After Buying a Portrait of Robert E. Lee at Arlington House

Vol. 7, No. 4: Winter 2001

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After Buying a Portrait of Robert E. Lee at Arlington House

by V.J. Kopp
Southern Cultures, Vol. 7, No. 4: Winter 2001

"I realize now it was a trap, one he would have sensed in advance . . ."

Will she always be the uncivil servant to me,
That surly federal employee at the gift-shop register?
Gray-green as money, her eyes took a bead on me
Soon as I entered the slave-quarters-turned-souvenir shop.
Unblinking, panning like a security camera, she stared
As I surveyed first the history books then stopped beneath
The portrait hung above the reproductions bin. She knew me,
My kind, the type of misty tourist susceptible to Marse Robert,
Ungloved hands crossed on arms, sword cocked to one side,
Sad, hatless, impeccably gray, staring down the North.

I realize now it was a trap, one he would have sensed in advance:
The rows of white crosses, the officers’ graves, monumental,
The reproduced Civil War banjo music plinking up the air–
All parts of a government plot just to get my money back.
Stupid to be numbed by the dead around, Lee’s long exile,
His cause never clearly won or lost: I must remember, I thought,
Selecting a portrait. But soon I realized, handing her a Lincoln
And a Grant, she cared for none of it, her job, my hero worship,
Not even the sanctified ground, as she rang my purchase roughly,
Snapping our legal tender like a whip in her mahogany hand.