I am as true to that bell as to my God.
I was given a name, it came out of a book—
I don’t know which. I’ve been told the Great Man
could recite every title in order on its shelf.
Well, I was born, and that’s a good thing,
although I arrived on the day of his passing,
a day on which our country fell into mourning.
This I heard over and over, from professors
to farmers, even duel-scarred students;
sometimes, in grand company, remarked upon
in third person—a pretty way of saying
more than two men in a room means the third
can be ignored, as I was when they spoke
of my birth and Mr. Jefferson’s death
in one breath, voices dusted with wonderment,
faint sunlight quivering on a hidden breeze.
I listen in on the lectures whenever I can,
holding still until I disappear beyond third person—
and what I hear sounds right enough;
it eases my mind. I know my appearance
frightens some of the boys—the high cheeks
and freckles and not-quite-Negro eyes
flaring gray as storm-washed skies
back home; it shames them to be reminded.
So much for book learning! I nod
as if to say: Uncle Henry at your service,
then continue on my way through darkness
to start the day. This is my place:
stone rookery perched above
the citadels of knowledge,
alone with the bats and my bell,
keeping time. Up here, molten glory
brims until my head’s rinsed clear.
I am no longer a dreadful coincidence
nor debt crossed off in a dead man’s ledger;
I am not summoned, dismissed—
I am the clock’s keeper. I ring in their ears.
And every hour, down in that
shining, blistered republic,
someone will pause to whisper
Henry!—and for a moment
my name flies free.
Excerpted from Playlist for the Apocalypse © 2021 Rita Dove. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.