J. H. Beall

Red-Winged Blackbird at Gettysburg Field


We linger to read the gentle lines the land
makes, caused somehow by the layers of rock
below these peaceful fields. We talk under
a copse of trees, mostly for shade from the sun.

A red-winged blackbird alights and bobs on distant
sedge, then launches itself toward the canopy
above us. Before it disappears, hurtling into
the fractured darkness of the trees,

its two chevrons, brilliant orange-red on black
wings, flashes against the fractal blues and greens
of tree and sky. The wind shifts. The words
flutter to us…of soldiers’ battles and old wars.


It is certain that these, red-winged, were here
in that time, when for three days – before
a kind of resurrection – the Fates gave Lee
his time to pose upon the stage of history.

Perhaps he saw them, bobbing and diving, crimson
chevrons showing before the cannons fired their first
volleys and they fled, these soldiers of the sky.
So, too, the soldiers of the earth, whose lives

were strewn about like litter, like false papers
rent from a kind of dark book not unlike history,
they too would have gladly turned to share
the sights of black birds and bright wings.


In the beginning, there was…the plan
the General thought out, so perfect in his mind,
a plan like a grammarian’s composition. His will,
done in directing each element of his army.

Always, there is the unintended consequence.
The march of soldiers arriving too early
and too late. The desperate scrabble hand over
hand up the bloody hill into the face of an enemy

not unlike ourselves. And then the words seem
to become bidden, the terrible, gentle, words,
after the buried dead and the wailing, after the rain
sows ashes, wet and black, into the old earth.


Thus, the cause, these ideas, these shadows, spawn:
the orange ball of the setting sun which promises
a fair tomorrow, “red at night,” red through
the dark clouds’ gathering, red like the chevroned

wings which know nothing of thoughts, red
like the blood soaking into the fields from
the mindless dead. Still, we remember: brothers,
fathers, comrades, friends – the terrible, bloody

mark on his arm as the first bullet sang and slupped
through it, then the second, then the fall.


We come to ponder, to feel the weight of leaden ages
which have brought us to this place. It is only natural
to speak of it, I suppose, to remember not the deeds
but the words. Pericles, whose speeches became

a city and an effigy of war. Lincoln, who gave us
his great equivocation upon a hallowed ground.
I see them, or the idea of them, with the wind tugging
at their clothes, the upturned faces longing

to understand a cause, as the late sun, shrouded,
becomes a crimson band upon a dark wing.

J. H. Beall is a member of the faculty at St. John's College in Annapolis, MD, a senior consultant to the Space Sciences Division at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, and an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Science at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. He was a Congressional Science Fellow and an employee at the Office of Technology Assessment for the United States Congress from 1978 to 1979. Beall was a co-moderator and co-organizer with Maxine Kumin and William Meredith for the symposium, Science and Literature, held at the Library of Congress in 1981. He was also the project administrator for In the Shadow of the Capitol, an oral history of the Black Intellectual Community in Washington, DC between 1922 and 1963, which culminated in a colloquium at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 1981. His work has been featured on Grace Cavalieri's "Poet and the Poem" program at the Library of Congress. Beall has published in the Hollins Critic and the St. John's Review. His first book, Hickey, the Days, was published by The Word Works in 1981. His second book, Republic, was published by Toad Hall Press in 2010. The Italian translation of Republic is forthcoming.