Don Share

 

At Forrest Park


        You pricked your way through Tennessee:
A thorn in the Union side, you spurred
        your way back to Memphis,
and rode your horses right into the lobby
        of the best hotel in town,
astonishing the Yankee soldiers occupying its plush
        chairs with their behinds, and their time
with the local paper Grant hijacked.
        The commotion you caused
on the cobblestone boulevards,
        especially as your saber rent
the blue Southern sky, drew the cheers
        of the town's finest citizens.
Later, they threw you a parade. A brass band
        played "Dixie" to celebrate
the accelerated music of your heartbeat and gall.
        Crowds rebel-yelled, roustabouts pick-pocketed,
and horses snorted and neighed in the dust.
        But the day,
the glory, have left precious little
        behind, battlefield blood
has long since annealed into salty clay
        till nothing but the bone
of free land remains; and all the agony,
        the honor and the dishonor,
are fodder now for videos and books.
        Erected by your countrymen,
your Parisian-forged effigy
        faces the subdued
red brick of an abandoned Sealtest factory, and your horse
        treads marble, not crimsoned sod.
Your face is gilded with consternation,
        as if you were asking
directions in your own hometown.
        Time and traffic have tattooed
the border of your saddle. All metal and composure
        in this poorly kept park,
where can you ride now?
        The men and women who cut
through to reach Union Avenue
        are the descendants of those whose enslavement
you defended, and the flag you defied furls
        and unfurls like a contented cat's tail
over the tiny square of land ceded to you.
        Only the squirrels here,
and occasionally the weather, are still
        grey; there's a ragtag line
of mismatched lampposts, and the hedges are clipped
        spare, and look starved.
A skyline rises at your elbow:
        Memphis
barely acknowledges you now.
        Lee's
Family Restaurant, with its "home-cooked soul-food,"
        the Pyramid,
glittering in white-washed promise,
        intrude, while the river,
under the bluff a mile off,
        rushes away to New Orleans.
I, too, intrude;
        and if I can't quite
make my peace with you, General,
        I can bring you this news:
that all around us, Sir,
        the nation still suffers
its successes and defeats,
        that we remain at war among ourselves.
Slavery has ended, but
        the gangstas don't care
about old battles fought here -
        their latest ambitions and bloodlusts
will rename these streets.
        Maybe they, like you, will teach history a lesson,
though it's hard to read one now
        in the glazed-over eyes of the naked windows
of washed-up clothing stores
        and run-down shoe shops
on the failed Mid-America Mall.
        Facades of fallen buildings look like grit
teeth on unlovingly reconstructed Beale St.,
        where waitresses and guides talk proudly
of brand-new cafes and museums of Southern culture.
        Only the eponymous Mr. Schwab in his general store
keeps the void at bay,
        retailing merchandise ancient
as his stories. It amounts to this:
        War, when it comes,
is fast and furious, forgetfulness
        slow but sure;
as the bumper sticker says,
        "Shit happens."
You are stuck here forever,
        General Forrest,
without so much as a ghost to talk to.
        Memphis
is sick and tired of the past.
        Day after day,
her city limits reach farther
        and farther away.


This confrontation of Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead"
and Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead."
is 1997 by Don Share