M.A. Schaffner


The bridge was stone and carried a canal
over the river where African hymns
rose from the docks up cobbled streets and clung
to the porticos of clapboard mansions.
There were oaks gracing the mews of estates
while, shoulder to shoulder down the alleys
winding to the water, townhouses sagged
in ranked disorder.
............................Cat and dogs roamed free,
eradicating the native fox squirrels.
Feral gangs of urchins ambushed lone boys
who crossed Rock Creek. (They left the bodies
for the unpaid police, who gambled bribes
with masters whose servants fought on command,
biting off noses and ears, gouging eyes.)

Coopers, blacksmiths, cordwains, lawyers, and sots,
women high and low, passed with never a glance
where horses, pigs, and chamber pots emptied.
But music drifted from elegant homes
where the jeweled daughters of diplomats danced,
and the wharves wore the perfume of commerce
over shoals of rutting shad.
........................................A city
not shadowed by the nearby offices
of a shabby government, whose bureaux
ruled from actual houses, whose stagnant clerks
blotted ledgers in the tropical mist,
ordering muskets by the half-dozen,
stinting explorers for misplaced horseshoes,
taking up collections for dead colleagues
whose pay could hardly keep them when alive.

Cattle grazed in the neighboring marshes,
chewing thoughtfully to the steady drone
of the actors and miscreants on Capitol Hill.

When war came the dusty streets erupted
with crowds of youths and magic fifes and drums.
The citizens mobbed the early parades,
sold everything loose to awkward recruits,
and even gave them credit in their fervor.

Then campfires broke out on the other side.
Bugles cried across the twilit water.
Soldiers put planks over the Aqueduct Bridge
and began to cross, huddled over horses,
a thin grim column more than four years long.

M.A. Schaffner's poetry credits include Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Spoon River Poetry Review, The Rialto (UK), Poetry Ireland, and Poetry Wales. Schaffner's first collection, The Good Opinion of Squirrels, won the Washington Writers' Center publication prize and the Columbia Book Award. His first novel, War Boys, was published in 2002.

Published in Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter 2004


To read more by this author:
M.A. Schaffner
M.A. Schaffner: The Wartime Issue

Schaffner on Ambrose Bierce: Forebears Issue
M.A. Schaffner: Museum Issue
M.A. Schaffner: Poets in Federal Government Issue