This winter I have seen the graves
Of Samuel Clemens and Frederick Douglass,
Buried fifteen years and a hundred miles apart
In the glacial till of western New York.
How well they knew each other
We can safely guess as great.
Twain’s father-in-law, Jervis Langdon,
A conductor on the Underground Railroad,
Helped Douglas flee north.
And In 1879 we know they shared a stage in New York City.
Douglass’s tomb is a very public place,
A broad, flat stone, visible from the Rochester street,
Where people still leave flowers.
Twain’s is more remote,
A quiet hillock in an Elmira graveyard
Where the ancient white oaks are dense
And often decked with hundreds of noisy crows,
Big black birds that cry and take flight
In the cold twilight as I stroll close,
Wheel like a river current
Wafting away a boy named Huck
And his runaway friend and protector
Around the bend
Toward the ocean’s maw.
So far from the chaos of battle,
The white tombstones stretch;
Far from the tattered and bloody uniforms,
I came home from Vietnam
With a bunch of medals,
But no hero was I.
I quailed at the sight of the first corpse,
With its limbs so flaccid.
Flying a helicopter was my role
And I reveled in the act of flying,
And truth be told,
Enjoyed it when the danger passed.
The tombstones make
A geometric pattern
That changes as you walk by
At different angles.
And thus we order chaos
With these rows,
That in a thousand years will melt to dust.
Hear the bugle playing taps.
The sun sets,
The planets rise,
The warm air of spring greens the spaces
Between the tombs
Where the whine of a caretaker’s weed eater
Is setting things to right.