Wednesday 8 November 2023

The Wound-Dresser


The Wound-Dresser
by Walt Whitman & John Adams

How can any artist find a way to visualise the indescribable tragedies of the present wars of destruction, suffering and death? I turn for help to the great American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), who during the extremely bloody American Civil War (1861-1865), volunteered to work in hospitals to care for the wounded, nurse them and comfort them as they were dying. His experience inspired his famous poem The Wound-Dresser. These notes are in honour of all those anonymous heroes and heroines who today are working themselves to death as "wound-dressers", in the most traumatic circumstances.
"Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Strait and swift to my wounded I go, 
There they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof'd hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return, 
to each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss....."

In 1989 the composer John Adams set this poem to 19 minutes of haunting music for chamber orchestra and baritone. In 2010 I painted continuous fluid images, projected large on-screen, for two deeply moving performances in The Netherlands with the baritone David Wilson-Johnson and Holland Symfonia, conducted by Otto Tausk. My kinetic images were never recorded on video.
"An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill'd with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and filled again....
I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hands to dress the wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp but unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes - 
poor boy! I never knew you.
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you."

"Come sweet death! Be persuaded
O beautiful death! In mercy, come quickly."

The above link to John Adams includes some very perceptive, thought-provoking comments by the musician Sarah Cahill. Thank you Sarah.