Thomas Jefferson was a figure both central and polarizing in his own time, and despite the passage of two centuries he remains so today. Author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, yet at the same time a slaveholder who likely fathered six children by one of his slaves, Jefferson has been seen as an embodiment of both the best and the worst in America’s conception and in its history.
In Monticello in Mind, poet Lisa Russ Spaar collects fifty contemporary poems--most original to this anthology--that engage the complex legacy of Thomas Jefferson and his plantation home at Monticello. Many of these poems wrestle with the history of race and freedom at the heart of both Jefferson’s story and America’s own. Others consider Jefferson as a figure of Enlightenment rationalism, who scrupulously excised evidence of the supernatural from the gospels in order to construct his own version of Jesus’s moral teachings. Still others approach Jefferson as an early colonizer of the West, whose purchase of the Louisiana territory and launch of the Lewis and Clark expedition anticipated the era of Manifest Destiny.
Featuring a roster of poets both emerging and established--including Lucille Clifton, Rita Dove, Claudia Emerson, Terrance Hayes, Robert Hass, Yusef Komunyakaa, Tracy K. Smith, Natasha Tretheway, Charles Wright, and Kevin Young--this collection offers an aesthetically and culturally diverse range of perspectives on a man whose paradoxes still abide at the heart of the American experiment.
The remarkably varied perspectives of these poets give life to Monticello and to Jefferson, capturing him not only in his own complicated time but also considering what he means for all time.
Our least predictable, most contradictory founder, a scholar, builder, inventor, revolutionary optimist, liberator, oppressor, skeptic, and sometime self-deceiver, Jefferson—along with the places he planned—gives these contemporary poets an inexhaustible subject and a multiplicity of roads to approach it. Here are his roses, his pomologies, his hypocrisies, his horses, his bees, his diaries, his families, in monostichs and understatements and rhymeless tercets and elaborate qualifications and quite a lot of ways to look at the contemporary language—and at the language that he would have used, and at the house and grounds where he—and his loved ones, and his ideals, and the people he claimed to own—also lived. ‘Every story begins here,’ writes one poet, Tracy K. Smith; this various collection invites us to ask how she might be right.
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.
Lisa Russ Spaar, Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia, is the author of numerous books of poetry and prose and the editor of All That Mighty Heart: London Poems (Virginia).