Two memories of the capital
honed through the years,
polished to a purpose.
This being the function of memory –
ugly word, function – but then,
these emerge from frightening times.
Imagine seeing a fretful face
through folds of scratched plastic.
Could be the plastic,
My aunt’s face, blurred
in memory, framed in plastic,
glimpsed through fever
raging in the capital or,
to be exact, a suburb nearby.
Sweltering it was down on the Potomac.
Airconditioning a novelty
that Gore Vidal
the sharpest of American chroniclers said
changed everything in Washington,
the town was different when
the summer was bearable,
the government stayed and drummed up things,
was better, less dangerous, he said
when they skedaddled
and came back cooled down.
Black hair, a voice like apple sauce
my aunt, a hostess in that postwar town.
There would be houses all over the country
tracts of them for the returned soldiers
my uncle, her husband, announced.
In my tent swimming in oxygen
was it my throat or my mind
that was inflamed? Perhaps my heart,
for here it was, a summer fluttering,
at the brink or who really knows? the cusp.
Fast forward. Many years.
Interns at a feeding frenzy.
A visitor, and no one in this vast
hall knows that I was here
before the airconditioning,
before such hunger was allowed.
When we believed
in brave new worlds, above all fair ones,
homes and jobs, appliances and cars.
(Hard to credit now.)
Next a president, a black one,
went forth to beg, all over again,
all over the country
for solid dreams trashed then set aside.
Artfully arranged: the wheels of cold cuts,
the crusty breads and patés
and the women, slender, coiffed,
crushed against the tables,
as they voraciously chew.
So this is what he meant, that most trenchant
of chroniclers, saddest of commentators,
and how it changed the town.
My fretful aunt and her visionary husband
have left for a place they had spared me
that hot summer. How they might marvel
at the simpler oxygen – a tube, a tank.
How they must wonder
looking down on the capital
that a wheelchaired leader’s courage
was forgotten, and all we can do
down on the ground here
is start all over again.