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I had thought it would be on display on a wall in the great room

Along with the tanks, medals, cannons, uniformed manikins

patriotic photos, letters, weapons, maps

But no.

The painting was hung in a smaller room up the stairs

all to itself in the Imperial War Museum

 in a corner of this former mental hospital.

One long bench, a display case, fresh paint, and polished wooden floors

We had the room all to ourselves, the Great War and I

Alone I viewed John Singer Sargent’s 20-foot-long painting.

Nine blindfolded, mud-covered men, slumped but standing

Each one clutching at the pack of the man in front

Two orderlies herding them to medical tents;

A group of exhausted, mustard-colored comrades at their feet

Collapsed, writhing, resting, crying out

Another train of blindfolded men in the background plus countless dead and dying men

Littered, twisted, like moaning kelp on a bloody beach

All tans and beiges, like each soldier had been steeped in weak tea and urine.

I get up from the bench to look into the display case

Sargent’s quick charcoal studies done in the moment,

the closest I’d ever get

to the gas, sweat, the blood, the burning skin.

What did the soldiers think of him, this well-dressed American painter, this mannerly, soft-

            handed man?

A handkerchief clutched to his nose and mouth, watching them;

He’d probably race to some trees to vomit, then lie down under a blasted tree.

Looking back at the lines of slaughter, their heads swathed in bandages.

He kept drawing, drawing, drawing.

What did they think of him, walking around with his armful of sketches

This bearded 62-year-old man with no gun, no bayonet, no helmet

Clean shoes, a nice coat

 Painter of the rich.

But these crumpled, coughing, groaning, dying boys didn’t notice him, did they?

Boys the same ages as my own sons,*                                                                                            

Their stench, blistered lungs, and bent bodies now up on a wall.

Could these boys’ parents even stand to look at this?

Could they even face climbing the stairs up to what they might see?

In a cold, lonely room, smelling of paint and turpentine,

in London, a place many of the sons, lovers, brothers,

            and husbands in the painting would never saw again.


*  This visit to the war museum was in the fall of 2011. Sam was 28, Ed 26, and Monty had just turned 23.

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