“Declaration to a Shade”
Photograph by Kevin Eaves/iStockphoto.
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.
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.