The General's Bust

November 15, 2019


 

Sooner or later every Southern boy has got to 

deal with Robert E. Lee.  And you know what?

      He’s not easy to deal with.

Roy Blount, Jr


 

But that two-handed engine at the door,

Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.

John Milton



 

For Christmas of my 18th year my mother gave me a bust of you—.     

you sat on the window ledge in my corner room in Lexington,

a centerpiece that along with the battle flag

hanging in the doorway gave evidence of my allegiance. 


 

I can still see your ghost-image 

Walking the Colonnade in the quiet dark;

I imagined I walked the same path,

From your office in the basement of Lee Chapel—

Did they call it that then, before you lay recumbent upstairs?—

to your house at the corner of Washington Street and Lee Avenue.


 

You were my hero, then, having replaced Steve Garvey

and Bono in my pantheon of role models. 

You were a true gentleman, I would say, 

a real man of honor,

in response to their eye-rolling and name calling. 

You freed your slaves, I maintained, going on hearsay. 

Didn’t support the secession, just the seceded—

your own flesh and blood. 

Given the choice, you’d have stayed loyal. 

Not a traitor, no—

just the opposite, a true man of principle 

who could see beyond the moment to what truly mattered. 


 

You hung beside big George in the library at the lodge;

I gazed upon your solemn gray head to rest my mind       

from cramming for German and Old Testament. 

You calmed me. 


 

On January 20 the bells all over campus rang out

to celebrate the memory of your birth. 

We carried on the tradition of your honor system

On my honor I have neither given nor received any unacknowledged aid

on this test/quiz/paper, nor do I know of anyone who has.

We lived as gentleman. 


 

But you were

A traitor, 

And we weren’t 

Gentleman, 

And was it all a lie?


 

By your skill and obstinacy you extended 

the bloodiest war in our nation’s history, 

all to defend an institution that to this very day

makes me ashamed to be human—

is that honor? 


 

Each time I call myself a Southerner,

I bring up the legacy you have left me,

a legacy of hatred and fear of change, 

of racism and xenophobia—

is that honor? 


 

I have folded and put away the battle flag,

and never shall it reappear in my sight. 

Your bust sits in my parents’ garage, 

a chip taken out of the nose. 

My mother asks me what shall be done with you—

I can’t throw you away, you are too much a part of me,

yet I can't stand to look at you. 


 

Perhaps I shall carry you with me wherever I go,

placing you in closets and attics to gather dust

and to stand vigil in case any Yankees try to invade my storage spaces.

And when I need to be reminded of how wrong I can be,

of how I can be so easily fooled, I’ll take another look at you,

at your gray beard, gray uniform, and the chip in your nose,

and I will remember that honor is a two-handed engine. 

 

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