For the Union Dead
"Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam."
The old South Boston Aquarium stands in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded. The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales. The airy tanks are dry. Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass; my hand tingled to burst the bubbles drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish. My hand draws back. I often sigh still for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom of the fish and reptile. One morning last March, I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage, yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting as they cropped up tons of mush and grass to gouge their underworld garage. Parking spaces luxuriate like civic sandpiles in the heart of Boston. A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders braces the tingling Statehouse, shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief, propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake. Two months after marching through Boston, half the regiment was dead; at the dedication, William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe. Their monument sticks like a fishbone in the city's throat. Its Colonel is as lean as a compass-needle. He has an angry wrenlike vigilance, a greyhound's gentle tautness; he seems to wince at pleasure, and suffocate for privacy. He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely, peculiar power to choose life and die-- when he leads his black soldiers to death, he cannot bend his back. On a thousand small town New England greens, the old white churches hold their air of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic. The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier grow slimmer and younger each year-- wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets and muse through their sideburns . . . Shaw's father wanted no monument except the ditch, where his son's body was thrown and lost with his "niggers." The ditch is nearer. There are no statues for the last war here; on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph shows Hiroshima boiling over a Mosler Safe, the "Rock of Ages" that survived the blast. Space is nearer. When I crouch to my television set, the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons. Colonel Shaw is riding on his bubble, he waits for the blessèd break. The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere, giant finned cars nose forward like fish; a savage servility slides by on grease.
From Life Studies and For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell, published by Noonday Press (a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.). Copyright © 1964 by Robert Lowell. Used by permission. All rights reserved.