Virginia and Alabama

Lexington, Virginia January 2002

Driving up, then down the mountain hairpins into Lexington,
By daylight, moonlight, headlight (only one),
I smell the moist ancient earth rising up to greet me
This January evening that seems almost like spring.
Incredible! Time has collapsed around me.

I sit on a wooden bench on the lawn of the Holiday Inn Express
In shirt sleeves accompanied only by Jack Daniels, an old friend.
I look up at a low, fullish gold moon
Which looks down on a pilgrim getting pleasantly pensive.

Lexington: The last, long homes of
Robert Edward Lee
And Thomas Jonathan Jackson.
So disparate, yet joined in life and death—
Here in this place where the past is present,
Where, looking back, we have more time before us.

Tomorrow I go to visit with the generals:
Lee, defeated in war but not vanquished.
Still the same gray fox, but changed, changed utterly.

Today these hills are glowing with a tragic light.
No, no. Only the light in his eyes is tragic.
The light in Lexington is just plain light.

In the brick Chapel on the wide smooth campus lawn,
The marble, recumbent Lee, asleep (not shown in death, the docent says),
Lies hand on sword, boots on feet, blanket over,
The room as silent as the moon;
The whitest Italian marble and at least one half
Of the statue formed into gentle folds of cloth.

His office, faithfully preserved and dimly lit, has a distinctly presidential air.
Not a place to which one would want to be summoned,
But a place where the truth will out and duty, honor will prevail;
Where grace tempers all, tender as a father’s hand.

And ‘Tom Fool’ Jackson, across the way, dull in the classroom,
A legend and a lodestar in the field: ‘Stonewall, Stonewall
And the sunken fields of hemp…,’
General Bee at one moment naming him for history,
In the next, entering eternity himself.
The Valley, Bull Run, Cedar Mountain, Antietam, Chancellorsville . . .
These all walls in the way on the long road to Richmond.

Tomorrow I and the great, great nephew of James Breathed,
Who took John Pelham’s place,
Will converge in the VMI underground museum,
By providence or by coincidence, who can tell?
We gaze in tandem upon the bullet hole in the left shoulder
Of Old Blue Light’s black slicker as Little Sorrell
Keeps watch from the large glass case across the room.
Can it get any more shrineful than this,
This Lexington?

Are these mere tokens of a tragic past, affording a glimpse into history?
Or, are they relics of our southern saints calling us back to witness?
How shall we name them?
How shall we claim them—
You brother, you sister?
We own that we weren’t there, we had no part in it.
We witness, we recall, but we cannot relive it all again
As our fathers’ fathers and their comrades lived it and recalled.
But what do we lose, what do we gain
If we dispense with history, this history?
Who can tell?

In Jacksonville, where Gallant Pelham rests,
I call to mind a Sunday morning of another year:
At St. Luke’s Church, where Bishop Polk once wept and prayed,
A forty-year old mother said to me,
“Today we don’t have time for history.”
I ask her now, “Of what then is our present made?”

Who can tell what we shall have
If we are severed from our past?
For one, more getting and spending
Than lay in Wordsworth’s comprehending.
If we lose all sense of who we are
In light of those who went before—
Whether within the record or recall—
How then shall we perform our part?
Just so we’re part of those who gave us life,
A life that is not now or ever ours alone.
For I am never only I, and you are never only you.
And we are all far more than mortal flesh and bone.

(How will the young of this age ever know
This if we do not somehow either tell or show?)
Here, in this place, this Lexington,
We can at the least pay our respects:
We look with the eyes we have,
Informed by memory, blood, and faith,
To see what we can see.
We breathe this mote-filled air,
We touch what we can touch—
Are touched in turn.
How close we are and yet, yes, far!
But this is the least devoir
We living owe these dead.
We honor what spoke honor in these men,
We praise the honor, too, by which they led.
We honor strength and courage and humility
(The earth from which the rest are grown).
For here they all are signed and known,
And here they are preserved, protected,
Here in this hallowed space
Where even now we may still trace
Our history present to us now.

The light here is changed,
Here, in this Lexington.

Note: The reference to Jacksonville (Ala.) and St. Luke’s Church is meant to evoke a local tradition that General Leonidas Polk, the “Fighting Bishop” on his way to Atlanta in 1864 stopped briefly in Jacksonville for prayer at St. Luke’s before continuing on his way to his last battle—and death (June 14, 1864)—near Pine Mountain.

*************

A Mediation at the Grave of Major John Pelham

Oh, you who in the earth now lie,
Whom countless loved and none could hate,
You, beardless boy, went up to die.

No one can surely answer why
You died so young. Some call it fate,
Oh, you who in the earth now lie.

Ah, you who with the girls were shy—
To fight, to kill, you could not wait!
You, beardless boy, went up to die.

No one your courage can decry,
Nor dust your glory shall abate.
Oh, you who in the earth now lie.

We may accept it or deny;
God’s grace recalls us soon or late.
You, beardless boy, went up to die.

Now ranked among our warriors high
And safely passed through heaven’s gate;
Oh, you who in the earth did lie,
You, beardless boy, went up to die!

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