“The Wound Dresser” has blood and rain in it, saws and scraps of dresses, bedpans and wishes. Profanity and magic. Grit and lyric rainbows.
In the background of the poem is the rage of war: blood-saturated wood, blood penetrating into the fibers of things, mingled with the earth, water, sky, and air; the startling wonder of a needle sewing belly; the memory of “those ragged crossing lines at Vicksburg marching toward the maize.”
In the foreground, the poem concentrates and focuses the action of beauty in the person of the wound dresser. He carries a lamp—light being the archetype of beauty—like the female nurses of legend, greeted as angelic. But he wears a beard “gold as the pissed-on snow.” The lamp lights his hand, and it is through the character of his hands that we begin to know the wound dresser: his “silken paws,” “softest fingers.” The bandages he stretches out in those hands are not just medical supplies—they are remnants and relics of a lost and distant elegance of life. The elegance of the Dixieland ballroom is now transmuted to the delicacy and artistry of the bandager with his “dress sense.” It is transmuted, not really lost at all.
The beauty of the fine fabrics is not lost on either the wound dresser or the wounded in their dire need. It is not wasted on the mostly dead. It honors them, it is fitting—as fitting in these very different circumstances as it was to the ladies who once wore the now-sectioned gowns. It is a tribute from the world they came from, the world they died trying to save.
There is a mystery to the art and craft of the wound dresser: where he finds the dresses and the surfaces to cut them on. How is he bringing cleanness into a world with blood “deep inside its every piece of wood?” (The bloody wood a relic in its own right, a first-class relic even, to the second-class relics that are the clean strips of cloth.) He moves with a strange sureness in a world, a situation, that other surgeons find desperate, lacking the things that their art requires be ready at hand: “plate to lay a saw on,” a needle.
The wound dresser comes with more than plate and needle. He comes with “pictures of the stars and rivers,” with songs. He comes to shiver with the soldiers. Shivers of pain and fever? Shivers of beauty? Tears. This is a time and place where the strong are weak—and their weakness is worthy of special honor in its own right. It is a time of opportunity to be touched by the tenderness of things, the tenderness and the truth. The wound dresser touches the soldiers, touches them and moves on. The “lamp in his palm,” though “near doused by the sky so bloody with the night,” flickers on.
The rest of the poem unfolds in anaphora, from the simple phrase “he turns.” Each “turn” of the wound dresser seems to be a separate gesture with its own meaning, a progressive turning toward the light of day. The emphasis is on the sense of sight as the sound of the cock’s cry prompts the first turning of the healer’s face to the clouds, to witness the exchange of the waters of the dawn shower for the blood the battlefield put into the rain. The next “turn” is a turn back to the patient who has died, but this look back away from the sky yields a new perspective on the sunrise, as it glows reflected in the “soul’s dead eyes.” When the wound dresser turns again, we see his face fully for the first time. There is something terrible in the sight; the focus is on his mouth, whose unheard murmurs are compared to “fixed battalions,” “those ragged crossing lines.” The murmurs are fearsome, haggard, unrelenting, like names on a death list or doggedly repeated prayers—grimly advancing, gloriously poor. As the battalions at Vicksburg evoked by his lips marched toward the maize, the wound dresser’s final turn is “sunrise out to cornfields.” Emptying the bedpans, he mingles the human waste and excrement that represent hours of miserable night, with words “so soft, so soft, of what he heard them wish.” He knows these evil-smelling offerings as sacred, sacred because they are bound up with the human, returning, as the body will, to earth. The mixing of the contents of the bedpans with the wishes of the wounded and the dying ties the lowest functions of the body with the most intimate aspirations of the soul—an image of the human mystery in its totality.