How formal and polite,
How grave they look, burdened with earnest thoughts,
In all these set-up sepia stills,
Almost as if, embarrassed and contrite
To be caught practising their fatal skills,
They’d stepped aside from slaughter for these other shots.
The American Civil War,
The first war captured by the photograph
In real time. Even the dead
Seem somehow decorous, less to deplore
The sump of blood to which their duty bled
Than to apologize, humbled, in our behalf.
We know how otherwise
It was. They knew it then. The gauche onset
Of murderously clumsy troops,
Dismemberment by cannon, the blown cries
Through powder smoke, mayhem of scattered groups
In close engagement’s pointblank aim and bayonet.
How far from then we’ve come.
The beauties of the Baghdad night still stun
Me: a blue screen where guns and jets
Unloose the lightnings of imperium-
Intense enough to challenge a minaret’s
Aquamarine mosaic in the blinded sun
At noon-and smart bombs fall
Through walls to wipe the city street by street.
Morning, and in the camera’s light
The formal corpses ripen. Who can recall
By day precisely what they watched last night?
Or find the unknown soldier in a field of wheat?
Being surplus, like the killed,
Millions of those old plates were simply dumped.
And in a modern version of ‘swords
To ploughshares’, many were reused to build
Greenhouses, ranged and set in place as wards
Above the rife tomatoes as they blushed and plumped,
While, through the daily sun’s
Pictorial walls and roofs, the long, desired,
Leaf-fattening light fell down, to pore
Upon the portraits of these veterans
Until their ordered histories of the war
Were wiped to just clear glass or what the crops transpired.
from Photography for Beginners (River Road Press, 2007), Stephen Edgar 2007, used by permission of the author and River Road Press