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Robert Wrigley: What She Said

On the anniversary of the assassination of JFK

Friday, English class, seventh grade.
     Almost everyone alive that day remembers
where they were and will until they die.
     When the intercom announcement came,
we were diagramming sentences, one of the few
     school things I understood and did well.
     We would not know for many years,
not until the Secret Service man who
     covered her body with his own reported
that the President’s wife spoke to her murdered husband, 
     there in the backseat of a convertible limousine.
She said to him, Oh, Jack, what have they done?
     I imagine sentence diagramming was over
for the day at that point, which would have
     disappointed me, since I was very good at it
and doing it made me feel smart
     and made me understand things—
the machine, the organism, the symbols of the words
     arranged just so, doing what they did.  Everyone
in that convertible limousine that day
     is dead now, except for the Secret Service man.
He must have heard it all the rest of his life.  Every day.
We stayed in school
     until the final bell then walked or rode
a school bus home.   I don’t remember.  But everyone 
     alive then remembers when the man
they said had fired the shots was shot himself,
     two days later, in a Dallas jail.  We watched it
over and over and over on TV.  
     The day after that I saw my father cry
for the only time in my life.  He lay on the sofa,
     watching a state funeral in black and white
between his stockinged feet.  The band played
     the Navy Hymn.
Outside all the leaves had fallen from the trees.
     The TV announcers explained the symbolism
of Black Jack, the riderless horse, 
     and of the six gray horses pulling the caisson
that held the casket.  In the chaos, her pink,
     pink pill-box hat had been lost.
Someone has that hat.  We don’t know who.  
     A strawberry pink, wool bouche, double-breasted
Chanel suit, she wore it the rest of the day
     as it stiffened with her husband’s blood.        
She said she regretted she’d washed the blood
     from her face before the swearing-in of LBJ.
She said she wanted them 
     to see what they had done to Jack.  
They had done what
     they had done and my father cried  
and I went outside and walked around  
     and did not climb any trees,
although they offered themselves to me.
     All I did
was walk.  Cold, late November day.
     I wasn’t wearing a coat 
but didn’t want to go inside,
     until I knew my father was finished.
It was thought when she climbed
     in her smart suit out onto the trunk lid
of the Lincoln, that she meant to help
     the Secret Service man into the car.
That may have been when she lost her hat.
     In fact, she climbed out 
to retrieve a chunk of her husband’s skull.
     Sixteen years after she died,
Agent Clint Hill, who is still alive, 
     gave the interview in which he repeated
what she said—Oh, Jack, what have they done?
     He was shielding her body.
Her hat was gone, her lips 
     inches from her dead husband’s ear.
A sentence.  A rhetorical question.
     In the chaos and clamor, no one else
would have heard.
I’m not sure I knew there was such a thing 
     as a rhetorical question at twelve,
but I could have diagrammed hers.
     The subject of her sentence is
they.  It would have been placed at the
     left end of a horizontal line and separated
from the verb, have done,
     by a perpendicular line.  On the right, the object,
separated by yet another perpendicular line: what.
     In this way the sentence, 
a question, is turned to a declarative statement:  
     They have done what.
“What,” in this case, is a pronoun, it stands for
     a noun, which was not stated,
although it was also clear what
     what might be—blood and bone,
her husband’s exploded head in her lap.

Robert Wrigley‘s books include Box (Penguin, 2017); Anatomy of Melancholy & Other Poems (Penguin, 2013), winner of the Pacific Northwest Book Award; and Beautiful Country (Penguin, 2010).

Copyright 2020 Robert Wrigley

Source: History.com

8 comments on “Robert Wrigley: What She Said

  1. Tim Steury
    November 25, 2020

    Sixth grade. Mr. Ehrsom’s class. making a melted crayon mosaic for Christmas.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. pranabaxom
    November 23, 2020

    It is such an absorbing poem. Didn’t even realize when I finished reading. I was dazed and the event was speaking to me.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Patricia Nugent
    November 22, 2020

    A major transport back in time, to an incident I didn’t realize had traumatized me at the time as a youth – but this poem made me realize it had. And helped me revisit the ugliness of a nation I didn’t yet understand was ugly.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Lex Runciman
    November 22, 2020

    Bob’s right, of course. We do remember…

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Michael B. Frank
    November 22, 2020

    That Moment

    I was on my
    chin-up at
    Bud Mucci’s
    gym on
    Olympic Blvd.,
    when news
    came of the
    shooting of JFK.
    It’s said that
    everyone then
    alive remembers
    where he/she was
    at that moment
    of that day.
    The where,
    the what I
    was doing,
    a personal best
    in play,
    is what I remember,
    and the exact

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Susan Berlin
    November 22, 2020

    Omg omg omg, what a poem.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Barbara Huntington
    November 22, 2020

    I remember that day. I was in the only art class I ever had in high school and had been sent on an errand to the school office where I learned what happened and returned to share the news to my class.

    Liked by 1 person

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