Poem for Memorial Day


For the Union Dead

Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam.

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound’s gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die–
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year–
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns . . .

Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son’s body was thrown
and lost with his “niggers.”

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the “Rock of Ages”
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessèd break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.


  1. Rufus McCain says
  2. Big Jon Bully says

    Beautiful poetry. Thanks.

  3. Snails on glass seems unlikely, and I assume why I have seen two this week – ie, the snails knew about the poem.

  4. If this seems whimsical and unlikely, I would bet my life on it.

  5. i’ve just photographed one of them. I assume you’re not one of the neighbours. Perhaps snails do it a lot although I don’t notice it often.

  6. Quin Finnegan says

    Please share the photograph if you are able!

    Yes, snails on glass does seem a little unlikely. We’re very familiar with/ snails in the Pacific Northwest, and I don’t recall seeing any on a window. Unlikely though it is, it is a strong image, and establishes a strong connection with the fish, and thus self-implicating in the malaise described in the poem.

    And this is before the brouhaha over bussing, which would come to Boston a decade or so later.

    Thanks for reading, Louise!

  7. A great, succinct capture of the calm before the storm which was the 60s.

    I’ve never been able to substantiate my claim with evidence, but given the fact that Lowell was a student of his (and that this Boston Brahmin acquired an odd Southern lilt (have you ever heard him read?)) I think Lowell’s poem was a response to this:



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