Monticello in Mind
Fifty Contemporary Poems on Jefferson
Lisa Russ Spaar, Editor
(University of Virginia Press)
It's an interesting conceit: commission fifty poets to come up with fifty poems about Thomas Jefferson. Give them the freedom to write about anything having to do with our third president --- his religious thoughts, his 18th Century rationality, his ability with words, his love of poetry, his love affair with France, his fascination with architecture and design, his slaves . . . and the supposed children by these slaves.

And yet, with all this curiosity, some of our curiosity about this book would have to be the question of the source, the choice of poets. Who are American poets qualified to write on such a politically fraught figure in our history? A great deal of space is given over to this question --- half of the book. There are extensive biographies of the fifty poets with many pages dedicated to an extended explication of each poem.

Some of the versifiers are of the cofraternity, that wan band of professionals poets, those who hold respectable teaching posts at places like Princeton, Emory, Temple, NYU, George Washington, the University of Virginia or the University of California.

There are at least six Guggenheim Fellowships here, six Pulitzer Prize winners or finalists, four Poet Laureates. Many have published in those bastions of American traditionalism: the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Kenyon Review, the Paris Review, the New Yorker, and the American Poetry Review.

Fortunately the editor has included at least a dozen writers who show few if any of the credentials one apparently needs to be labelled "poet" in this poetically blighted land of ours, although, unfortunately, the editor chose to ignore some of the current hot-dogs of American underground poetry . . . what our editor has called the new "Neo-Realists:" Len Roberts, Carolyn Creedon, Tom Crawford, Christine Hamm, Reneé Gisell, C. K. Swann. At the same time, there is little rap or hip-hop here --- no scat poetry, nor dada. There is one subtle blessing: we don't have to put up with the four poets identified by a famous article appearing in the Huffington Post concerning America's most tedious poetasters: Louise Glück Jorie Graham, Helen Vendler and Mary Oliver. Thank god for small favors.

Still, and alas, after all this exhaustive sorting, it is my sad duty to suggest that this anthology will not necessarily be knocking your socks off, much less flying off Amazon's shelf. Why? Few of the poems here will resonate with anyone with a sense of the lusty art of true verse, even though a couple of writers do manage to depict Jefferson in all his contradictions, his semi-lunatic edge.

For example, Kate Daniels:

    Because he was of two minds like a person
    With old time manic depression: the slaveholder
    And the Democrat, the tranquil hilltop of Monticello
    And the ringing cobblestones of Paris, France. The white
    Wife, and the black slave mistress . . .

In an impressive show of poetic agility, Daniels then offers us a person of exactly two minds. Namely, her bipolar son:

    Once more, we drive our son to the treatment center,
    And sign him in and watch him stripped of identity
    And privacy. Shoelaces and cigarettes. Cell phone.
    A dog-eared novel by Cormac McCarthy. A plastic bag
    Stuffed with things we take away with us, and weep over . . .

It's an audacious fusion of past and present . . . and it works. This odd duck Jefferson, with his manifest contradictions, conjoined to a child of our own time with "the mind-breaking molecules our ancestors / Hoarded, and passed forward in a blameless / Game of chance, shuffling the genes."

Daniels is one of the few poets of the fifty here who recognizes Jefferson as haunted, and, as a fellow poet, and she adroitly includes his best, classic poem intertwined with her own:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men
    are created equal, that they are endowed by their
    Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among
    these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Another poet who seems to get it is Ravi Shankar (no, not the classical Indian musician; rather, a former professor of poetry at the University of Connecticut). In his poem "Thomas Jefferson in Kathmandu," Shankar remembers himself as a student back in the country at Jefferson High where "I went though / facial hair, trigonometry, punk rock, soccer balls, / SAT's, angst, in short the whole gamut of adolescent / failure and triumph." And now, in Nepal, he compares his present world where "stalls / selling Himalayan masks, frozen in poses of pent- / up animal rage" is pitted against Jefferson's mask at Mount Rushmore, and the "Bill / of Rights, where Sally Hemmings does her light sewing" while a Nepalese woman who "is our / mother from another life and you and I are no less, / no more than brothers."

He cites Jefferson as the author of "the grand American experiment," yet in a grand experiment where Shankar has himself been "jailed

        and bailed out, slurred, even refused service at a diner
            250 years after you were born. I know I'm not nailed

    to a cross, but why is it that I feel so much finer
        and more contented in a country ruled by Maoists
            and Marxists than I do in the democratic, designer

    shining city on the hill where all the Taoists
        Hindus, and Buddhists I'm meeting want to move
            to regardless . . .

Once again, the poet is playing off the picture of a noble Founding Father set against the reality of the day-to-day, a designer-perfect image of a nation that somehow and so easily debases itself, as well as its own kind.

§   §   §

For some reason, the editor of Monticello in Mind has insisted on including a summary of each of the poems here, a translation for those of us (I guess) too dumb to figure out what verse is --- or can be --- about.

Which is a not only a bother; it's an insult to the fifty poets that Ms. Spaar has chosen to include. Because it's a sneer aimed at us all: obviously we aren't bright enough to get what's given us on the printed page. Then, too, it's a put-down of her contributors (they write stuff you can't figure out without your CliffsNotes).

And it is, worse, a put-down of her editing ability: I picked some awfully obscure poems to include --- she is telling us --- but as your resident expert, I'm going to show you what you're missing. These guys are professional obscurantists and we need translations all around. Sorry 'bout that.

Having revealed my own obtuseness, I must say that I was a bit nonplussed by some of the entries here. Charles Wright manages to confound us in the "December dark / Running its hands through the lank hair of late afternoon / Little tongues of the rain holding forth" We want him to just Block that Metaphor! . . . which he actually does in the next line: "Such such watery words."

Another puzzler is Brenda Hillman's "Near the Rim of the Ideal" which quite makes our heads spin with,

        the least moon drops --- --- a vitamin
    b,     simple, pink, mechanical . . .
    ellipses on the wing     in seamless patches . . . . . .
                        nails by Boeing ---
            this week,     the horror    in Gaza,    in Ukraine . . .

and then

                   @ @ @ @       @ @ @ @
                    really do        really do
                    really do        really do
                    really do        really do

and perhaps I'm wrong, there may be some rap buried here somewhere which even our editor/translator has trouble parsing.

§   §   §

I found a couple that resonated (as all good poetry should, even with the unwashed) without footnotes. David Wojahn offers a rare picture of Jefferson busily constructing his Bible --- the version that he cut and pasted to get rid of the parts that he believed to be constructed by "montebanks:"

    Candlelight, straight razor, ruler, an umber King James.
        Nearly midnight: unwigged, in his nightshirt,
            He's set his pantograph away & the house
    Slave Ursula has brought him port, a bit of stilton.

And finally, let's give homage to "Monticello," one of the best in this collection, a brilliantly punning jab by Robert Hass (I know, I know --- establishment as hell --- but he's still a terrific wit, offers a genuine knee-slapper for those ready to pick up on it):

        Snow is falling
    on the age of reason, on Tom Jefferson's
        little hill & on the age of sensibility.

        Jane Austin isn't walking in the park,
    she considers that this gray crust
        of an horizon will not do;
    she is by the fire, reading William Cowper,
        and Jefferson, if he isn't dead,
    has gone down to K-Mart
        to browse among the gadgets:
        pulleys, levers, the separation of powers.

    I try to think of history: the mammoth
        jawbone in the entry hall,
    Napoleon in marble,
        Meriwether Lewis dead at Grindler's Trace.

        I don't want the powers separated,
    one wing for Governor Randolph when he comes,
        the other wing for love,
                                             private places
        in the public weal
        that ache against the teeth like ice.

        Outside this monument, the snow
    catches, star-shaped,
        in the vaginal leaves of old magnolias.

--- Lolita Lark
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