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How It Was

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"Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud
of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin
that so easily ensnares us and let us run with endurance
the race that is set before us." — Hebrews 12:1

"The world itself can be our desert." — St. Augustine

I.

First, this caped peacock, ridiculous
romantic beard, feather in the fancy hat,
rearing on his horse, turning
in the saddle to the east, to face,
we used to say, the hospital
some blocks away where
he died.

II.

Next, the centerpiece, nobility raised high
above the rebel rabble, splendidly
in control, bareheaded, humble
in an aristocratic sort of way, not yet
dismounted bookish in the mountains,
still on the Saddlebred who would die
horribly of tetanus, but who would
outlive his rider, he of Grey Eagle stock
who bows eternally
to the south.

III.

Then, the statesman, politician, palm up and out
toward the great general back down
the avenue, leaning a bit off balance, not
quite trampling a book under his left boot,
embraced by an arc of Doric columns,
the traitors' exedra, over which soars
a fluted shaft topped by a draped woman
pointing to Heaven, a figure
that cannot be Victory, is
Liberty or Virtue. So we
used to say.

IV.

Farther along, we come to
Mister Unmovable, all hooves down,
four-square, unshakable, upright
in the saddle, he and his horse
fiercely glaring at the irritable traffic
to the north, glaring
forever.

V.

And then the clown-bald man
in the chair, not really a wheelchair,
who faces back east between the double
line of oaks, back to the generals, back
to his president, the one and only.
Above his head, the mapped globe
bobs on a boiling sea of shipwreck—
men and women, a dog, a bull,
a horse. Fish who are not there circle
the marble base, counter-relief,
as are the swallows. In his left hand
a scroll, in his right a pen. But he is not
writing, is not sketching, is staring
at nothing in our world, the hair
above his ears sweeping forward
like waves ...

VI.

Finally, a pill of a pedestal, white
topped with brown bronze, a thin,
horseless man shows you his back, his
buttocks, holding above his wooly head
a book, a tennis racket. Rising from
the ground below his feet, four children,
trapped at the waist, each reaching
with one hand for help, we used to say—
or to fend off a blow from the racket, from
the book. This man wearing our clothes
has turned his back on the commander,
on the generals and the politician, on
the rising sun. We used to stand to his left,
the south side of the street, so that the racket
formed a halo round his head. He sported
large spectacles, which he could lift
from those children to the western horizon,
direction of Death, something we had
long before redefined as Manifest Destiny.

 

[Note: The futuristic speaker in this poem remembers Richmond's Monument Avenue before all its monuments were removed. The epigraph from Hebrews is currently engraved on the western side of the Arthur Ashe Monument.]

Poet laureate of Virginia from 2014 to 2016, Ron Smith is the author of four books, most recently "The Humility of the Brutes" (LSU Press, 2017). He is currently writer in residence at St. Christopher's School, where he also holds the George O. Squires chair of distinguished teaching.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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