There is too much history here in Virginia;
we are drowning in its muddy flood.
Every April sweeps its pontoons from their moorings
on the North Fork of the Shenandoah
with Federal soldiers watching helplessly from the bank.
Every pitcher toeing the mound
scuffs up a lode of Minié balls.
A metal detector swept over any ravine
uncovers the belt buckles and canteens
urgently shed by fleeing infantry.
A faded daguerreotype of General Lee
stares down from every wall,
a stern reminder of all that vanished glory.
The top drawer of every dusty dresser
in every second-hand shop
opens to reveal a brittle bundle of worthless banknotes.
Everyone’s great-great-uncle Theophrastus
led the charge at the Crater.
And everywhere Stonewall Jackson appears,
a red-bearded grey blur leading his brigade
clattering over wooden bridges, through deep hollows,
crushing the newly-opened green parasols of mayapples,
leaving with their boots little chevron-shaped tarns
of muddy ditchwater, passing and re-passing every location,
named and unnamed, in the entire state.
And the cemeteries: one stands on each ridge,
with maybe a pigeon-stained gaunt granite rifleman
guarding it from a nearby pedestal, every grave
lined with faded dates on a stone and a welter of violets.
We hurry past these, hoping through them
to leave this wilderness and reach that distant cold harbor.
But such are the burdens we must bear.
Neither ghosts nor the living: they are the past,
the encrusted mollusks of occurrences
that barnacle the great pilings
of our sovereign commonwealth.
We shall not be quit of them
short of emigration to the outer planets
or a deep draught of nepenthe.
The April rains of history have left the creek swollen;
the water rises around my knees.
Over the hill I hear the muffled rumble
of distant artillery, and I look up, expecting
to see ragged and bandaged figures at the crest.
But it is only the afternoon thunderstorm
descending from the mountains
while, over my head, the blue and the grey
still grapple their eternal combat
across the turbulent vastness of the sky.
April 27, 1996
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