Nov '02 [Home]
Day of Remembrance ~ Rob Wright
Ancestral Refrain ~ Rebecca Seiferle
Cantus for the Horses ~ Rob Wright
Day of Remembrance|
A parade: small, nearly single file;
the players unsure, feminine,
even the boys,
with their thrust-out necks,
and yard-high busbies.
The brass they carry is too bright
to be looked at directly,
but this may be a trick of art,
Light blankets the road.
The blacktop blisters
into fragile water-filled spheres.
The sunburned heads of old men glow
like raw berries.
The gloves of the drummers pause
before the roll.
I feel the pause,
before the rattle of snares,
the b' leet ' leet gravel pops.
The piping and uniforms,
the fingerprints on brass,
are strangely out of place;
there are no shops, no cinemas here,
no entertainment at all
The people of the town don't know
what's expected of them;
I watch them look, one to another,
one woman amused, another solemn.
A tight-lipped man, whom I only see
in his front-row pew on Sunday,
scans the crowd.
I expect he's organized all this,
invited the band — strangers here;
this town is family more than anything,
half are cousins, brothers,
The band plays flourishes.
Grand this! Grand that!
And although I wasn't born here,
(possibly because I wasn't)
the brass and uniforms
look oddly obscene,
like public drunkenness.
The tight-lipped man
finds the smiling woman.
His niece, I think.
Before he can say anything,
the town begins to march.
The cemetery is on a hill,
outside the town,
like in a story, but also
in what people call memory —
my memory —
that odd possession
that owns me more than I own it.
We walk through clear air.
The graves have been cleared
of weeds and gorse,
and tattered flags
exchanged for fresh.
I'd often wondered why
people put flags on graves,
making a square of grass, clay,
and grubs a sovereign nation.
Now I know.
Each member of the band stops playing
as they pass the iron gates.
Only the bass drum,
with its beat like a cranial pulse,
and a trumpeter remain.
The drum stops.
The trumpeter plays a volontaire,
sourly, notes spit into brass.
No one speaks.
The cousins, sisters, brothers, aunts
look down. There is nothing,
not even in the odd language of prayer,
to describe the strangeness of this.
The wind brows into the horn's bell
and chokes off all sound;
it flutters back.
The smiling woman is now weeping,
but whether from mirth,
or an emotion more appropriate
to the occasion,
it's impossible to tell.
In an adjacent field, a farmer cuts hay.
No one has invited him,
or he does not care.
He's solitary, and like me,
unrelated to the others.
His tractor turns and makes another row.
Swallows circle above the dust and scoria,
in a fly-catch dance
of copperplate loop and arc.
Maples sprouted up though timothy,
are cut down and spat out.
The smell of hay, exhaust, and gasoline
reaches me as the trumpet's solo ends.
By the time prayers are said,
the harvester has moved so close
that swallows fly over graves,
fantailed, white-bellied, swallowing.
I repeat the litany
and try to make words I know too well
honor the dead I never knew at all,
but can't and follow,
[On the second Monday in November, the fallen are honored
in the United States and Canada. Every seventh year, that day
is the author's birthday.—Eds.]
~ . ~
I hate the sound of the bagpipes. Each morning
as we go from lecture hall to classroom, dozens
of children, bussed in to practice for a week,
march up and down, pumping their arms and elbows
like flightless birds trying to take flight, changing
their individual breaths into a chorus of keening,
dirges mourning, the piercing of Scottish war songs.
Yet, the woman who turns to me this morning
is rapturous at being Scot. "It's so serene, that lilting
refrain, it reminds me of my heritage," her face tilts
like that white island catching the breaking sun.
"It's Gary Owen," I choke out, "the damned song
Custer played before each 'battle.'" Such élan
swinging into the waking hours, the bayonets
flashing along the banks of the Little Washita,
though by then the music was silent, slicing
into the tents of the sleeping Cheyenne. The fighting
itself lasted only a few minutes, though it took hours
to finish off the warriors hiding in the brush, then
to slaughter all the horses, for the army first tried
to cut their throats, but the animals were too afraid
of the smell of the white men, so the cavalry called
for more ammunition—it took 800 rounds to kill all
the horses—and Custer's final tally listed 103 fighting
men killed. In truth, only 11 could be so classified
the other 92 were women, children, and old men.
We're both startled by my vehemence; her Scottish
fingers twitch in her plaid scarf, as if trying to unravel
that loose thread of undisclosed genealogy. Still
she pleads, "I didn't know, it sounds so sweet,"
and "it's the voice of my ancestors." Of course,
she's right, it is the voice of our ancestors—
all war cries, in any language, the children rehearsing,
trying to get just right, each note in a song of slaughter.
(The 2002 winner of the Western States Award, Rebecca Seiferle
edits The Drunken Boat.She lives in northern New Mexico.)
~ . ~
Cantus for the Horses
On June 18, 1815, at a crossroads between Grande Alliance and Waterloo,
50,000 men and 10,000 horses were killed in an afternoon.
The rye tops have been bleached in the heat
blond. Milkweed pods and thistle down
as fine as the unnamed fluff on a baby's neck
fly. The hay is ripe.
Time for the first cut
but horses and soldiers
have been trampling the fields
so that for miles it looks
as if a squadron of ships had been dragged
by a drunken giant
up this hill and down that.
A girl in homespun lies on her back
as if left for dead
and well she might.
Flies light take off light.
Grooms polish tack
and lather leather burnished chestnut
by the backsides and thighs of scarlet riders.
The smell of soap and pond water is a comfort
but not one of them
foul-mouthed and stinking
of sweat, dried grass, hot wool
would admit to this.
Horses are tethered in a long column.
The ground has been scoured to dust
by prehensile lips
Bridles and blankets off
they're oddly naked and feminine
even the odd stallion
with a prick pink as a coronation gown.
A clutch of sunburned men
with brass hats, like firemen
ride cannons to the front.
The mud stains on their backsides
are the shape of crocuses.
The grooms point to horsemen
cantering up the valley road
polished pretty, chrome flashing
sweethearts signaling through the haze.
French horses coming over at mid-day
as if for tea.
The cannons fire. Instantly
the ear squeezes down
a puckering sphincter
except for the central ringing
and a worm-hole of pain.
The grooms hop behind the guns
like barn kittens looking for a nipple.
The cannoneers work like midwives
trading buckets, rags
wiping out steaming holes.
Shot is carried in a blanket
like an iron 'Christ the child.'
Men are barely clear the barrel
when the firing hole is touched.
A tree branch, three horses
brass kit, sabers, riders
as if on cue.
The French stand like idiot children left at a cross-roads
and take a volley
up the middle.
A cannoneer who has found the time to strip to the skin
waves them off. They stand
and take another.
The horses fall slowly
legs body neck
last the head
like a rug full of dust.
The midwifery at the guns goes on
sulphur smoke, smoldering grass
air as thick as a bathhouse, mad laughter
not by command
but as if everyone had run out of things to kill
at the same instant.
More than blasted trees
more than the tatter of bone and wool
more than the legs sprouting up like weeds
what I see are
horses. One has fallen
not ten feet from the water carriers
belly up, eyes reflecting the wide sky
legs moving slowly
(Outstanding Semifinalist Poem (Reach): Lyric Recovery Festival at Carnegie Hall, 2000)
(Rob Wright is a regular contributor to the magazine. [Masthead])