Thursday, April 23, 2015


Today's prompt at Robert Lee Brewer's "Poetic Asides" blog, to "write a historic poem," led me to take out some scribblings I did on a cross-country road trip some years ago. I'd never been to any part of "the South" and the historic sites we visited were fascinating. We drove through Nashville and of course stopped to visit Andrew Jackson's estate, the Hermitage, which is, I suppose, beautiful and very impressive, but rather off-putting, what with those awful audio guides talking in your ears from little machines hanging around your necks, and the rooms of the main house blocked off by plexiglas sheets over the doorways, when roping them off would probably have worked just as well. I do remember that the bed Jackson and his wife slept in looked awfully small. (In contrast, we had an entirely different and much more enjoyable experience at Stonewall Jackson's far less grand but more interesting house in Lexington, Virginia, where a friendly, chatty, and well-informed docent treated us to a more intimate, even gossipy tour, answering all the visitors' questions thoroughly. Humans make much better tour guides than machines!)
Andrew and Rachel Jackson's tomb at the Hermitage
       I was relieved to get out of the slickly packaged "big house" of the Hermitage and explore the grounds - the slave quarters, the gardens, Andrew and Rachel Jackson's tomb, the smaller house Jackson had built for a younger relative, perhaps his adopted son or his wife's niece and her husband. I can't remember who exactly and the online materials available don't mention it, but it is quite lovely from the outside; it was not open to the public when we visited. But the most moving part of the visit for me was the small cemetery, which is not even mentioned in any of the promotional materials I looked at to refresh my memory. And I have no photograph of it, so the poem will have to do.

The Hermitage, Nashville, Tennessee

The Confederate dead lie in neatly curving rows
ranged around an ancient maple:
5th Tennessee Volunteers, 22nd Tennessee Volunteers,
and so on, and so on,
all those old men, not battle-dead but dead
after decades of reunions and maybe regrets,
of periodically pulling out the old uniform, grown
frayed, faded, too tight or too loose across the belly.

In the farthest outside row, one "loyal servant" is
relegated to the margin but still part of the group.

It is all so tender, so genteel. The soft spring grass,
the tiny damp membranous leaves uncurling
on the thick old tree
that stands like a circuit-riding preacher
over his rapt and captive congregation.

So many years they have lain there
under that perfect sod,
listening to wind in the branches,
the murmurs of the visiting living
walking and talking softly above them.

So many years of shifting in their graves,
making room for the maple roots
spreading among them,
stretching out beside them like lovers,
twining among their bones.

That old tree anchors the ranks of loyal soldiers
laid there with tenderness and tears,
like the swords and pistols they kept clean and shining,
laid away carefully and brought out from time to time
to be shown to a child or wept over in solitude,
polished with aching papery fingers.

And in the farthest row that loyal servant,
who followed one of those old soldiers
into battle and back out again,
now equally embraced by earth and roots
and indistinguishable from the rest.

              - Victoria Stefani

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