Excerpts: Letters from Thomas Jefferson to Barnum & Bailey
[W]e have the wolf by the ear and feel the danger of either holding or letting him loose.
January 3, 1776
A ringmaster’s best audience is a crowd
of peers; who better to understand
the plight of standing outside a cage
all the while knowing the bars hold
back what the show demands be free?
Who wins when the gate swings open
we determine by whip, they by nail.
May 3, 1787
Living off another’s back means
trusting the animal underneath.
To work with the inanimate:
a trapeze is what it appears to be;
it does not harbor injustice beneath
your feet. Stepped on, it does not cry.
Snapped, another ties in place.
Is the key to mastery finding a string
where once you saw a spine?
September 20, 1799
Last night, I stood outside with Sally
staring at Polaris until a storm blew
up from Richmond. The morning
after, I dreamt I woke up alone
with blood on my hands.
What’s worse, I could not say
if it was mine or someone else’s.
What’s worse, I could not say
which I preferred.
April 18, 1802
I see shadow at all times
between dawn and dusk.
I have made a prison
of my home; not even I am free.
When I find an axe in the field,
I wonder not how it got there
but where the blade is next to fall.
I consider locking my door
at night; make myself the animal,
trapped while I sleep.
May 27, 1809
Never once has a visitor asked
from where the flowers come
on the table, from where
the trays on the dumbwaiters.
Man’s ignorance comes from
his ability to reason, to decide
to watch the lion vault through
the hoop without inquiring how.
September 21, 1822
I released two cubs,
both Sally’s. She and I
watched from the North
Terrace as they disappeared
into the horizon like gunpowder.
Stand with us there, again,
a light wind tugging
for us to follow. Run a hand
along her cheek, surprised
to find the tensed muscle
of a smile. Let it last a moment;
though, I would not expect you to
July 4, 1826
I have overheard them on the grounds, Sally
and the others. Freedom comes in many forms,
death the last. I have seen too much of freedom,
then, but wonder how much I have given.
To think: a country founded on liberty lies
on a cemetery large as the Atlantic.
What I wouldn’t sacrifice to wash the stain
from the water. It is in the rain, the vines I grow,
the wine rotting beneath my feet. When exactly
the taste stopped scalding my tongue, I am not sure,
but adapting to poison is no better than the toxin itself.
This is to say the crime may stale, but you do not
have to labor to swallow it still; not every drop
must be consumed. I will not live to see
what you do with your serving.
now that my brother has a new
passport photo we can laugh
at his expired blue book the one
with the mustache a sharpie could
have drawn across his tanned smile
the summer my students arrived
from Jeddah and said hello by asking
if I was Egyptian one after another
and already he has become less
random selection at the airport
why if he cuts his hair he can fly
through security fast as the line
ahead of him even when he reaches
inside the machine to grab his shoes
all the signs saying no security
chuckling at a joke we don’t hear
ESL, a student asks for one
bottle of Cock from a Saudi girl,
who pulls out a soda from her abaya.
I ask for the script from their role play
when they finish, the walls scuffed
with intention and laminated
editing symbols, the clocks counting
digressions per hour. Polite requests
shifts to soft drinks and anatomy,
the analysis of vowels of all sizes,
long and short. I draw Os on the whiteboard,
each growing fainter as I write
examples that do not belong on the body.
Octopus. Oval. Coke. Our mouths
open and close in unison, an orchestra
learning the strings before the performance,
the difference between
an ‘ah’ and an ‘oh’
the difference between
something bitter, something sweet.
What it is about roots that keeps me
digging at soil must come from a need
the sky does not fill. The earth swallowed
both my fists. I was once what was
caked against my palms. To peel back
the clay is to shake hands with the ground
my ancestors’ walked. Friends have family
trees, a name for every branch.
I have no country; to learn from
where we come, my brother spits
into a tube. Buried in his saliva are the sun
and water, the seed, the hands planting the hole.
When it came time for Communion,
my brother and I were not invited
to put a wafer of their Lord on
our tongues while an organ hummed
and friends navigated our knees
in the pew, the weight of God
straining their bowed heads.
Surrounded by stories of stained
glass, I studied light through windows
I couldn’t see through; came to know
their stations by the face of saints
and Jesus, the spear slid into His side,
His eyes locked on mine. I asked
a teacher once if I could join
the procession down the aisle.
She said I was not a member
of the church and I never
Geoff Anderson teaches foreigners English and Americans Italian. He has organized Columbus, Ohio’s first poetry show dedicated to biracial writers, The Other Box. His work appears or is forthcoming in B O D Y, S/WORD, burntdistrict, and andersongeoff.com.
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