Making Space

Performing this poem at the GottaGetGon folk festival, for which it was written, Saratoga County Fairgrounds, Memorial Day Weekend 2003.
Photo by Howie Eskin

for the Pickin’ and Singin’ Gatherin’

When Disney planned to build
a historical theme park in
Virginia’s piedmont
they promised Civil War reenactments
American Indian villages
and a make-believe state fair
where visitors could watch
“small town America at play
in a nostaglic re-creation.”

I can picture them now
rows of pilgrims and pundits
at the altar of vanished innocence
praying to the replicas of
paint-peeling grandstands
worshiping a past where
small town America played
like a child
and never faced
or caused
hard times.
Then they would go home
and go back to work
trying to drag us all forward into a past
that never was.

But Virginia told Disney no
and that one slice of Disney’s America
never got built.
The real Civil War battlefields are still there.
The Native Americans are still alive
whether they live in villages or not.
So are the fairgrounds.

There is a fairground in Saratoga County,
New York.
It’s not Disney flashy
but it has all the grandstands and oval meadows
and 4H sheep barns you could want.
Every summer a group of us
profane this altar
with our non-nostalgic bare feet
and our attention to the daisies and gravel
and picket-fenced corrals.

We’re here for the history too
but we let the fiddlers’ fingers
and dulcimers’ hammers
pull the past to us
instead of shoving us back into the past.

In the sunlight under the fairground’s
oldest tree and newest pavilion
among the bicycles and cooking pots
troupes of children and traditional instruments
spirituals and bawdy songs
we make space for the past to sit next to us
to ride on our breath when we sing
the river-worn words
to play with our skirts when we trace
the feet-worn contra dance paths.

We make space for the past
to sit here where we can see its scars
its grimaces of pain and regret
and its smiles of daring joy.
Among people who are
each others’ present
not their past
(and not an innocent among us)
here we can be timeless.

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