American Recessional

From I.O.U., Wim’s new book of poems, available on

For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!
—Rudyard Kipling

The City on the Hill is turning out its lights
and closing up for a long, long night.
Heroes are cast out of their Valhalla;
the halls ring with a clamor of cowards.

Closed up for a long, long night
of drunken revels in the dark,
the halls ring with a clamor of cowards
gloating in the exile of heroes.

Their drunken revels befit the dark;
it was false morning in America too long.
Those who gloat in the exile of heroes 
believed in a painted dawn, a sun that never rose.

The heroes, after mourning America too long,
retreat across the frozen bridge
yearning for a warming dawn, a sun to rise,
their bleeding feet wrapped up in rags.

Retreating across the frozen bridge,
the general reads a pamphlet to troops
whose feet are numb in icy rags:
“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

The general shivers as he reads to his troops
about summer soldiers and sunshine patriots:
“These are the times that try men’s souls.”
A woman with a face of iron and coal

leads freezing slaves and snowblind refugees
across the bridge toward freedom and new life.
Her posted face of iron and coal
offers tens of thousands in reward for her.

“Cross the bridge to freedom or you die,”
she says, threatening a lead ball from her flintlock.
“Don’t make me lag, there’s a reward for me.
Keep up, keep walking, or I’ll put an end to you.”

The choice is freedom or a lead ball from her flintlock.
Does safety lie behind them in the darkened hall?
They keep walking toward some doubtful end.
Only cowards mistake puniness for greatness;

safety is a lie told in their darkened hall
where thieves thieve all innocence away
and cowards take their puniness for greatness
and lies are held for truest scripture.

How can thieves thieve when no one left is innocent,
when everything is stolen, nothing earned,
and nothing is true and lies are scripture?
Surely thieves must then turn into cannibals.

When everything is stolen, nothing earned,
sacrifice is the sole obscenity.
When all thieves turn into cannibals,
they have no one to devour but one another.

“Sacrifice is the sole necessity;
the want of one is the want of all,”
say those who cling fast and dear to one another;
beyond the bridge’s end lies only darkness.

The suffering one, the suffering all,
cast one last glance back at their Valhalla,
then plunge into the darkness beyond the bridge;
they’ll light another City on another Hill.

Appeared in Tuck Magazine, April 27, 2019.