The bridge needs defending,
choke point between swingsets
and water park. A gray soldier
tells me not to go beyond
the picnic tables. A stealthy
Union man checks his phone.
We’re front seat, lunch spread out,
and while the battle rages
I eat cold corn on the cob,
which always takes a while
and requires looking down to see
what’s been consumed.
Children, there’s watermelon. They eat
watermelon. A man beside a tree crumples.
Another fixes a bayonet.
I tell them what I know of war,
the battle charge to come. They want to know
why you don’t hold bayonets like knives.
I say, to keep your distance.
Still so close
the distance between two bodies.
I don’t say, for leverage.
To drive the bayonet deeper,
to force the point into the stomach of a man.
The firing stops. The yells of men and boys.
When two grapple and one falls dead,
I look back to my corn, which I’ve neglected.
Later they’ll help each other up, brush
each other off, but in the charge I heard them
At the First Battle of Bull Run,
spectators dressed up.
Women with opera glasses. Women
selling pies. Far enough away
that when the big artillery began,
they applauded, sure the war
would be contained in one weekend,
in this bowl
of grass and stone.
Later we ride the kiddie train,
through the tents of soldiers and civilians
in knickers and long skirts.
Look, they took their kids! my two
exclaim, glad. The tracks hairpin
by the amputation demo.
I remind them about starvation and disease.
My daughter wants to know
about dysentery, smallpox.
Yellow fever! She likes the sound
of this. Her favorite color’s yellow.
The train rumbles through a tunnel.
Beyond it, men in gray – bandits, rebels –
are set to rob the train.
The children clutch
play coins given in advance
and hand them gleefully to a smiling man.
The children are not scared
and the children are not scared
and when I say you know this is not
what real war is like they say I know, I know
and when the train stops
they run off to feed the deer
behind the bars.
Karen Skolfield’s book Frost in the Low Areas won the 2014 PEN New England Award in poetry and the First Book Award from Zone 3 Press. She received the 2015 Robert H. Winner Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America and the 2015 Arts & Humanities Award from New England Public Radio, and has received additional fellowships and awards in 2014/2015 from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Ucross Foundation, Split This Rock, Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Skolfield is an Army veteran and teaches writing to engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts. www.karenskolfield.com