Although William Faulkner’s oft-paraphrased claim that “[t]he past is never dead. It’s not even past,” is by its own terms continuously relevant, there are times during which its applicability seems more immediate than others. This is one of those times. More specifically, Thomas Jefferson, particularly as he is associated with questions of power, privilege, and race—questions that illuminate the gap between America’s promise and its fulfillment—continues to command the modern imagination. Within the last ten days, a review in The Wall Street Journal and an interview in Slate have considered Jefferson in these terms. The Broadway musical Hamilton no doubt has fueled some of the current interest, but neither a singular focus on Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings nor a debate about how best to dramatize eighteenth and nineteenth-century race and gender dynamics does adequate justice to the immeasurable importance of Thomas Jefferson in the development of this country.
The publication of Lisa Russ Spaar’s new anthology, Monticello in Mind, contributes significantly to the conversation. Few contemporary books of poetry explore Faulkner’s assertion as thoroughly and as adroitly as this welcome volume. It gathers a single poem from each of fifty contemporary poets and combines those ninety-one pages of poetry with a generous introduction and commentary. The result is in an anthology likely to appeal not only to poets and the poetry faithful but also to a broader audience still open to exploring the genius and the turpitude upon which the character and the institutions of the United States have been, and are still being, developed.
The variety and juxtaposition of the individual voices, themes, and styles presented in Monticello in Mind exemplify the complexity of Jefferson’s legacy. Further, as a group, the poems in the anthology acknowledge that Jefferson’s project—the sum of his professed ideals—has at best been only partially achieved. Indeed, by quoting from Jefferson’s Preamble to a Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge (1778) in the epigraph to his terza rima poem “Thomas Jefferson in Kathmandu,” Ravi Shankar raises the specter of the project’s ultimate failure: “Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” The poem’s speaker recognizes the contradictions between Jefferson’s dreams for the country and his actions and attitudes: “I’m on the other side of the world and still / can’t see clearly what has succeeded and what failed / in the grand American experiment” (52-4).
Many of the featured poets scrutinize Jefferson’s calls for equality. Making this examination particularly effective and sobering is the multiplicity of cultural lenses through which the poets see issues of race and power. In “On Imagination,” Kevin Young moves from the poem’s first lines directly addressing Phillis Wheatley, a poet whose literary worth was denied by Jefferson, to Wheatley’s own thoughts as she realizes that her words—her worth— will not be appreciated in her own time. As the child of a white father and black mother, Natasha Trethewey addresses in “Enlightenment” the relationship between her autobiographical speaker and her father and how understandings of Jefferson’s legacy are still influenced by race. Mark Jarman’s approach to these issues in “Nora’s Nickel” is more oblique than some others in the anthology, but his subtlety only heightens the effect of the speaker’s description of his Southern grandmother’s “professed love of all her Mexican friends / like the grocer’s boy who came to her back door” at her home in San Diego (20-1).
Notwithstanding recurring treatments of Jefferson’s hypocrisy about slavery, particularly as evidenced by his relationship with Sally Hemings, Monticello in Mind is not thematically monolithic. The poets presented here concern themselves also with Monticello itself—its gardens, its architecture, and its inhabitants. Others address the contradiction between Jefferson’s expressions of admiration for Native Americans and his willingness to destroy them in the service of national expansion. Several, including Ron Slate and John Casteen, find their primary metaphor in Jefferson’s bible—his attempt to redact from the Gospels any verses that suggest the supernatural. They consider the limitations bound to result when one denies the possibility of anything other than what appears rational and expedient in one’s own time. One of the most beautiful and moving poems in the anthology is Kate Daniels’s “Reading a Biography of Thomas Jefferson in the Months of My Son’s Recovery.” Daniels combines a meditation on Jefferson’s “flawed example of human greatness” (28), his double-mindedness, with a compassionate reflection on the speaker’s son and how “two minds circulated inside him, / Tantalizing its brand-new victim with generations / Of charged-up narratives of drugs and drink . . .” (49-51).
The diversity of approaches to Jefferson is reflected, too, in the formal range of the poems. Spaar’s decision to present the poems alphabetically by poets’ last names results in some fascinating, if accidental, juxtapositions. Reading Jarman’s double sonnet “Nora’s Nickel” immediately after Brenda Hillman’s “Near the Rim of the Ideal” is a reading experience not to be missed, and Terrance Hayes’s imagination broadens expectations of what a poem might be in “A Poem Inspired by a Frederick Douglass Middle Schooler’s Essay on Thomas Jefferson.”
The thoughtful anthologist’s task is never easy. Spaar describes her methods and motivations in her introduction and afterward, but the challenge is significant, particularly when the subject is as complex as describing the flaws and beauty of the still-coarse fabric of the United States, a fabric still unfinished on the loom designed by Jefferson. Spaar’s effort is remarkably successful. The diversity of poets, voices, styles, and perspectives contributes to the ongoing discussion of the status of the American adventure and to the success of Spaar’s own project, which is described in part in Mary Ann Samyn’s observation in “Heirloom” about the ongoing work to create a “more perfect union:”
Some days the sky whitens, but does not absolve.
There is no cure but time, and for time, no cure.
Thus, among the beauties, grief, also,
Itself an heirloom, held up, handed down.
History begins to come true as we tell it.
This is the spot where. (7-12)
Monteiro, Lyra. Interview by Rebecca Onion. “A Hamilton Skeptic on Why the Show Isn’t As Revolutionary As It Seems.” Rev. of Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Slate.com. Slate, 4 April 2016. Web. 5 April 2016.
Sacks, Sam. “Self-Deceiver-in-Chief.” Rev. of Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, by Stephen O’Connor. The Wall Street Journal 2-3 April 2016: C9. Print.
Spaar, Lisa Russ, ed. Monticello in Mind: Fifty Contemporary Poems on Jefferson. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2016. Print.