Family Portrait with Spirit, 1865

For those who’d seen the fallen soldiers shot
in sepia and cream, the gory truth
of war preserved in print, how comforting
to have their casualties intact, albeit
transparent, posed among their kin as they
obliged the slow exposure.
The demands
of cameras didn’t daunt a sensitive
photographer; capturing the dead
of those with cash in hand took little strain.
What did it matter what he did behind
the darkroom door to coax a spirit from
the albumen, as long as the bereaved
identified a disembodied son,
a husband swathed in something like a sheet,
above a crepe-draped shoulder?
People hoped
to challenge the limits of life, the true
depths of death, when simple memories
would not suffice to soothe those left to grieve.
In cartes de visite they carried proof
of love beyond the grave. To mourners mired
in black attire, how much the flash revealed!

April 2008