A Letter to Jefferson from Monticello
Westward the course of empire makes its way. —Bishop George Berkeley
I climbed through what remains of your oak forest
& passed again our gated family graveyard
(Granddaddy's stone & Bennett Taylor's
& Cornelia J.'s & all the Marthas—)
& up the leafy slope to Monticello
& slunk into your study filled with pedestals,
translations of the Bible, Livy, Herodotus,
porcelain head of Voltaire as inkwell, plans for
an ornamental farm, Nouvelle Maison Carrée,
feeling that Rome might yet exist, forum, project
of appropriation: your America.
O hypocrite—you make me tired.
Like Whitman, you contradict yourself.
Images: you, lofty, curious,
child of a mapmaker & New World aristocrat
in your one-room schoolhouse on the Randolph land grant,
learning Latin in a wilderness.
Writing that in sixteen generations
the "aboriginal" Native Americans
would be like the Britons after Caesar
& produce "their own Cicero."
Defending America's greatness
from French snobbery with a moose.
Nine generations later
very few of us read Cicero,
moose reclaim New England after heavy farming,
& your house is a museum, whose enormous gift shop
sells your profile cast in crumbly chocolate,
versions of your favorite peony
& umbrellas with your signature…
Here's your garden:
marrow peas asparagus
& nubbed beginnings
of the scarlet runner bean.
I still hear schoolchildren asking
why you needed slaves to grow them.
O great rhetorician, tell me: What should I say?
where your publics did
in the balconied front hall, your wonder cabinet.
Re-creations of buffalo-skin & beaded dress,
relics of tribal peoples
you courted Roman-style, with coins.
As tourists shuffle
off to the last buses, I hear other silence:
Behind this great hall and upstairs
a dome room and wasp-filled cuddy,
the cramped quarters of your grandchildren
who inherited your debt.
Families are still stories: Now we look
for them with DNA. DNA would have
fascinated you: It is
symmetrical, almost rational,
the way you thought America's rivers would be
when you sent Lewis & Clark west
to collect & cross the continent, to gather birds & roots
& pipes & pelts & herbs & a ram's skull that hangs here,
& dialects of tribal languages, which they
We haven't found those dialects.
We have found DNA:
& tests of it suggest (though cannot fully prove)
that you had two families:
legitimate & illegitimate,
two rivers proceeding out from you—
like names that have been saved and those
that have been lost.
made of structured absence.
Some people in your
white family this makes furious.
Others simply wonder what a family is.
The word, like freedom, shifts
beneath us, recombinant, reforming.
Our country argues now about it.
We can't decide what it should mean.
Looking at the buffalo robe that is a Shawnee map
I think about asymmetry,
the ever-presence of a story we can't tell / won't see.
All stories contain opposites:
If only you look at DNA, you do not
see the whole buffalo: country: self.
Whatever frame you look through
changes what you see.
(I admire your 17th century micrometer, your telescope.)
We saved your hand-cast silver spectacles,
but I don't know how to see you despite
wanting to, also because of
your fractured families.
You disappear behind
your multitude of portraits.
So much (I think) of what we love about America
is hybrid like a fiddle, like rock 'n' roll, which holds
African and English rhythms meeting
near a river that in the 1800s you
called the Cherokee Tainisee—
"beautiful & navigable,"
you said. Aesthetic, practical.
A complex way of being, a difficult pose to hold.
I wondered driving down here
listening to True Colors & the Christian station,
how to feed body & soul. Cherries bloom
at Shadwell, near the ex-grounds of Lego
(all the lost plantations
where our many families lived)—
In this house museum I get special permission
to touch your bedspread, peer into your Virgil, hunt as if
It all only looks still
but was always unfinished. You designed
porches & dumbwaiters, elaborate passages
like those beneath the Coliseum
where the Roman slaves died
in the Panis et Circenses. Your craft:
Keeping people hidden. I ask you:
Must beauty do this?
On what must beauty rest?
Nine generations later,
I live on a fault line.
I hike through redwood, sorrel, live oak—plants you'd love to name.
Berkeley, where I grew up, is utopian, too.
Many people there build experimental gardens
& devote their lives to cultivating
the best kind of tomato: Because one has to try
to make the world a better place.
& Berkeley is segregated.
Its promise is unhealed.
(O & this is also inheritance from you)—
California's road map calls it
"geologically young and restless"—
it is literally in motion & in ten million years
will be someplace else.
Now it is coastlines, traintracks, mountains,
underfunded universities, overcrowded prisons,
factory farms, expensive cheese.
Pesticides & ocean, budget crises, artichokes.
I learned Latin there. I re-crossed the continent.
I stand in your mote-filled sunlight in my solitary fancy.
The doors close any moment.
Mr. Jefferson: You've also left me this.
I've never had to work in
any field except for gardens that I've planted.
I roam with a lion's share of your uneven freedom.
I pass as a dreamer, recording names.
These are beautiful & come from many languages,
reminding me how in Rome columns rear & overlap:
Madrone: Eucalyptus: Manzanita:
Scars themselves—unsolved or healing.
O architect of hopes and lies,
ambitious foundering father I revere & hate & see myself in.
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