The Great Poem Series: Laura Kasischke’s “At Gettysburg”
Originally published in the New England Review, Laura Kasischke’s poem about the love between a mother and son, “At Gettysburg,” was featured in the 2006 edition of Best American Poetry. As the mother of a nine-year-old son with a determined fascination for the Civil War, Kasischke describes her son’s intrigue as being “bloody creek” between them. Kasischke’s inspiration to write the poem came a week after she fulfilled her son’s lifelong desire to visit the notorious battlefield at Gettysburg. “At Gettysburg” is a poem that tells the caring story of Kasischke observing her son as he joyously weaves in and around the place where so many souls came to their final resting spot, the place that she fears the most.
For the majority of my reading of “At Gettysburg,” I believed that it was a poem memorializing someone, a love lost in such a place of despair. When I came to read the narrator characterizing herself as “their executioner,” “their creator,” and “their mother,” I realized that it was instead a moment in time when she saw her son’s life flash before her eyes as he skipped through and played in a great maze of American death. I relish in the mystery Kasischke creates of not knowing who the narrator seems to be watching by calling him “the one I love”, whoever he may be. Another aspect of the poem I enjoy is Kasischke’s use of dialogue. While the poem’s two characters only share a few words between themselves, it is a very endearing and lighthearted way that Kasischke chose to wrap up the story. I believe it fits perfectly when the mother, immersed in her own thought, comes to find that she and her son are lost in the vastness of Gettysburg. By stating, “we’re lost,” I think that the true meaning behind the simple phrase derives from Kasischke’s ongoing fear of losing her son’s love to his love for war; she is stuck at a crossroads between keeping him happy and keeping him safe. I let out both a giggle and a sigh of relief when Kasischke concludes the poem with the son: “No, Mom… You’re holding the battlefield upside down” (Kasischke). A seemingly direct notion the son makes that his mother is holding the map of Gettysburg upside down, I see in it his eagerness and longing for his mother to be able to view his hobby from a different perspective. What frightens the mother’s heart fuels her son’s passion, and his only hope is that she too would be able to see it.
The descriptive word choice and imagery that Kasischke unfolds throughout “At Gettysburg” surprises me and allows me to create a visual scene for myself as the narrator and her son travel through the battlefield at Gettysburg. From standing by the “edge of a wheatfield,” to a “goofy dance,” manning a cannon and dipping a toe “into Bloody Run,” my mind fills with an action reel of a spirited nine year old boy moving through the motions of what it would be like to be a Union soldier fighting for his country back in 1863 – self-entertainment at it’s finest. As the son pretends to be shot and “falls gracefully” to the ground, Kasischke writes that he stays there for a minute “holding the sun in his arms.” In reading the line, I immediately put myself in the boys place, feeling the warmth and nurture of the sun on my arms, especially after looking up from my copy of Best American Poetry to see the frigid darkness that lay just outside my window.
Why do we question ourselves? In “At Gettysburg,” the narrator poses questions to herself, and even God, throughout the poem. It seems to me that in doing so, the mother attempts to either confirm her doubts or ease them, whichever comes first. When her son is playing on the battlefield, the mother raises her camera as the “shadow of a stranger” just like “black drapery on the pavement” to take his photograph, and asks if “there is some better explanation”. Later on, touching on the weight and stress that comes with her sons restless spirit, she asks again whether someone put her “bony hand” in her hair and left a “gray ribbon there”. I like how Kasischke uses sets of questions in the poem to express the narrator’s concerns and thoughts, but to also intrigue the reader and encourage him to actively think about the possible answers to those questions, too. I believe the poem’s free verse is a pivotal factor in how Kasischke wishes the reader to view the mother’s disorganized thoughts, and how she chooses to raise those particular questions.
Laura Kasischke’s poem “At Gettysburg” is both the tale of an adventure shared by mother and son, but also simply and beautifully addresses the issues between that same mother and son as the son begins to grow up and find new passions for himself, while his mother embarks on her journey to find a way to accept them. I truly believe that, whether pertaining to the Civil War or not, every child finds a way to scare and surprise his mother with the daunting idea of growing up, and every mother faces the struggle to let it happen. Kasischke wrote her poem “At Gettysburg” nearly one week after experiencing the battlefield at Gettysburg herself, and it is evident through her writing that the poem is nothing but raw emotion and truth coming directly from that day.