“Declaration to a Shade”

A weekly poem, read by the author.
Sept. 18 2012 6:15 AM

“Declaration to a Shade”

Farm gate in winter.

Photograph by Kevin Eaves/iStockphoto.

Click the arrow on the audio player to hear Brian Culhane read this poem. You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.  

In 1397, Carlo Malatesta defeated Mantua and ordered the statue of Virgil destroyed; in 1936, Hitler ordered Mendelssohn’s statue in Leipzig destroyed.

What little I have to declare I do
Before the statue of Mendelssohn tipped over
Before the statue of Virgil also tipped over
For whatever reason proffered—racial laws,
The enmity of the victors for the losers, etc.—
What little baggage I have I now hand over
To the ministers in the Ministry
Gazing down on the snowy public square,
Its toppled statuary and bewildered pigeons.
Surely the weather is miserable, they say.
Still, kindergarteners lark about in parks
As hatless mothers chat in the market stalls,
As denounced painters composers poets
Dream of a sudden reprieve from on high.
Instead, always the walk to the guillotine:
They paint the sky with broken fingers,
Hymning sunlight to a pocketful of fleas.
What little I have to declare I do so,
What little knowledge of their sorrows
I have, what little of their trials I know:
Such I shall bear beyond these gates
To the hills, beyond any ring of fire,
Where the tomb of the unknowns is found
In the spoor of a fox, a huddle of brackish ferns,
The purgatorial plumage of ash-grey storks;
Where, according to local legend, the dead
Muster along a gritty ditch, still muttering
About the things that used to matter most—
And should one surface to take my arm,
I’ll step down and cross the marish waste
And turn toward the brittle winter wind
And stand listening to the rustle of oblivion,
Offering this least resplendent of tributes,
Breathing the musk of desecrated names.

For Slate's poetry submission guidelines, click here. Click here to visit Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project site.

Brian Culhane's The King’s Question received the Poetry Foundation’s Emily Dickinson Prize, given to a poet over 50 for a first book.


Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

The World

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies

They’re just not ready to admit it yet.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Sept. 16 2014 2:11 PM Spare the Rod What Charles Barkley gets wrong about corporal punishment and black culture.
Sept. 16 2014 2:35 PM Germany’s Nationwide Ban on Uber Lasted All of Two Weeks
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 1:27 PM The Veronica Mars Spinoff Is Just Amusing Enough to Keep Me Watching
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission
  Health & Science
Sept. 16 2014 1:39 PM The Case of the Missing Cerebellum How did a Chinese woman live 24 years missing part of her brain?
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.