Eighty-seven -- say it over and over,
blipty-blifil, nothing to it, but "FOUR SCORE
AND SEVEN,' now THAT'S a sublime mouthful,
especially "Four Score" -- hollow solemnity foreshadowing
"ago" (it's gone gone gone) and "fathers" (mine
is gone; so is father Abraham. Yours is gone or going).
And how shall we now speak of 1776? "Nine score and
eight years ago..." -- where did the magic go? "Two
centuries and 28 years ago"? No lucky seven, no deep
O-zone sounds. "Twenty-two decades and eight years ago"?
"Two hundred and twenty-eight years ago"? How many days?
How many minutes are we from the Minutemen (were they
fast or tiny or both?), how many seconds? (Was it sexually frustrating
to be wed to a fast, tiny minuteman? Is one in the bush
worth two if by hand? Did their wives Revere them?)
Surely the passage of time has somehow accrued to us
greater dignity! No wonder we say to hell with History,
when four score and seven beats nine score and eight.
We quit, we throw down our cards, say that Now is Now,
a full-sounding word. Past is past, a nasty, pasty, hasty,
gaspy word. Future is richer, like culture and nurture,
with a FEW of YOU. (Ure U, aren't you?)
We can be solemn without orotund oratory. John Kerry's mug
is longer than Lincoln's and would look sadder too (poor Kerry-on!
What luggage do you drag behind you?) if ever the anaesthesia
(or whatever it is that numbs his heavy-lidded eyes) would
wear off, for though less resonant, 228 is a bigger number than
so though we have not grown more grand, we are numb-er.
Lincoln, too, had heavy-lidded eyes. I know -- I used to draw
his face in the margins of notebooks, copy him from books
and five-dollar bills (don't tell the Feds), mold his huge head
in plasticine. And maybe he tried tinctures to tame the pain,
but the pain won.
I don't think he could bear being a politician, the possibility
that mere politics slaughtered 600,000. But 600,000
had been slaughtered ("slaughter" contains "laughter"
why do we dwell on Lincoln's humor?), and his son
dead, his wife maddened, and he -- was he anything more
than a gifted politician? No use saying, "I'm just a plain
man doing my best," no, that would be hypocrisy now,
like saying, "I didn't lead you guys to slaughter. I just
followed along with the rest of you." (But if I, too,
am shot, would that make it true?) Well, then, if it can't be
less than politics, it must be more. Fine words and phrases
make it more than carnage, make it noble, tragic or at least
What slave will free Father Abraham? Slave to what mad cause?
Note: This poem returns to a semblance of seriousness, though
it takes a few stanzas. The wordplay along the way includes an analysis
of the start of the Gettysburg Address and why it "works",
while other equally significant numbers (the time since the Revolutionary
War) don't sound as impressive. This leads to the minutemen, and
the possibility that a woman might want her lover to last longer
than a minute. How could I not work Revere (Paul) into that?
When rhetoric cheats us of the dignity of history (assigning
more significance to "four score and seven years ago"
(the time in Lincoln's day since the revolution) than to the various
ways of indicating the much longer time between US and the Revolution),
we take NOW for our consolation, and the future, "future"
being a word with a rich sound that includes "you" and
"Kerry" (candidate who ran for President against Bush
in 2004) leads to Kerry-on (carry-on or carrion) and from both of
these to the baggage this man of woeful countenance seems to lug
along with him, baggage under his droopy, numbed eyes. And we too,
though we (as a nation) don't seem to have acquired additional grandeur
or nobility since Lincoln's day, have, with our greater number of
years between us and the origins of the American dream, grown more
We come to lincoln's pervasive sadness, especially during the
war years, a sadness that is, in a way, admirable, compared to the
perky glibness with which other presidents have pursued war. I suggest
that Lincoln felt forced to raise the issues of the war above politics,
lest he should feel that mere politics was killing so many. That's
a truism, really don't we all do that with our issues: Justify
bloodshed by sanctifying our purposes. But Lincoln did a great job
of it, for others, at least. I'm not sure his justifications satisfied
him. I suggest that his getting killed was a solution for him. He
freed the slaves (or so we are taught), and a slave freed him (in
a limited way): Booth, by shooting him, made it clear that he'd
transcended politics. And Booth was a slave to his own mad cause.
This is just my attempt to paraphrase a poem (though mine). I hope
the poem is better than this paraphrase.