This week, we face speculation about how President Clinton will be
remembered, how the members of the House and Senate took part in the
recent impeachment proceedings will be remembered, what we as a people
will leave behind from this passage.
Such speculation may be futile; what will be recalled and what will
vanish like a dent in dough? Who knows? In this passage from my poem
"An Explanantion of America," I try to think about this question
of what we leave behind by considering two epitaphs: the words over
the grave of Thomas Jefferson, and those over the grave of a freed slave:
Jefferson in his epitaph records
That he was author of the Declaration
Of Independence, and of the Virginia law
Providing public education; and founder
Of that state's University--omitting
His "high office" as it were a bound,
Or something held, not something he had done-
The ceremonial garment had been given
By others, with a certain solemn function
And honor; eventually, to be removed.
In the familiar boast or accusation
Americans have scant "historic sense,"
Nostalgia and Progress seem to be our frail
National gestures against the enveloping,
Suffusive nightmare of time--which swallows first
The unaware, because they are at least free...
But time's nightmare, and freedom from it, differ
For different peoples: like their burial customs;
And what they chose to say in what they leave.
To speak words few enough to fit a stone,
And frame them as if speaking from the past
Into the void or mystery of the future,
Demands that we be naked, free, and final:
God wills us free, man wills us slaves
I will as God wills God will be done.
Here lies the body of
A native of Africa who died
MARCH 1773 aged about 60 years
Tho' born in a land of slavery.
He was born free, Tho' he lived in a land of
He lived a slave,
Till by his honest, thos' stolen labors,
He acquired the source of slavery,
Which gave him his freedom,
Thos' not long before
Death the Grand Tyrant
Gave him his final emancipation,
And set him on a footing with kings.
Tho' a slave to vice,
He practiced those virtues
Without which kings are but slaves.