With Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. being remembered tomorrow in a special way across the nation, I went back to a prose poem written after a family visit to Washington, D.C., in the early summer of 2004, another presidential election year. We were months away from seeing Barack Obama make news with a speech at the Democratic Party’s convention in Boston, and the extraordinary memorial for Dr. King was yet to be installed on the National Mall. — PM
Checking the Property
My nine-year-old son says, “I’m going to read the ‘Gettysburg Address’”—on the other side is the lesser-known second inaugural speech. What’s the Lincoln shorthand? Freed the slaves; saved the union. People crowd the marble steps at dusk. A sign asks for silence. When he sees my wife lining up a snapshot, a guy in a straw cowboy hat offers to take a picture of my brother’s family, my wife, son, and me in the glow of the civic temple. Climbing the steps, I caught sight of the figure set behind the columns, and then lost him because of the steep ascent, only to come upon the sculpture again near the top, where visitors gaze at the huge seated president, whose massive square-toed boot juts out, looking as if it could kick Jeff Davis’ football the length of the Reflecting Pool and onto the white spike of the Washington Monument, which, in the after-supper hour reflects sun along its narrow western face, a mighty glo-stik on the national common, a staunch obelisk, a big white numeral standing for the first president, who set the constitutional republic in motion, the stone blocks a different shade on the top half, marking a stop in work and resumption, the monument telling its own story, one in which protesters rolled cut stones into the drink, foreshadowing later protests and rallies and comings together, like the 1963 March on Washington that brought Martin Luther King to these same steps to declare his dream of a nation at last free for all, the same steps where Joan Baez and Bob Dylan sang for justice and where Dylan returned to sing for Bill Clinton’s booming inaugural, the same steps movie-land Vietnam vet Forrest Gump spoke from and from which he spotted his life-long love and source of ache splashing toward him, the same pool in which the spaceship crashed in the Planet of the Apes remake, this electric stretch of public land without timber or copper, a wide open space in which to make a verb of America—to recall and celebrate and to do democratic research and development in this red clay-lined lab, bordered and crowded with evidence of the ongoing experiment, and bearing key formulas and equations inscribed in stone.
—Paul Marion (c) 2004