It was a sunny and breezy day, I’m told, in that place where the headliner gave a performance of Springsteenian length, full of bombast worthy of a king…or Freddie and Queen. Then that other speaker, who’d taken the train up from points south, rose with a folded piece of paper in his hand, bareheaded, mournful, haggard and humbled by the venue, the times, the occasion and its raison d’être. And while the crowd still buzzed from the performance by first name on the marquee’s performance, the tall man presented his 271—word “appropriate remarks” in his scratchy voice, its accent many of the intelligentsia derided, while it was perfectly understood by those from the Kentucky hills and the Illinois prairie. And when he finished, he did not hear the thunder of applause, for the sky was clear, even of 21-gun cannonades. Nor did he hear the brassy fanfare of approbation, the wind only enough to move a lady’s hair across her brow. Instead, came an awkward silence and then a pitter-patter of hands reminiscent of raindrops on a gravestone. But it was a day of remembrance and there were gravestones by the thousands, most with names now long-forgotten. Not many have forgotten the first few words those remarks, nor the gist of the final ones. They are why a child learns that a score is an old word for 20. And why, deep down inside, we believe that this grand experiment of ours, this “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” That is our hope. They define us. Amen.
The Lincoln funeral procession passes through downtown Albany on April 26, 1865
I wonder how many of them
here on this dark day remembered
the President’s last visit to the city?
Do they know the actor was in town
that day, too? Do they know
that each performed that night?
The President, to grumbles and chides,
in the Capitol and Governor’s house,
and the Actor, to bouquets and accolades,
on the boards of the Gayety on Green Street.
Do they recall the weapons flashing
through their tears on this second visit?
How that first crowd, raucous and angry,
had to be clubbed back by the butts
of soldiers’ muskets that soon would
spit fire in the gleam of southern battle?
Do they remember the actor, handsome
and passionate, appearing in The Apostate,
had fallen upon the Albany stage and
pierced his own chest with a dagger?
Do they wonder what if?
The crowd now weeps as the casket
rolls by on this street where men both
slept that night and one now sleeps
for all time. A moan follows the casket
along Broadway and up State as if riding
the swags of black crepe where once
stripes and stars directed a course
from this city on the Hudson to a nation on fire,
where two lives crossed paths once,
then again on the way back to Springfield.
Poem #23 of NaPoWriMo. Writers Digest was looking for a history poem and I recalled what happened in my home town almost exactly 150 years ago today…President Abraham Lincoln’s casket came through town on its way back to Springfield, Illinois. Being a bit of a history buff, I recalled some coincidences of the President’s first visit to Albany on February 18, 1861. I wondered if any of the people lining the street as the casket passed wondered the same things I did. This long piece poses those questions for which we have no answers.