"The Lincoln Relics"

"A Lincoln exhibit on view in the Great Hall makes the 16th President of the United States, born 167 years ago, seem very real. Displayed are the contents of his pockets the night he was assassinated, a miniature portrait never before exhibited, and two great documents from the Library's collections, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address."

-- Library of Congress Information Bulletin,
February 1976

Cold-eyed, in Naples once,
while the congregation swooned,
I watched the liquefaction
of a vial of precious blood,
and wondered only
how the trick was done.
Saint's bones are only bones
to me, but here,
where the stage is set
without a trace of gore,
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
newspaper accolades
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.

In the Great Hall of the Library,
as in a glass aquarium,
Abe Lincoln is swimming around,
dressed to the nines
in his stovepipe hat
and swallowtail coat,
effortlessly swimming,
propelled by sudden little kicks
of his gunboat shoes.
His billowing pockets hang
inside out; he is swimming
around, lighter at each turn,
giddy with loss,
while his memory sifts
to the sticky floor.
He is slipping away from us
into his legend and his fame,
having relinquished, piece by piece,
what he carried next to his skin,
what rocked to his angular stride,
partook of his man-smell,
shared the intimacy of his needs.
Mr. President,
in this Imperial City,
awash in gossip and power,
where marble eats marble
and your office has been defiled,
I saw the piranhas darting
between the rose-veined columns,
avid to strip the flesh
from the Republic's bones.
Has no one told you
how the slow blood leaks
from your secret wound?

To be old and to be young
again, inglorious private
in the kitchens of the war
that winter of blackout,
walking by the Potomac
in melancholy khaki,
searching for the prairie star,
westward scanning the horizon
for its eloquent and magnanimous light,
yearning to be touched by its fire:
to be touched again, with the years
swirling at my feet, faces
blowing in the wind
around me where I stand,
withered, in the Great Hall.

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.
But there's that other one
who's tall and lonely.