Searching for some lines of poetry fit for the current impeachment
crisis, I thought of the sixteenth-century poem by Fulke Greville,
Faction, that ever dwells
In courts where wit excels
Hath set defiance.
That is, faction —what we call "partisanship"— will always, defiantly,
dwell in the places of power, where clever people gather.
Then I thought that in times of crisis a people is supposed to invoke
its heroes, and I thought of the way Abraham Lincoln is remembered
the poem Stanley Kunitz wrote in the wake of the previous impeachment
crisis, preceding the resignation of Richard Nixon and the pardon,
granted by Gerald Ford, of all and any Nixon crimes.
Kunitz was serving in Washington, in my present post, and the Library
Congress had an exhibit of Lincoln relics, including the contents
Lincoln's pockets the night he was assassinated.
Back then in the seventies, Kunitz wrote of Washington as a city
in gossip and power, / where marble eats marble"; but I'll read the
section of the poem, "The Lincoln Relics," where Kunitz evokes Lincoln
as a spirit of generosity, temperance, humour and forgiveness:
. . . these relics on display—
watchfob and ivory pocket knife,
a handkerchief of Irish linen,
a button severed from his sleeve—
make a noble, dissolving music
out of homely fife and drum,
and that's miraculous.
His innocence was to trust
the better angels of our nature,
even when the Union cracked
and furious blood
ran north and south
along the lines of pillage.
Secession grieved him
like the falling-out of brothers.
After Appomattox he laid
the white flower of forgiving
on Lee's crisp sword.
What was there left for him to do?
When the curtain rose
On Our American Cousin
he leaned forward in his chair
toward the last absurdity,
that other laughable country,
for which he was ready with his ransom—
a five-dollar Confederate note
in mint condition, and nine
neatly folded in his wallet.
It was time for him now
to try on his gold-rimmed spectacles,
the pair with the sliding temples
mended with a loop of string,
while the demon of the absolute,
who had been skulking in the wings,
leaped into focus,
waving a smoking pistol.
Later in the poem, at the end, Kunitz has a vision or illusion of
Lincoln as a tourist at the Library of Congress:
He steps out from the crowd
with his rawboned, warty look,
a gangling fellow in jeans
next to a plum-colored sari,
and just as suddenly he's gone.
I give you Kunitz's vision of that rather plain, reflective,
uncombative figure, just visible in the city where marble eats marble.