"On A Sign Announcing: Expanding Arlington National Cemetery" by Joseph Ross
The sign stands innocent as a smile.
Held aloft on two legs,
it is satisfied and confident,
announcing “Your tax dollars at work.”
Expansion is progress. Growth is good.
It is clean and straight, this sign.
It is clear.
Placed by a competent caretaker-
no lean, no tilt, no doubt.
Its letters stare out at us,
no flourish, no curls,
efficient, laces tight.
Most signs in this cemetery
are solemn carvings in stone
or fatherly warnings against irreverence.
But this one brags,
like much of America: bigger is better.
In the past, this cemetery has expanded
with no publicity.
No need to remind the grieving
that even graveyards need to grow.
And this cemetery does grow
in bursts of gunfire.
Here, the green hills do not roll like waves,
they rattle as if covered by a blanket
woven from bones,
unfurled flat above this pregnant earth,
covering a cold it can never warm.
I walk through this place
where names and dates stare
from every direction:
old wars, new wars, wars to end all wars,
conventional wars, all manner of wars,
a war that took my neighbor,
a war that did not take my father.
I realize that I must step carefully here,
from road to grass,
I walk in this meadow where water is red
and I am brought back to other lawns—
I remember afternoons playing army,
running through front yards, hiding in my own,
rolling on grass that smelled like August,
crouching behind trees whose leaves
I had earlier raked.
In those days, when you were shot
you got to lie on your back
and watch the sunlight strain
through a heaven of green leaves,
then, after counting to twenty,
you could jump up and play again, of course.
But today, I stand still,
surrounded by a silent, gawking crowd.
They stare up from beneath
their white stones,
their teeth bared and straight,
their smiles long since gone.
I wonder what they think
of this sign of the times,
whose black and white letters
tell us, in a language we know too well,
that progress is tallied in tears.
For the last several years, when I have felt most discouraged with my country, I take a walk through Arlington National Cemetery, to the grave of Robert F. Kennedy. Its simplicity and quiet often rebuild my hope. On one summer day, a few years ago, as I walked beyond the Visitor Center, I saw a very tasteful sign stating: "Arlington National Cemetery is Expanding." Needless to say, I was stunned. While the information was true, to present it in that way, in that place, showed a level of cluelessness I was not ready for. Who would create such a sign? Paint it? Approve it? Install it?
As a member of D.C. Poets Against the War and of the Split This Rock Poetry Festival community, I have been honored to connect poetry to the struggle for peace in many ways. Just last month, we held four poetry readings at the Peace Mural in Washington, D.C. This is just one of the many ways our local poets in D.C. bring our craft to the public conversation about war and peace in our time.
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