Poetry April 2008

The Day I Saw the Emperor’s Clay Soldiers

The day I saw the emperor’s clay soldiers
I thought I understood the end of things—
blank faces staring back from 2,000 years.
A farmer found them; I found the farmer
in my father, grandfather, lost since
the Depression days of hominy pots.

My lost fathers are clay now too,
contained, kept from me by a wine-velvet
rope sagging between brass stanchions.
If I reach across, will the alarm sound,
lights flash, uniformed guards push me back?
I thought I understood the end of things.

The day I saw the emperor’s clay soldiers
I wanted to be the electrician who
installs lights above the exhibits.
I know my father’s best side, or knew,
though it makes me dizzy to remember.
I’ve never understood the end of things.

We’re hollow men too, my fathers and I.
We never talked, even when we had
the chance—maybe afraid of the echo.
But 2,000 years is a long time
to wait, even for still, curt clay soldiers
who surely understand the end of things.

I came back a faithful soldier, stayed
until the museum closed, every day.
Then the exhibit left, and someone changed
the angle of those lights, not me,
and I lost sight of the emperor’s soldiers.
That empty stand meant the end of things.

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Jonathan Musgrove is a poet, teacher, and poultry farmer who lives in Virginia.

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