“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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 2 2014 6:00 AM Can’t Stomach It I was shamed for getting gastric bypass surgery. Should I keep the procedure a secret?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?