Poem of the Week 10/10/17
At the Grave of Meriwether Lewis
The monument is too tall for the clearing.
There was no one there to remember,
The day I came, no one to remember
But me. I have just come from the cabin where he died
One black night on the Natchez Trace,
The postal road through Chickasaw land.
There are only two rooms in it,
A little too confining for my taste.
He had one. He paced up and down it
All night, his soul calamitous,
Thinking at the last Captain Clark
Would come to rescue him, to partner
The calamity of depression doused with laudanum.
Shit, you might as well throw gas on a fire.
He talked to himself, the others say,
Until the dawn came and he took out his gun.
He was a Hero of the Revolution,
Calm and resolute in the woods and the wild,
Nervous and done for in the cities.
He was the very hand of our democratic spirit
Reaching across the big unknown of the continent.
Chintzy Congress made Clark
A Lieutenant to his Captain, to save a few nickels.
Lewis never told his men Clark was anything but
His co-equal, since he knew that to be true.
Only one man in his charge died,
Of a burst appendix. Only one Indian died,
Stealing horses. And when it was time to choose
A winter camp, Lewis looked around at those
Who had rowed up an irritable river
And portaged over a spot that was blank on their maps,
Two hundred fifty forlorn miles of mountains,
And decided each had earned the right to vote on it.
The men all voted. Sacagawea, the Native woman,
Was the first woman to vote in America.
Clark’s slave, York, was the first black man
To vote in America.
They got to the Pacific at a place so bleak
It was called Cape Disappointment.
I followed them there, and wept to find
The end of the road was a gun-gray ocean,
A bitter wind that used the drops of rain as a whip.
It’s called now, I kid not, Waikiki Beach,
To prove that the god of liberty has a sense of humor.
Sacagawea died young. There’s no place to mourn her.
Rising waters washed away her sturdy bones.
Stouthearted Clark brought up her orphaned son.
Of the stories of York, I like best
The one of how he got his freedom,
Went back upriver to Indian Country,
Got him four wives.
I make out America as bipolar as Meriwether was,
Swinging from the grand to the odious,
From a Hero of the Revolution to the Antichrist.
We cut deals with the Indians and burned them every one.
We prospered on the backs of the abomination of slavery.
Sacagawea was the only woman to vote for a hundred years.
We badly need a few more Heroes of the Revolution.
You can still sign onto the captain’s manifest, venture to the lands
Where the Indians need houses to live in.
My mother was born in a year women could not vote.
She lived long enough to vote for a black man.
Lewis was thirty-five when they buried him
In a small clearing near the cabin where he died.
He died of an insanity that I understand.
I followed him across the country and back
To an empty spot in the woods.
I guess he’d have liked the woods,
Guess he wouldn’t mind the loneliness.
It would take a lot to confine his roving spirit.
Once I thought I caught a glimpse of him,
In a daydream, in the corner of my eye,
In Oregon, near the Dalles,
In a boat coasting down the Columbia,
The current finally in his favor for a while.
I wish I’d had some laudanum to pour out on the ground.
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