Our Memory, the Shining Leaves
(Waterford Fair Civil War Reenactment)
From here it's hard to tell who's killing who
& I guess it's better this way,
not knowing the difference between the gray & the blue
& the stillness that answers each rifle shot with the only phrase
stillness can ever imagine itself saying:
at last we are here together.
It's an indulgent thought & that's why stillness
It's too comfortable, too secure. I think you would agree
but I feel dumb asking because what good are questions
as the evening falls across our faces & the black oaks
at the edge of the field take on a pale yellow light
that the end of summer brings & the soldiers dying
their solemn deaths in front of us begin to believe
too much in themselves, in the blank crisp volley
of their voices: a decayed stone wall separating then & now.
It is to this that we should listen:
the space between the air & our bodies.
We don't belong here among the dead.
That is what they are, right? Trying to remember
is a kind of dying. Each pull of the trigger an elegy
for the body of a boy found by Union troops
in the ruined chimney of Gaines Mill,
for a photograph in a child's history book
of a field surgeon lunging with his amputating saw
at two dogs fighting over a canvas bag of opium.
How much simpler does it get?
Stillness says at last we are here but we shouldn't
You are too beautiful & I am too careless to want any of this.
The funnel cake, the candy apples, stove-pipe hats & horse-drawn carts
full of pumpkins & the brown cloth of dusk. The land rising slowly
into the pines, into the mountains, leaving the brittle grass lining the
& the town & the town's shadow behind in their silence: a silence
we're all used to, that we can't shake off & if we do, it's not us
that does the shaking. It's a cricket hopping from the grass to your knee,
the last day of summer & all we can do is wait for something to happen.
And it does. But never the way we want it.
Never the sudden sparrow there on your foot snipping
in two before it opens its big mouth. No, the cricket chirps & right
summer unfolds & evening begins & you cup the poor dark song
in your hand & let it go.
It's not real a father says to his boy sitting on a bale of hay
behind us. They're not dying.
I look at him & know that for once in his life he is right.
The sad flinch that fathers give the world when their children
are shown too much or not enough makes him seem almost distant,
not wholly there, a part of the landscape & I begin to regret looking
as we regret anything that is crumbling right before us:
the ocean's shore: the shriek of the fox diffused by leaves.
It's too soon to know that flinch, though I have felt
holding it back at certain times. Not now, though, not here...
then you grab my hand, working each finger
into mine as if to say It's real, believe me.
Then maybe we should be here, if that's how it has to be, to prove
that we belong with the evening & the oaks & the dead gathering
under the hay, with the boy who now has learned that death
is as comic & terrible as a sheep in a petting zoo,
the oily grit from its coat still there on his fingers,
a texture that stillness can never imagine.
The difference is that these soldiers eventually get
They brush the thistle & the straw from each other's backs,
not sure exactly of where they are for a moment,
& they walk away jingling their car keys & stretching their legs,
stiff from being dead so long: at last & together.
The difference is that the boy searches the field after the skirmish
looking for a trace of what he saw (gold button: hank of hair:
glass eye in a raven's mouth) & finds nothing but a hungry sparrow
lifting him into our memory, into the shining leaves.
We should be used to this sort of thing by now.
We should walk towards the white barn on the hill
where the lambs bite & snort at the children who get too close,
& forget about everything. Fold up the day into our sweaters,
hold each other closer than night or stillness can get.
And as the light carries us to the hill as though
we are flying into ourselves, shouldn't we finally,
after all of this, understand our lives?
Shouldn't we say what we meant to say?
For Lisa Kiernan
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