A few weeks back, I announced I had been commissioned to write a poem for the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Association. Having completed that mission and the readings, I have been given permission to post the poem here. I hope you enjoy my imaginative speculation on what it must have been like to be Abraham Lincoln, a man, like any other, whose thoughts, feelings and private actions will remain only ours to guess.
Lincoln from the Grave
Oh to be unconditionally loved when dead,
division dissolved by the peaceful inevitable.
Oh to the victory that made us one,
the blood of battle and repair
no longer questioned as worthwhile,
immune to “what if?” in its sad reality,
replaced by “what is” and “what was.”
How, now, am I taught as hero,
recalled as Honest Abe, Father Abraham,
when then, about half a nation hated me?
I, immortalized in paper and stone,
I, honored as a lesson that even
a simple man can become President—
that is how I now know love.
What blew this charge into storm,
made me more than I ever could have been?
What stone face could warrant the illusion
that I was anything but terrified?
Was it my own grand words
or an accident of revisionism
that made me out as martyr?
Does no one suspect I bit my nails and swallowed,
dashed a sallow candle to the floor, kicked the wall,
told Mary she was unruly as my most ill behaved horse,
ordered the oldest stable boy fired, three times placed
a pistol on my desk yet failed to pull the trigger?
I was neither star nor saint, nor did I ever intend
to offer myself as an unblemished lamb, never considered
myself more than ugly me, a twisted twig on a fig sapling
pulled at the roots by torrential war.
Yet, “hero” is how I am mostly remembered,
so great is the need for idols.
So be it.
So be it my icon is revered by millions,
that the awed infer from me
that war within a nation bleeds
a country down to ignorance,
that agape is the only way we
will survive one another,
that injustice can only bring
us together in a grave.
But for me, the marble marks
my most private moments—
the time I laughed at a servant’s joke,
that cloudy day when I told Mary I loved her,
the second I understood I owned possibly
the most comfortable pillow in the Union
yet couldn’t sleep, that Sunday I locked
myself in the pantry and cried for our country—
no one knows about those.
They only know what they are told,
enough to suspect I was human,
but plenty to believe in monuments.
Katherine M. Gotthardt for WMPA 360º (October 16 and 30, 2011), a complement to Copland’s Lincoln Portrait