Poem: The Lincoln Relics by Stanley Kunitz

Cold-eyed, in Naples once,

while the congregation swooned, I watched the liquefaction

of a vial of precious blood,

and wondered only

how the trick was done.

Saint’s bones are only bones

to me, but here,

where the stage is set

without a trace of gore,

these relics on display-

watchfob and ivory pocket knife,

a handkerchief of Irish linen,

a button severed from his sleeve–

make a noble, dissolving music

out of homely fife and drum,

and that’s miraculous.

 

2

His innocence was to trust

the better angels of our nature,

even when the Union cracked

and furious blood

ran north and south

along the lines of pillage.

Secession grieved him

like the falling-out of brothers,

After Appomattox he laid

the white flower of forgiving

on Lee’s crisp sword.

What was there left for him to do?

When the curtain rose

on Our American Cousin

he leaned forward in his chair

toward the last absurdity,

that other laughable country,

for which he was ready with his ransom–

a five-dollar Confederate note

in mint condition, and nine

newspaper accolades

neatly folded in his wallet.

It was time for him now

to try on his gold-rimmed spectacles,

the pair with the sliding temples

mended with a loop of string,

while the demon of the absolute,

who had been skulking in the wings,

leaped into focus,

waving a smoking pistol.

 

3

In the Great Hall of the Library,

as in a glass aquarium,

Abe Lincoln is swimming around,

dressed to the nines

in his stovepipe hat

and swallowtail coat,

effortlessly swimming,

propelled by sudden little kicks

of his gunboat shoes.

His billowing pockets hang

inside out; he is swimming

around, lighter at each turn,

giddy with loss,

while his memory sifts

to the sticky floor.

He is slipping away from us

into his legend and his fame,

having relinquished, piece by piece,

what he carried next to his skin,

what rocked to his angular stride,

partook of his man-smell,

shared the intimacy of his needs.

Mr. President,

in this Imperial City,

awash in gossip and power,

where marble eats marble

and your office has been defiled,

I saw the piranhas-darting

between the rose-veined columns,

avid to strip the flesh

from the Republic’s bones.

Has no one told you

how the slow blood leaks

from your secret wound?

 

4

To be old and to be young

again, inglorious private

in the kitchens of the war

that winter of blackout,

walking by the Potomac

in meloncholy khaki,

searching for the prairie star,

westward scanning the horizon

for its eloquent and magnanimous light,

yearning to be touched by its fire:

to be toughed again, with the years

swirling at my feet, faces

blowing in the wind

around me where I stand,

withered, in the Great Hall.

 

5

He steps out from the crowd

with his rawboned, warty look,

a gangling fellow in jeans

next to a plum-colored sari,

and just as suddenly he’s gone.

But there’s that other one

who’s tall and lonely.

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