Friday, February 8, 2013

For George Meade, Surveyor and General

George Meade portrait by Matthew Brady
Low tide, 1848, you planted a tripod
in soggy Sand Key.
You stood out of uniform,
shirtsleeves and a floppy hat.
You dropped a plumb bob
and checked a spirit level,
shot an azimuth back to Key West:
calm work in a smooth breeze,
water slowly cresting
a reef that wrecked a hundred ships
and fed the families of salvage men.
A screwpile lighthouse remains,
your shabby monument here,
past usefulness, black, skeletal.

Or 1863 in a small white house,
you heard the crash of arms
on the other side of Cemetery Ridge.
How odd: commanding an army
a few days only to set camp
in a perfect nest of hills.
Maybe for a moment you feared
Pickett's men were like the surf
at Sand Key. You would need
to pull up stakes right then.
But you must have known
the charge was only another ship
blind and smashing itself apart.
Near your sweltering headquarters
another steel tower stands*,
hauling spectators to its top
to survey miles of monuments.

You must have kept good maps
of Gettysburg and Key West.
You were only marginal a soldier.
Maybe you were cranky
and they called you "Old Snapping Turtle"
because the job didn't suit you.
You didn't push Lee's whipped troops
and crush them against a flooded
Patomac River. Lincoln fired you.
And for fifty years the wealthy
salvage men of Key West went broke.
Ships moved smoothly among
its underwater graveyards.
Today tourists give money to
Gettysburg and Key West.
Where you went things changed,
but who would say you changed them?

Mapmakers don't win wars
except by accident. It's up
to captains to sweat the charts.
The humans who make history
never seem at rest, building towers
that need restoration, or opening
shops that trap a little money.
Who can tell where those people
end up? So maybe it's better
to chart with compass and rule,
even if the wind bothered
your papers, even if no one
cared about your trip to Sand Key
or the color of the sea that day.

*A tall and ugly observation tower once stood over the Gettysburg park. It has been demolished.

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