By Michael Collins
We went out to Rebecca Hunter’s farm
and built a scaffold for John Brown.
It’s the strangest job I’d ever done,
my first and last gallows. I’d built stages,
cribs for babies, dinner tables,
marriage beds. I used to say “I’m
friend to birth and breakfast and lost
maidenheads.” Now I’m friend to death.
John Brown’s neck, I heard, snapped
like a gun going off, but still he lived
for minutes. Death struggled to beat him.
Maybe something snapped in history, too.
Only, time didn’t die. It went mad.
Now, with every year I sleep a little less.
The day Brown hung half the country swore we’d snapped
the devil’s neck; the others swore the neck
of Christ. Whatever the case, I sleep less
and less, and more and more have dreams
where every board I cut, every nail
I hammered in Brown’s scaffold is hammered
in my skull or used to bash it in. More
and more I have to half drink a pint of gin
to get my eyes to close. My wife took off
with all my earnings last Sunday night
while I was wailing to the angel Gabriel
that all I did was build the steps and help
out with the frame. The trapdoor was another’s
work. So was the placement of the iron hook
from which the noose was hung. “What’s more,
John Brown,” I said to Gabriel, “slaughtered men
at Pottawatomie for nothing more than thoughts
in their heads. He made the nation set fire to itself.
He made farm fields spit blood. I, the day
he hung, was a step above apprentice. I wasn’t
John Wilkes Booth, who used to play on a stage
I built, and who, watching Brown hang, learned to murder
presidents. I wasn’t Lee, the future general, who smiled
at the scaffold and the troops who guarded it.
I wasn’t Stonewall Jackson, manning a howitzer
against the phantom army Brown might summon.
Blame that actor hungry for history, blame the generals, blame
Brown himself for seeing a noose as something
better than a king’s jeweled crown. I’m just
a carpenter who, called in one morning, did his job.