Yusef Komunyakaa reads his poem “I Am Silas” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.
I Am Silas
We worked the thorn bushes
& front garden, hunted quail
& jackrabbit deep into the woods,
dipped fat hens into boiling pots
to pluck the speckled feathers,
picked mayhaw & blackberries
beside a bog, shucked yellow corn
into grain barrels, & horsed around
in the snowy clover at sunset.
He was a buckaroo at sixteen
& me at seventeen when he signed up
for the 44th Mississippi Cavalry,
& we shadowed each other
as if of the same wet mother.
The boy owned my surname,
but I hadn’t ever said sir or mister
& he never called me manservant
or slave before we teamed up
with Johnny Rebs yelling across
the border of Cicasaw county,
before we fought our way
to Belmont, Shiloh, Chickamauga,
& Crooked Tree. My Bowie knife
will never rust because the blade
knows blood. Sometimes dreams
come out of verse in Revelations
& other times out of love songs
half-whispered on a hilltop,
or blues down from the Delta
the whole lonely climb to West Point
winding into pine & shrub oak
where the sapsucker & God Bird
live by infernal grace & fire.
Once I dreamt in a canebrake
faces of the First South Carolina
& I could no longer stand guard
over our sleeping shadows.
The pale horse & the dark horse
shook in their trace chains,
& that was when a bullet
caught up with Andrew Chandler
& Yankee soldiers took us to Ohio
To save his right leg I paid
the camp doctor a gold piece
sewn into his gray jacket,
& we were sent to Atlanta
in a lucky swap. Sometimes,
if you plant a red pear tree
beside an apple, the roots tangle
underneath, & it’s hard to say
if you’re eating apple of pear.
When we came back to runagate
crops going to seed & bedlam,
I was ready to bargain for a corner of land.
But history tried to pay me
in infamy with Judas’s regalia
& a few pieces of tarnished silver.
Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “I Am Silas” is published in “Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration: Poems and Photographs, Past and Present.” In recognition of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery commissioned 12 modern poets to reflect on our contemporary understanding of the war.