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Vol. 25, No. 3: Left / Right

For Abraham Lincoln

by Jonathan Farmer

1. On Your Deathbed

      The flame still arced
      inside your brain,
      a severing announcement
      of you to you—
      whatever part remained.
      It was the first news you missed,
      and as the state assembled in a room
      that wasn’t yours
      you groaned. Your mind withdrew.

      You lived all night,
      all flesh, inflamed,
      your voice a vent.
      Too long to fit
      the borrowed bed you limbs
      hung off at odd angles.
      Nothing fit. Each thought
      swelled up like a tongue.
      Far off organs ached
      like rumors. Nearby,
      breathing tangled.
      You were lungs
      or less, each exhale
      stunned by appetite,
      each intake stale.
      The heat of dying
      held you, strained.

      in the smallness of yourself—
      you who had been
      available as land.
      No more.

      Your brain teemed
      for clarity, its half-
      remembered map of your body
      floating through you like a fever-dream.

      Made up of American soil,
      your stripped-down body seemed
      too much. The lost blood couldn’t reach.
      All along the muscled length
      of flesh revising thoughts of you,
      your extinguished brilliance flared,
      your massive, fallible
      tenderheartedness was breached.

2. After Death: On the Train and After the Burials

      As death perfected you
      your body started to collapse.
      Your mouth
      staved in. Your jaw unlocked
      and showed your teeth.
      Dust settled in your whiskers
      and on your clothes.
      Your rattled bones
      Your organs prolapsed.
      beyond the grief
      of others and the blood
      already soaked into the land
      you sent the dead to save,
      beyond the bruises the embalmer
      preserved beneath your eyes,

      beyond the bodies sold
      and slaughtered, the bodies
      planted in blood, in rape,
      you led a nation,
      to installments,
      to your grave.

      In between stops thousands
      stood by tracks to see
      the train car that contained you
      passing by. Decades
      later when they dug you up,
      your pillow had rotted away
      Your hair and whiskers
      had fallen off
      and “the face,”
      the Tribune wrote,
      “is very black.”
      Unsupported, aghast,
      your head tipped backward,
      tilting toward a sky
      that wasn’t any longer
      where it looked.
      Your wounds
      healed white America
      too fast.
      (You might have too.)

      The last time they
      reburied you they placed
      your coffin in a cage and sank
      the steel cage in cement. What
      was left of you was earth
      withheld from earth.
      Douglass had seen you
      clearest: you
      seemed tardy, cold, dull,
      and indifferent; you were
      zealous, radical,
      determined, swift.
      A man for your times—
      said Douglass—
      as only someone
      of your time
      could be.

      Not until after
      you first slid into
      the vault beside your son the news
      of slavery’s eradication reached
      the slaves in Galveston. Not until
      a time that doesn’t yet exist
      was the work that you resisted
      taking on complete,
      though time was done with you.
      Your shattered body, stitched
      together from disjointed parts
      in Western states,
      was more immediate than most.
      Entombed in land
      you once had planned to bar
      to all the slaves you finally freed,
      its unlikely solemn
      seamless beauty grew.

Jonathan Farmer is the author of That Peculiar Affirmative: On the Social Life of Poems and the editor in chief and poetry editor of At Length. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, and teaches middle and high school English.

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