Monday, May 27, 2019

'The Memory Shall Be Ours'

“Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.”

The Civil War triggered the observance of Decoration Day, in the North and the South, and World War II helped turn it into Memorial Day, though the names were always interchangeable. For my father, born in 1921 and a veteran of World War II, it was always Decoration Day. When I was a boy it meant a day off from school, of course, but it also meant a parade that ended in the cemetery not far from our house, where my mother is now buried. Prayers, speeches, wreathes, the firing of a three-gun salute. One year it was Marines firing bolt-action rifles. When they ejected the spent cartridges, a kid grabbed one from the grass and screamed when it burned his hand. My patriotism was a matter of unreflective habit. Everyone was patriotic, or so it seemed. We had internalized Longfellow’s sentiment as expressed above in the final stanza of his “Decoration Day” (1882). That’s a long time ago, and written in a vastly alien context from Daniel Mark Epstein’s “Memorial Day” (Dawn to Twilight: New and Selected Poems, Louisiana State University Press, 2015):

“The library is closed – Memorial Day –
We honor men who died for our freedom
In wars that most of us cannot recall.
On the corner, men who should be schoolboys
Flag passing cars to deal cocaine.
The steel doors of the library are fit
For a vault. No windows figure in the wall
To let light shine on the books,
Just glass brick pocked by bullets
From drive-by shootings, thick glass
Cracked in spidery traceries
Like promises shattered. Light
From a million books burned in Berlin
Casts no shadow on the grey fortress
That is all this neighborhood will ever know
Of a library. Here the books are safe
But the readers are burning.”

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