Thomas Jefferson

By Lorine Niedecker 1903–1970 Lorine Niedecker
I
My wife is ill!
And I sit
             waiting
for a quorum


II
Fast ride
his horse collapsed
Now he saddled walked

Borrowed a farmer’s
unbroken colt
To Richmond

Richmond How stop—
Arnold’s redcoats
there


III
Elk Hill destroyed—
Cornwallis
carried off 30 slaves

Jefferson:
Were it to give them freedom
he’d have done right


IV
Latin and Greek
my tools
to understand
humanity

I rode horse
away from a monarch
to an enchanting
philosophy


V
                           The South of France

Roman temple
“simple and sublime”

Maria Cosway
       harpist
on his mind


white column
and arch


VI
To daughter Patsy: Read—
read Livy

No person full of work
was ever hysterical

Know music, history
dancing

(I calculate 14 to 1
in marriage
she will draw
a blockhead)

Science also
Patsy


VII
Agreed with Adams:
send spermaceti oil to Portugal
for their church candles

(light enough to banish mysteries?:
three are one and one is three
and yet the one not three
and the three not one)

and send salt fish
U.S. salt fish preferred
above all other


VIII
Jefferson of Patrick Henry
backwoods fiddler statesman:

“He spoke as Homer wrote”
Henry eyed our minister at Paris—

the Bill of Rights hassle—
“he remembers . . .

in splendor and dissipation
he thinks yet of bills of rights”


IX
True, French frills and lace
for Jefferson, sword and belt

but follow the Court to Fontainebleau
he could not—

house rent would have left him
nothing to eat


. . .


He bowed to everyone he met
and talked with arms folded

He could be trimmed
by a two-month migraine

and yet
                stand up


X
Dear Polly:
I said No—no frost

in Virginia—the strawberries
were safe

I’d have heard—I’m in that kind
of correspondence

with a young daughter—
if they were not

Now I must retract
I shrink from it


XI
Political honors
            “splendid torments”
“If one could establish
            an absolute power
of silence over oneself”

When I set out for Monticello
       (my grandchildren
                will they know me?)

How are my young
                     chestnut trees—


XII
Hamilton and the bankers
would make my country Carthage

I am abandoning the rich—
their dinner parties—

I shall eat my simlins
with the class of science

or not at all
Next year the last of labors

among conflicting parties
Then my family

we shall sow our cabbages
together


XIII
Delicious flower
of the acacia

or rather

Mimosa Nilotica
from Mr. Lomax


XIV
Polly Jefferson, 8, had crossed
to father and sister in Paris

by way of London—Abigail
embraced her—Adams said

“in all my life I never saw
more charming child”

Death of Polly, 25,
Monticello


XV
My harpsichord
my alabaster vase
and bridle bit
bound for Alexandria
Virginia

The good sea weather
of retirement
The drift and suck
and die-down of life
but there is land


XVI
These were my passions:
Monticello and the villa-temples
I passed on to carpenters
bricklayers what I knew   

and to an Italian sculptor
how to turn a volute
on a pillar

You may approach the campus rotunda
from lower to upper terrace
Cicero had levels   


XVII
John Adams’ eyes
            dimming
Tom Jefferson’s rheumatism
                              cantering


XVIII
Ah soon must Monticello be lost
                   to debts
   and Jefferson himself
                                     to death


XIX
Mind leaving, let body leave
Let dome live, spherical dome
and colonnade

Martha (Patsy) stay
“The Committee of Safety
must be warned”

Stay youth—Anne and Ellen
all my books, the bantams
and the seeds of the senega root

Lorine Niedecker, “Thomas Jefferson” from Collected Works, edited by Jenny Penberthy, Copyright © 2002 Regents of the University of California. Published by University of California Press.

Source: Collected Works (University of California Press, 2004)

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Poet Lorine Niedecker 1903–1970

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

SCHOOL / PERIOD Objectivist

Subjects Family & Ancestors, Heroes & Patriotism, Relationships, History & Politics, Social Commentaries