Mr. Sam and Father Dick

 

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Photo credit: The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History,

I.

Eighth of eleven
     mouths forever needing feeding,
undone time and again by the
     banks and railroads and interests,
kept in the dark for the
     sole sake of Mammon.

In the cotton fields at five,
     already boiling with inherited
memories of Appomattox, of those who
     “sent the carpetbagger and
the scalawag to the prostrate South
     with saber and sword,” already
yearning to champion the pained providers
     of fibers and steerhide
that fashioned attire and footwear
     they could never hope to afford.

“I’m not asking you to send me, Pa.
     I’m asking you to let me go.”
Twenty-five dollars from a toil-hardened
     hand – God knows how he saved it –
immediately prior to embarkment for the

Normal College of East Texas, together with
an artless and abiding admonition:

“Sam, be a man!”

A studied taciturnity
     again and again betrayed
by that bull-like body and bold bald head,
     growing red with righteous rage;
the bluntest truth-telling making
     long memory moot;
proffered riches rebuffed by simple principle:

“I’m not trying to buy the office.
I’m asking the people to give it to me.”

Summoned by a revered President to betray beliefs,
     politely responding with apologies
for not going along to get along,
     To offers of free railroad rides, a less polite
refusal to tarnish his father’s name.

A solitary desk adorned only
    with a portrait of Robert E. Lee
(eventually joined by Franklin D.);
    a heavy and decisive gavel to accentuate
that bald and bullish head;
    and the power of the people,
for the people.

But always the recognition that “loneliness breaks the heart.
     Loneliness consumes people.”
A three-month marriage, a two-room flat,
and not even one tow-headed boy to take fishing.

How then to resist the black-eyed peas and cornbread,
     the peach ice cream and good chili offered
by a professional son and his bird-like wife?

How to deny the ravenous ambitions
     of the gangly Judas who so eagerly
kissed that bald and brimming skull?

II.

Lyndon Johnson and Richard Russell

Racing through a Georgia field,
     repeatedly redeeming the Lost Cause
with a carved wood rifle and a hasty rendering
     of Fort Lee, replete with the inherited outrage
of your family’s plantations, lost with the
     cause that made them.

Your grandmother rescued from Tecumseh Sherman
by slave Monday’s carriage; the insult of a
another coming day
raising even Monday to the Legislature.

First son, fourth of thirteen,
     time and again stricken poor by a
backward, uncaring nation and the unweaning ambition
     of a deeply loving, harshly judging father,
sitting regally at the breakfast table,
     refusing to be rushed.

“You can have—and you must have—
a future of usefulness and distinction
     in Georgia or
it will break my heart.”

A studied taciturnity,
     a quiet objectivity, and no quick opinions
     countering your beloved judge’s disconnection
from reality and common sense,
     raising you to public office
at twenty-three and Speaker of Georgia
     at twenty-nine.

Thirty-two and sworn
     to lead, protect, and defend your peach
of a homeland while looking directly
     to your father’s eyes.

Believing farming to be
     the superior way of life,
you were no farmer and
     did not pretend.

Always a Russell of the Russells of Georgia,
     always over and above the dictates of a
Senator of the United States, you believed you
     loved the Negro like the sons
and daughters you would never have,
     always trusting that your quadroon
and octoroon children were better off
     remaining in their native stations.

Playing so strictly by the rules,
     drawing debate to exhaustion,
through filibuster flailing against
     the incivility of cloture, you kept them
in the place God gave them, the Lost Cause
     not lost, after all.

“You can do anything.
     If you don’t do it, it’s just your own fault.”

How then to resist
     the wily inducements and even imprecations
of a professional son
     with ambitions above even your sainted father?

How to deny the dogged destiny of
     a Southern President, at last?

[for Robert A. Caro, with gratitude]

 

(c) Michael Quentin Abraham, 2016.

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