Having done my previous post on “writing and memory,” I set myself the assignment of writing something appropriate for Memorial Day today. Me being a word-lover by nature, my mind immediately started playing with “memorial” as a word: an object or action made to help people remember something. So you can have memorial sculptures or building, or memorial races or parades.
I’ve been to Washington, DC, home of many memorial objects. Washington’s is an obelisk visible for miles. Jefferson’ and Lincoln’s both include structures to house a statue. FDR’s pays tribute to an era, the decade-plus of his administration, as well as to the man himself.
But the memorial with greatest emotional impact for me is the most understated structure erected on our National Mall: the Vietnam Memorial. This minimalist elongated diamond of black granite sinks into the landscape rather than towering over it. The artist chose to pay tribute to individuals lost in the course of our national involvement in the conflict in Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s with a single angled wall of polished black stone, engraved with names. The conflict was complex and fraught with controversy: remember the names, the loss, the sacrifices.
Why do we even have memorials? Because human memory is iffy at best and people want to have something concrete or institutional in place to ensure memory persists. Memorial Day started in the 19th Century as Decoration Day, a time to decorate the graves of Civil War dead … and then those of Civil War veterans as well, as time passed. A handful of wars/conflicts/police actions later … If we don’t remember what worked, what didn’t, what we gained and what we lost, how can we ever hope to do better.
Some years back, I spent time with an online poetry-writing community. The organizing site gave out writing prompts every few days. One was a set of 5 or so words to be incorporated into a poem. I don’t remember any other stipulation about length or form, just the words. At some years’ distance, I can’t even remember which words I had to include, but I realized as I wrote today’s essay that in this poem I’d covered much the same problem of remembering to make sense of the past and choose the future.
Point of Honor
“For God and no quarter!” The Crusaders’ cry
rings hollow to the modern mind. For us,
no easy choice of infidel, no “why”
to follow. “Don’t rock the boat.” We lack clear will.
Will worldly confusion blur all lines of truth?
The world’s needs grab at my gut still.
How distill the chaotic promise of youth
to long-sought vision? Glory’s dream
that quarters no hate within my mind
guts the bloated corpse of delusion:
Bid nightmare fears shrink at a gleam
of returning sun. Choose honor, find
the clear path past all confusion.