Let battle commence: Wendy Klein, Dempsey & Windle
Wendy Klein was born in the United States but has lived in England for many years. Her great-grandfather fought in the American Civil War, and was a slave-owner “whose beliefs could not have been more different from my own”, she says at the outset, in her introduction to her short collection of poems based on his wartime letters home.
I would say at a guess – or at least, speaking personally - that there is still a lack of detailed knowledge in this country about the American Civil War. The first poem in the collection, ‘Introducing Your Very Own Great War’, in the voice of a street-corner news vendor – and with a flavour of Oh! What a Lovely War - helps to put it in historical context, asserting that it pioneered ironclad ships, trench warfare, the Gatling gun (precursor of the machine gun), and the first landmines: “How clever you’ve become at maiming / one another, at killing / what giant steps forward, your greatest war.”
In ‘I Meet Him’, Klein introduces her great-grandfather, Robert Melvin Tarleton Jr, via a photograph, and with a line so evocative of the beginning of all wars:
... muffled up to the chin
in confederate grey, double-breasted
best wool worsted, what looks like
a pert bowtie under his stiff collar.
… he’s enlisted
on his first day back from med school,
proud to serve, certain he will be home
In another poem, ‘My great-grandfather imprisoned in my roll-top desk’, she reveals her reluctance to write about him “until I am ready not to misrepresent him”. Inside her desk are
… the 175 pages of letters he wrote
while serving as a lieutenant in Smiths Battery, Kentucky.
This imprisonment is cosy, a holiday camp compared
to the Yankee gaol he will escape from to marry
my earnest young great-grandmother, Miss Sallie Lightfoot.
‘The Real Rebel Yell’ refers to the battle cry used by Confederate soldiers. Klein tries both to ascertain and to imagine what it sounded like:
… that strange warbling that rose
from the throats of thousands of boys and men
clad in sun-faded butternut and moss grey rags
when they charged through the smoke and dust
at the Union line …
She wonders how they did it: “Wouldn’t your voice fail? Imagine advancing / with an empty musket through geysers of dirt, / trying to control your voice and your fear.”
This is not the romance of war, however much the tattered and tarnished old Confederate flag is still brandished today by far-right white supremacists and self-appointed militias, but the pity of it.
Klien’s great-grandfather is taken prisoner, but escapes and trudges 360 miles home: she imagines him “running into bayou to be raked by low branches of cypress, swamped / by dank curtains of Spanish moss, accosted by alligators.” The war ends, the South vanquished, and thousands of slaves are freed each day. He hints in a letter of “dangerous consequences”. But
though possessed of
foresight, my broken, baffled great-grandfather
would not live to witness what happened
when the Union Army withdrew after
a dozen years of occupation: lynch mobs
swaggering in to take control, burning crosses,
the order of the noose.
(’40 Acres and a Mule’)
In ‘The Second Time my Great-grandfather Mentions Black People’, Klein says “what follows is hard for me to read” – and the words he uses are impossible for me to quote. Nor do I want to. She says:
I am trying to forgive him
for words politely excised from common parlance 2020,
words in everyday use in the post-war misery of 1867,
and to see him as a loving father, a decent gentleman
fallen on hard times, using that vocabulary.
He left three children, but died aged only 30, on the very day that his wife was giving birth to a daughter. Did war hasten his death? His young widow never married again. Klein imagines her as Vivien Leigh at Tara, retaining enough of her Southern allegiance in old age to rail at a nurse who brought in a small American flag: “your voice strong as ever: / Take that flag out of this room.” (‘My Great-grandmother as Scarlett O’Hara’).
Some of the poems in this collection feel fragmentary, gleaned and constructed as they are from letters home, and sometimes the subject matter and language leave the reader with an initially uneasy feeling. For her part, while clearly disowning his cause, Klein is determined not to indict her great-grandfather: “And who, now or then, will have / the audacity to judge him? Not I.” (‘R.I.P’). One thing is certain. These poems have an undeniable historical interest, in the light of America’s apparently intractable divisions, still lethal and unresolved today.