“A Monument for this Morning” Poem

By Dr. James Allen Hall

Dr. James Allen Hall wrote the following poem for inauguration. He was inspired by letters that William Smith wrote to George Washington.

In every possible way, your country wishes to erect public monuments to you, even while living…., with a view of instructing and animating the youth of many future generations to admire and to imitate these public virtues and patriot-labours, which have created a private monument for you in the heart of every good citizen.

—William Smith, writing to George Washington in July of 1782, to express that the College at Chester desired to carry his name.

What does a monument in the heart

even look like? Who tends its chambers?

Is it hard to visit an edifice secreted

away in the body — light incense, quiet

yourself down to the smoke and smolder

of your cells, rebuild what love has etched

into memory there. How does it stay alive past

the unstable medium of flesh? I am an American,

I’ve been thinking about monuments these days,

the ones we are taking down, the earth we are

turning back to history. Why not build a shrine

to the idea we can try again. A college too

is a living monument, where every day we ask

to be  transformed, made more human,

less afraid to meet the unknowable, to say the unsayable.

We are made, columns and steps inside of us,

out of the rubblestone of what we witness —

we are best when taken down sometimes

to our elements, to sediment and soot, rebuilt

here every day. How can I say what monument

this day will become? It’s only half-built.

Which means it’s only half-taken down, half-

analyzed. I can only ask you to leave the steel

of your hope here, on Martha Washington’s square,

among the marble and green grass, among the leaves

starting to turn and fall. Nothing stays itself

for very long. It joins rejoinder, it runs ahead

and traces back, it asks what are you made of,

how can you be of use? This is how

a history is borne: we cut its marble,

we shoulder it together.

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