at The Funeral for 13,000; Andersonville
Historic Site, September 19, 2015
Every prayer once prayed here is still in the air,
but there is also that old wine of astonishment, caught
in the throat. So who are we to have gathered here,
even in praise, even humbled by the blood
of our inheritance? Could we ever be too sure
what history is good for? History is what we are—
creatures made of time and story—the clay of the Bible,
fired and shaped into brittle jars that hold our days.
And today, we are in our element, out in these fields
of wounding stillness at the end of summer,
where we stroll, as freely as we choose, down clean lanes
of grass and stone. We can take our time
and try to understand what we will never understand.
But one measure of our days has commanded us
to fall in, and to stand at attention, to form up
where the stockade swarmed and groaned, a septic mud
the soldiers prayed to God for the end of. The dusk
and the sunrise are still inside us,
and the years go on, and we touch them one by one,
and today, they are the strange beads of a prison rosary,
a ruined bootlace tied in knots. Let us go on, then,
and say Amen to the weapons at our feet, blades of grass,
the beautiful uncut hair of graves. Amen to the night
that takes up its position, Amen to the sun
that advances through the risen dust, with or without us,
whatever we believe. Everywhere, now, in this nation
of old sorrows and new—even trembling with the past,
here at Andersonville—we are suffering
from what we have forgotten. Tell us again, if you can,
how to praise, and how to grieve, and how to witness.
Give us this day, forgive us our trespasses....
The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,
but time and chance happen to them all.......
Turn you to the stronghold, ye prisoners of hope.
Copyright © 2016 by Judson Mitcham. This poem was commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and funded by a National Endowment for the Arts Imagine Your Parks grant.
About this Poem
"As part of ceremonies commemorating the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, Andersonville National Historic Site held a funeral for the 13,000 who died in Andersonville Prison. I was asked, as poet laureate of Georgia, to read a poem at the ceremony, and 'Prayer' is the poem I wrote for the occasion."
Judson Mitcham is the author of A Little Salvation: Poems Old and New (University of Georgia Press, 2007), Sabbath Creek (University of Georgia Press, 2004), This April Day (Anhinga Press, 2003), and Somewhere in Ecclesiastes (University of Missouri Press, 1991). He is the recipient of fellowships from the Georgia Council for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. He lives in Georgia.
Date Published: 2016-11-03
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/prayer-6