from The Lincoln Poems

Steve Scafidi Click to

sscafidiSteve Scafidi, Jr.’s poetry collections are For Love of Common Words (LSU, 2006), Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer (LSU, 2001), which won the Larry Levis Reading Prize, The Cabinet Maker’s Window and To the Bramble and the Briar.  His poem “The Egg Suckers” was the winner of Shenandoah’s 2005 Boatwright Prize. He is a cabinetmaker and lives with his family in Summit Point, West Virginia. “On First Looking into Golding’s Ovid” first appeared in Shenandoah 51/1.

Hey boy come here — quick,
  so he dropped his rake and
ran to the yard by the housewhere probably five hundred
  junebugs like a pile of emeralds
and rubies glistened crawlingover each other under each other
  in the grass. By god look at them
, he said and his sonsaid Hold on, I got an idea, and ran
    to the house for the bundle of
twine and gunpowder he had tied

together into a bomb for such
  a purpose and blew an equally
glittering hole in the yard

a foot into the earth and the punch
  his father landed reverberated
in his skull for the rest of his life

and when the assassin fired
  it was the last thing he saw —
junebugs everywhere crawling

glistening in the tall summer grass.


Sarah knew how to cipher
  and added up for her brother
his exact age when he asked.

Twelve years three months
  nineteen days.  She gave him
her cakes.  She pulled the fang

of a corn snake from the side
  of his foot.  She hugged up
on him and said she loved him.

She could sew a pair of pants
  for the King of England if
she was given the cloth and

he wanted most of all to acquire
  for her such cloth.  She likes
to follow she said the raw gold

of her thoughts.  She kept a cricket
  in her pocket all one summer.
When she talked it was like a palace.

Often he saw his mother waving
  from the tower and smiling
he thought when his sister talked.



Seeing what he could
  but would not be —
a blacksmith a cooper
  a tailor a woodsman
a farmer, his father

bought a fancy spoon
  made of silver from
a neighbor and gave it
  to his son who would
only read and read

and talk of books and
  when the boy who was
certainly now a man
  doomed to a life unlike
enough to his father’s

that all was probably
  lost between them
he tucked the spoon
  with a deep oval valley
hammered very thin

and a rose embossed
  at the end of the handle
into a worn copy of
  the poems of Horace
before the boy left

for good — the gesture
  a lasting singular
note of goodbye to
  one for whom he could
never provide anything

so fine it would shine
  in the sun or feed him
or keep him alive. Go,
  it said. Go, my son.
Eat. Drink. And thrive.

July 1831


Unnoticed for over 600 years
in the sky the 39th clause
          of the Magna Carta

in small letter-shaped clouds
floated and faded as
          they were read aloud:

“To no one will we sell
or deny or delay right
          or justice.” He wondered

at it all. In the orchard
in May he saw a hive
          of bees spelling the whole

of the Declaration in the trees,
the fat queen being the dot
          of the i where “We hold

these truths to be self evident.”
He learned by reading
          everything he saw: rivers

moving slowly in the winter
toward a thaw — like gold
          in the straw. The myriad

faces of strangers. Waterfalls.
Self taught, he read each
          document as natural law.


As every president
  before him
when he entered
  the office

he was presented
  a rosewood
box the exact size
  of a gun case

and the steward
the smart brass clasp
  with a key

elaborately cast
  with the head
of a dragon and
  the velvet

was pulled away
  as the steward
gestured for Lincoln
  to pick up

the pocked gray
  thigh bone
of Achilles
  and to say

aloud: We are one
  in the Greek
and to turn around
  three times

and return the relic
  to its case
and tell no one
  which was done.

March 1861


Shock at what he was. Shock
  at what he’d done. The man
all day was numb after this —

the unmitigated disaster at
  Bull Run. The dead everywhere
his own responsibility, the running

away a necessity for the Union
  because of his own amateur
performance as a commander.

He went to the barn to talk
  to his horse, he took an empty
feed bucket and placed it over

his head like a bell and sat there
  with his horse in the darkness
of his failure. The next day

his aides brought fifty books
  from the Library of Congress
and he read each one aloud

from Machiavelli to the Iliad
  to the journals of Julius Caesar
and stabbed himself discreetly

marking an X on his chest
  to remember his shame bleeding
into his sleeves. Never again

would he leave the fighting and
  the dying exclusively to brave men
he thought I have murdered
such as these.


Klong klong klong
  he remembers
his angel-mother

banging a shovel
  on the stone step
of the cabin door

killing three snakes
  at once klong —
one, klong — two,

klong — three — these
and precise swings

one for each landed
  very quickly
like the percussive

force of the mortars
  across the river
in Virginia, the snakes

coiling and uncoiling
  in agony
toward death — this

familiar American
  song banging
at his doorstep.


Blasted with light for the portrait
  that will be engraved on the penny
the lines of his face grow deeper

until he blinks and coughs a little
  and rubs his eyes afterward saying —
alright then now it is your turn

so the photographer sets the powder
  and readies the camera for the amateur
who eyes him now through the lens

in the dark of the hood — now be still
  sir and take your medicine
. Not wanting
to return yet to the war, more sitters

are found for the president including
  a chimney sweep walking by and
a girl in a yellow dress with a bow

and then the two of us — reluctant to
  say no. Tomorrow six horses burn
in the stables of the White House and

the sound of their screams and the look
  in their eyes will stay in his mind for
another year or so. In eight minutes

in Cold Harbor 26,000 men will be lost.
  This man is the cause. He looks at us
appraisingly and then the flash goes off.

At the intersection of 12th street and New York
  Whitman carried a loaf of sourdough bread
under his arm like a newspaper and stopped

short for coming the opposite direction without
  looking up was the actor John Booth practicing
his lines from Macbeth concerning the murder

of the king for tonight’s capitol performance.
  And as the actor passed the star-struck poet
on the street Abraham Lincoln crossed suddenly

toward them and briefly between them mumbling
  his pardon as he brushed past them returning
the last red taffeta evening dress his wife would

ever buy with his money, the box like a five-tiered
  wedding cake obscuring him, so heavy and large
it pitched a little in front of him as he carried it

precarious in his arms and passed between John Booth
  and the poet who both stopped together in the street
amazed to see such a thing — a huge white box

with crimson roses and a vine printed around
  the side floating away and turning the day — the fine
multitudinous sea of the day — suddenly incarnadine.

Aug 1864


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