The year 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of General William T. Sherman’s infamous “march” through the Carolinas. No one has ever made a feature film about this destructive and brutal campaign, and if some moviemaker did create an accurate portrayal of it, most Americans would be deeply horrified and disgusted by what they saw. The cinema can move and affect people powerfully, but there is another medium that also has such power, and that is poetry.
In a talk given nearly a decade ago, scholar and author James E. Kibler explained how his book Poems from Scorched Earth came about. He had been asked to present a series of lectures about Sherman in South Carolina, and his research on the topic, especially his perusal of primary documents such as letters and diaries from 1865, left him, as he described it, “devastated.” This feeling burned in him and would not go away, and when sat down to write about it, poems began to flow out of him in a way he had never experienced before as a writer. He felt that the voices of those long dead, those who had not been allowed to speak, were speaking through him. His poems became a “meditation on fire” in all its various aspects and symbolisms, including the satanic element. In this moving collection of verse, Kibler speaks not only for persons long dead but also for the surroundings and other living things of their world, and the land itself.
Like a number of the poems in Scorched Earth, “Carolina 1865” is prefaced by a quote relating some incident of this terrible episode of the war—in this case lines from William Gilmore Simms, who wrote about the cruel, wanton destruction of farm animals: “The whole country is fetid with the stench of decaying animals…Bleating calves might be seen along the enemy’s track, moaning about their dead dams, while others but a few months old were feebly sucking at the teats of their slain mothers. Mares with their young had their throats cut.” Kibler distills what Simms describes into one poignant image of a young foal trying to suckle its dead mother amid “charred and smoking February wastes / Which once were fields of cane and corn and grain.”
These verses recount terrible crimes against women, black and white, lament the burning of libraries and churches, and explore the moral and spiritual ramifications of not only the scorched earth policies of 1865, but war itself. Keeping with his theme of destruction, Kibler expands his meditations to modern tragedies such as ecological disasters, abortion, the bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima, and the war in Vietnam, as well as the rootlessness, materialism and destructive wastefulness of modern life—“the Empire in its utilitarian consumerist phase”—as Dr. Clyde Wilson puts it in his eloquent foreword. Kibler contrasts all these things to the stewardship of the agrarian vision, a culture “wedded to God and land” which, he contends, is the only kind that will endure. Some of his poems offer hope through this vision.
This is a book well worth reading, “lest we forget.”
Poems from Scorched Earth is out of print but used copies are available through online vendors.