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Thomas Paine and the Iron Bridge

Washington's sword would have been wielded in vain
had it not been supported by the pen of Paine.
- John Adams

Poor Tom Paine! there he lies:
Nobody laughs and nobody cries.
Where he has gone or how he fares
Nobody knows and nobody cares.
– Nursery Rhyme.

Little man. Failed clothier of women.
Twice fired excise officer, joke of a husband, penniless
immigrant to new America, foisting yourself
on a half-dubious Franklin.

Buried in New Rochelle – a dismissive obituary,
He had lived long, did some good and much harm.
And the only attendants: his part-time housekeeper
and her young boy bracketing the grave:
Mr. Paine, we bear witness for France and America
my grateful son and I.

Then, in death, a political pawn, dug up
by William Cobbett to be reburied
(with private money) in his native England,
where –in absentia– he'd been tried for treason.
But, mid-Atlantic, his body, in a storm,
lost to mother-sea. Tommy Paine, bones
nibbled by fishes.

Tom Paine, from unknown to, in France,
a public toast by Napoleon – Mr. Paine, every country
should have a man such as you.
A man obsessed –after God and politics
my passion
– with building the first iron bridges
which might safely span any gorged waters
arc above chunks of ice, tree trunks,
whatever riot might unloose and float.
And so – be more enduring than words
(for even in his own life the times that try
men's souls
were forgotten).

Tom, no summer soldier or sunshine patriot
wrote those lines on a drumhead,
from the mud of Fort Lee, in his letters
defending men's choice to be free
each line penned, equitable, deferent
to his fellows – men who marched
shod in bloody rags.

Paine caustic to nobility which makes as much sense
as hereditary mathematicians, patrimonial poets
and thus:
were men of no-ability.

Toadie-flattener, square toed shoes
kicking at inherited privilege, standing almost alone
against the desperate wretches of slavers,
Thomas Paine, every reflex egalitarian,
for whom it was in our power to begin the world anew.
Thomas Paine, boor and leech, Thomas Paine
maligned atheist plowing overnight gold
(Common Sense in millions of prints)
into the Continental Army. Paine, at fifty,
a pauper, an embarrassment to be seen with,
drunken and staggering to attack any blinder of liberty:
churches, illiteracy, politicians, poverty,
any to whom human life
was an apple under the wagon's wheel.

Thomas Paine (unlike his countrymen) fighting
long past comfort. Thomas Paine, would-be bridge
builder for free trade of cities. Would-be slaver-breaker.
Thomas Paine, greasy mouthed brawler on behalf
of whomever cowered.

Rest Tom. For as America, England and France
did not love you, rest between them all.

(From Chaos Theory and the Knuckleballer)


Pressing Flesh

I grasp the hand of a famous man – or he presses his flesh to mine,
cuticles stiffened with mana, whorls which caught, matched,
the furrows of a choker of children, or somewhere among the throng,
gripped a man who once touched my face.

Each wrestling thing imparted, pressed — every whole and half hand,
signers and shapers deftly honed, horned callus and paw of slab palmed laborers,
bones afloat in the bloated hands of the ill, the glass twigs of elderly fingers,
the truth in a thumb's cant, the tendon's flex over carpals, the sluing wrist
and the law of the paired hand: nerves writing the living nail and webby mesh:
I am bound in his hand, as he is bound in mine.

(From Anchor Ice)


Ring of Dead Keys

This one, chrome plating worn off its teeth,
opens a closet on Laurel St.
and this Yale: dorm room 413 in Fennel Hall
but those locks must by now be changed.
The tumbler key, hollow point and crest –
a hand me down to some armoire, or bureau,
or cedar chest long gone? This other
opens a house I walked out of – if it still worked,
I might slip a bolt open to myself and my wife,
by now a child? A small one marked “master”
might unleash a bike rusting in the grass.
But this one, snapped in half, head saved,
will shift the pins of nothing now. Here –
an ignition-key to that sunken hulk
of a Falcon, a brass luggage-key –
somebody else's loss found on a sidewalk.
Had I wanted to be a man without bars
or locks to his comings and goings? - or at least deaf
to the sound of a life snapped shut?

(From Anchor Ice)



Redhead legion nests in my palm.
The capacity of a match, boundless:
each one enough to smack a 747 across tarmac,
or a spurt a half-second stammer.
Thousands moved through my hands:
phosphorus to cigarette,
to wood fire, to marshmallow, to my body,
fuel to walk me out of the woods.
How far does potential travel?

I wish you on the cold and lost,
numb frozen steppe, mountainside souls
to be used carefully, one at a time,
campfires for a week,
so observers could see though binoculars,
send helicopters, then exuberantly,
a confirming signal,
a fan of flame above the book:
bulb of light,
moving to all directions at once,

(From Chaos Theory and the Knuckleballer)






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