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Poetry and Medicine
June 1, 2005

The Wound Dresser

JAMA. 2005;293(21):2572. doi:10.1001/jama.293.21.2572

. . . not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray,
he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be filled with clotted rags and blood. . .
      from Leaves of Grass
Flying back from Richmond
I invited Walt to come along. He took
the window seat.
We talked
Civil War, about what I’d seen: half-filled ditches
and worn-down, grassy parapets;
photographs of young men
lying in rows, backs arched, mouths open,
as if some rapture had taken them;
long knives and surgical saws
and little steel instruments in glass cases.
He told me of arms and legs
piled high behind tents;
of white skeletons unburied in the leaves;
of that distant sound, like tearing
paper, a thousand rifled
muskets, what killed so many men.
Then he looked out the window
at America, 30,000 feet below,
the green squares, the silver serpentine ribbons.
I’ve seen it all before, you know,
he said, in my mind, this land, our land,
from Virginia to California. I dressed its wounds.
I grieved its flag-draped coffins.
I sang its songs, the very songs you see
in that book on your lap. I leaned back and closed
my eyes. When I awoke he was gone.

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