what hallows this ground?”

Like Whitman, Sarracino looks among the wounded to tell the true story of the war and its far-reaching consequences, sharing the language of the 19th century to great effect.

With an unflinching eye and evocative imagery, Sarracino shows us heroes and scoundrels. He empathizes with cowardice and heralds great bravery. He wrestles with the twin pull to bear witness and to turn away from the horror.

Here the unknown solider, the wife who waits at home, the parents desperate for word of their son are all fleshed out in intimate, heartbreaking detail. Here too is General Lee, plagued by lice, and Stonewall in his delirium. And woven among them, always Whitman, bearing bags of oranges for the soldiers, and later haunted by them in his dreams.

This is not the Civil War of history books. Sarracino lays each soul bare, reducing each action to its elemental, born out of passion or pathos, fear or foreboding. This is the war that breaks your heart.

Yet all is not lost. He leaves us with lasting images: old soldiers “on stiff, faltering legs the blue and gray lines closed/…brothers hugging brothers,” and of a robin building its nest on the former battleground, among the bones of fallen soldiers and the quiet guns.

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