Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 13 · no. 4 · Summer 2013


Poetic Research Department

Statement of Poetic Research

Tess Taylor
A Letter to Jefferson from Monticello

Westward the course of empire makes its way. —Bishop George Berkeley

                    I

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.

                    II

          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?

                    III

I wait
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.

                    IV

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

subsequently lost.

          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—

remembered unevenly,
like names that have been saved and those
that have been lost.

                                        Your family

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.

                    V

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.

                    VI

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)—

                    VII

In this house museum I get special permission
to touch your bedspread, peer into your Virgil, hunt as if
for clues.

                                                  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?

                    VIII

                                        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)—

                    IX

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,

brilliant, fascinating—

ambitious foundering father I revere & hate & see myself in.


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