Today’s poem is “History” by Christian Barter. He has published three books of poems, the most recent being Bye-bye Land, a book-length poem, which received of the Isabella Gardner Prize. His primary occupation is working on a trail crew, planning and overseeing construction and rehabilitation of hiking trails at Acadia National Park, where he also serves as Poet Laureate.
“History” is a section of Bye-bye Land. He writes, “My overall approach in writing Bye-bye Land was to get distance, objectivity of a sort--but to really get all the way back to where "we" are a "they"--it was surprising to me how much that one change of pronoun altered my perspective on things. In this passage, the idea of someone trying to figure out who we were allowed me to take on the old question from a different perspective: "Who are we?" And how important will many of the things we hold most dear look later, especially if we destroy ourselves and/or the planet--i.e. our concept of "freedom", the idea of accruing wealth, using the legal system as the ultimate judge of things...and even poetry: was Shakespeare kind of full of it when he said his love would shine forever "in black ink"?
History by Christian Barter
And what will be said about them when they are gone?
That they saw the sky for what it was?
The trees for what they were, the grass?
That they did better than their parents?
That they loved their children?
That they got up every morning and went to work?
That they were like children themselves, really,
borrowing things to play at being adults?
That look at these hieroglyphs—how cool is that?
That what they felt is ultimately more important
than whatever it was, exactly, they were doing?
That at least they left us these condominiums,
the countless gigs of research
and a flight path to the moon—
To the moon, Alice! (1)
That most of what they did was actually legal?
That what is life for, if not to stroll campuses
and stand in chapels, under the huge stained glass?
That they had faith?
That given the crudeness of their instruments.
That, Dude! I found an arrowhead!
That all we can do is hope that they were happy.
That they were good people, damn it,
and if they gassed somebody, they must have had a reason.
That they were good people.
That they were free?
That there goes one of them now! Oh—
no, it’s just black ink shining bright. (2)
That did they really die of pseudoscience?
That it’s obvious to us, of course.
That are you sure you haven’t combined
the actions of one creature
with the conscience of another?
That who are we to judge them, we of the future,
who do not yet even know who we really are?
Poem copyright © 2017 Christian Barter.
Reprinted from Bye-Bye Land,
BOA Editions, 2017
by permission of Christian Barter.
1 “One of these days—Pow! Right in the kisser! One of these days, Alice, straight to the moon!” Ralph threatening his wife, Alice, on the hit TV show The Honeymooners.
2 “O none, unless this miracle have might,/That in black ink my love may still shine bright.” Shakespeare, Sonnet 65