Pray Tell, Private Hell


While on a mid-week visit to Antietam last April I noticed another guy touring the nearly deserted battlefield. He looked about my age and was dressed in the uniform of a musician from the Union Army. He noticed by the lettering on my van that I was a bookseller. He came over, introduced himself, and we started talking. His name was Steve Bartel, a graphic art designer, writer and drummer from Los Angeles. He was a reenactor who portrayed a “sheepskin fiddler” (drummer), and also had self-published a book of poems titled Pray Tell, Private Hell: Extracts from the Confessions of a Civil War Soldier. He pulled a copy from his knapsack and inscribed it to me in a very convincing 19th century hand. After five or ten minutes of pleasant conversation (I’m from California myself) I thanked him for the book, handed him my card, and we parted.

I’m not usually one for self-published books of poetry, but I think I read Private Hell’s 100 poems through in one sitting. I found their sound and feel amazingly authentic. They’re short, very observant, full of the dark humor of soldiering, and refreshingly free of literary pretensions. The book is a perfect lesson in using literature to illuminate history in ways non-fiction rarely can. It seems that Steve was channeling his great great uncle, Pvt. Alonzo C. Hayden, who was killed and buried on the field at Gettysburg.

Many of the poems are based on historical incidents, such as Lincoln’s little speech at Gettysburg (too short to be captured by unprepared photographers), Father Corby blessing the 69th New York Volunteers at Gettysburg, the death of Stonewall Jackson by friendly fire, etc.

Here are a few examples:

Fancy This, or, The Roadbed Is Not On The Level

Oh, fancy the comforts of life such as this!
Our rations are hardwood, our coffee is piss.
Our money? What money? Our clothes fall apart.
Our feet are more weary than Abraham’s heart.
We go up against guns as big as you please,
and can’t see the forest because of our knees.
Our officers know what they know: flowing bowls!
So fancy our comforts, then pray for our souls.
-Pvt. Hell

Emmitsburg Road, or, Private Haymaker’s Muse*

I have this heavy feeling in my heart
as though there is already a lead ball here.
And as I look across these amber fields,
I somehow feel I’ve come this far to fall here.

It seems to be a thousand yards or more…
a thousand yards of shot and shell and hell.
Well, Lord, is this the day you made me for?
I guess the next half-hour’s work will tell.
-Pvt. Hell

*Pvt. William Monte of the 9th Virginia remarked, pulling out his watch as the remains of his regiment reached the Emmitsburg Road during Pickett’s Charge, “We have been just 19 minutes coming.” Moments later he was struck and killed by a shell.

The Last Shot

I am shot! Oh God, please take me quick—
I don’t want to go where you go if you’re sick.
Oh the blood! I can feel it seep down my shirt
but it’s odd in the way that it doesn’t hurt.
And is this aroma the smell of death?
That’s strange—it’s so like a saloon-keeper’s breath,
and the growing stain is not red, I see…
why, my flask took the ball that was meant for me!
too bad my whiskey’s gone to St. Pete.
-Pvt. Hell

Heavenly Perdition

Ignorant,
I asked God:
“If you are omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent,
how can there be a Hell?”

And God said:
“Hell is where I am not… hence, in Hell,
I disguise myself as the Devil.”

“Holiday in Hell?” said I.
“Paradox in Paradise,” said He.
-Pvt. Hell
At the end of December, while cataloguing a book, I came across an obscure and amusing anecdote about Lincoln which reminded me of just the sort of thing this Mr. Steven Bartel makes into verses. I pulled out his book, read it again, and still thought it damned fine, so decided to get in touch with him. A Google search soon revealed that he had died suddenly just days earlier, leaving a wife and two young kids.

To wrap this all up then, after a couple of unanswered emails to the address I had with his book I sent a note to the mailing address. Last Friday I got a call from his dad. Yes, he has copies of the book. I told him my story of meeting Steve on Antietam field. He told me it was some kind of very aggressive cancer—he was gone in a matter of weeks. I’m not sure why this whole episode affected me so. Must be I’m getting old.

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