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“Dick Sings”

In honor of National Poetry Month, Lifetime Learning is featuring poems written by esteemed faculty all month long. The fourth poem in this series is written by Lisa Russ Spaar, Horace W. Goldsmith Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Creative Writing Program in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia. She is the author of twelve books of poetry, the most recent of which is Orexia (Persea Books 2017). She says this about her poem:

Lisa Spaar“Mockingbirds are now ubiquitous in central Virginia, but they were rare enough in these parts in Jefferson’s day for him to note their westward migration from the Eastern Shore with a note to his daughter, then in residence at Monticello:  “I sincerely congratulate you on the arrival of the Mocking bird. Learn all the children to venerate it as a superior being in the form of a bird, or as a being which will haunt them if any harm is done to itself or it’s eggs. I shall hope that the multiplication of the cedar in the neighborhood, and of trees and shrubs round the house, will attract more of them: for they like to be in the neighborhood of our habitations, if they furnish cover.”  Jefferson was exceedingly fond of mockingbirds and kept a number as pets over the years, taking one with him to Paris, and keeping another with him at the White House.  I learned about Jefferson’s passion for Mimus polyglottos while conducting research for my anthology Monticello in Mind:  50 Contemporary Poems on Jefferson.  This particular poem concerns one of Jefferson’s favorite pet birds, named Dick, which he allowed to hop around the dinner table and to whom he apparently taught a number of popular tunes of the day, possibly including “Money Musk,” which became a signature performance tune of Sally Hemings’s youngest son, Eston Hemings, freed by Jefferson in his will.  I hope that the ironies of what can be captured and what can be freed come through by the poem’s conclusion.

TJ and Raven

“Dick Sings”
—Thomas Jefferson, 2 March 1808
on his favorite pet mockingbird


Now agog, now fervent, eager,
trapezed, these squeezebox theatrics

emit from grotto of tulip poplar, the hour
not long enough for this erected,

cultivation in air, of soul music unbridled
from such a spry pocket, unblunted kit,

nutshell patches, shivering torrents
athletic above the dull humidity, tourist-mill,

& just as Jefferson’s darling shuffle-tapped
the tabletop, nipped meat from his lips,

later translating for guests the gypsy timbre
of that complex tongue—Montrachet,

rail fence, forged declaration, clock-tick,
as minutes ride this stalwart minstrel—

he struck-up “Money Musk,” uncaged popular song
that history’s fiddle plays around.

Spaar Orexia