Tom Paine's Bones
(a poem for voices)
CHORUS: Go down to the Valley Forge, Tom Paine;
go down to the Valley Forge:
four thousand ghosts of an idea stand
guttering in the siege of winter,
slow-jogging in their ragged socks
while the Master General broods;
while the Master General writes and begs
aid from the wavering French.
Go and be prodigal; seal:
the holes in their blankets with words;
knit: the soles of their shoes with courage;
write: on a drumhead by the fire's crackle,
drum-beaten words for their wounds,
balm for their wondering wounds:
PAINE: These are the times that
try men's souls.
The summer soldier
and the sunshine patriot
will, in this crisis
from the service of their country;
but he that stands it now,
deserves the love and thanks
of man and woman.
CHORUS: Walk through the foothills of Jersey, Paine,
where the provender's locked in the barns,
where Tories shutter their windows up
and keep their muskets aimed for boys
wandering in blizzards…, set their dogs
on some stray Continental, let them eat
man-flesh from the skeleton--you saw it!; you saw:
the skull and the phalange of fingers
wrapped round the words you'd written--
PAINE: What we attain too lightly
we esteem too cheaply.
If there be trouble
let it come in my day,
that my child may have peace.
CHORUS: --you saw!
Your howl split the February sky: sun-shafts
prodded the frozen seed; and, the ships got through;
Yankees sent corn, wheat, millet, shoes, bullets;
black backs cracked in the southern sun, plucked cotton
women knitted, darned, sewed into uniforms.
Cornwallis stumbled while his Hessians slept.
Go back to the Mother Country, Paine!
When the Revolution's won, the spoils yet to divvy--
out of a dream, the miners swim towards you,
their eyes glowing like cats’ eyes,
with hope, like a single candle,
burning a long ways back.
THE MINER: Can ye lead us, Mr. Paine?
CHORUS: Corset-maker, pulling the lion's tail!
Agitating, forming committees, writing.
Blake of the fearful symmetry hears
your thick neck stretched on a gallows.
BLAKE: Get out! No time! The King's men coming!
PAINE: I have never run in my life!
BLAKE: Must Truth be killed again;
the hemlock drunk again?
The nails struck into flesh and wood?
For the sake of the Cause—God-speed!
PAINE: Then, make the world my home!
CHORUS: To Paris--just in time
to get the keys to the Bastille.
You sit in the Assembly,
stand for the Rights of Man,
argue Reason in a vengeful age.
But Marat's stabbed, Danton guillotined,
Robespierre's head garnishes a spike.
Tumbrils wheeze down narrow alleys.
A WOMAN FROM THE CHORUS:
Even Citizen Paine's suspect,
walled up in the Luxembourg
with rats, roaches, urine
and the stench of freedom dying…
A MAN FROM THE CHORUS:
whose stony silence
galls? Your country's gone
into the practical mold,
horse-trading slaves again,
already hungering westward.
In delirium you wonder:
who was it walked through Jersey,
pitched fire in their souls, wept
and drank till falling-down drunk with them?
Who was it wrote those words
etched in their hearts’ canon?
In delirium, you sleep on the bosom of your wife,
the walls of the prison melting.
MRS. PAINE: Yer won't amount to a tuppence, Thomas,
but I love yer to spite it all!
PAINE: I'll work hard, dove,
and be a husband as will make yer proud.
But what good's all your book-learning,
all the reading by the candle,
the books you begged and borrowed,
when there’s no work to be found?
MRS. PAINE: I'm with child, Thomas...
PAINE: Yer need not worry.
Yer won't go hungry, I swear it, by God!
Poach a goose to bring the hue to her wanness--
THE MAN: and britches full of buckshot!
MRS. PAINE: I'm not well, Thomas…
THE WOMAN: Clutching her ivory, lattice-boned hand,
soft as a breeze touches fern on the moor,
PAINE: If You can hear me...
If ever I may do some good in this world...
if ever I may serve some useful end,
do not remove this only one I've loved..."
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You watched her bosom rise, and fall... and fall…
Ten months immured, with a chink of light
that nearly blinds you; forgotten, gaunt,
you take a chance with Bonaparte
whose flattery cajoles you
just long enough to see beyond
AN OLDER MAN: You retire to a small chateau
to think about what follows Revolution:
No end in itself, but the great lunge
God's the rudder.
But not the wreaking-devastation One
of hate and separations--
A YOUNGER MAN:
--nor the addle-brained of superstition;
but loving, Universal Deity,
vibrant and potential in all things:
PAINE: I do not believe in the creed professed
by any church I know of.
My own mind is my own church.
All national institutions of churches...
appear to me no other than human inventions
set up to terrify and enslave...
and monopolize power and profit.
I believe the equality of man;
and I believe that religious duties
consist in doing justice, loving mercy,
and endeavoring to make
our fellow creatures happy.
THE YOUNG MAN: Simple words that terrify the simple!
An odor of blasphemy attaches to your name.
Your gin-stinking, rum-stinking, besotted--
THE OLDER MAN: And was it so much a name as a life-sentence,
wayfarer who said, "The world's my village"?
THE WOMAN: You dream of the lost America.
Jefferson's in office now,
the Revolution secured.
THE YOUNG MAN:
Couldn't the Virginian find
something for old Paine to do?
Something noble for the broad-splayed hands
to run a quill through?
THE OLD MAN (slowly): He shook… his fine… red head…
JEFFERSON: How can we measure what we owe you now?
Where would we be without you then?
But Paine, dear Paine,
you are Controversy Incarnate--
just the wedge the factions need
to shake us out of office!
There’s war on the horizon, Paine.
PAINE (softly): I'll… show myself the door…
THE WOMAN: And what did you think in New Rochelle
when the Tories took their last revenge,
when whelpish raffle tripped you up
and the smug merchants laughed?
CHILDREN: Paine, Paine, damned be his name!
Damned be his fame and lasting his shame!
God damn Paine! God damn Paine!
THE WOMAN: Sick, poor, friendless, worn,
you wanted nothing but a bit of peace,
a chance to lie in a Quaker graveyard.
THE MAN: And even there you failed:
buried in unhallowed ground,
your bones dug up ten years after
by one who wanted folks to pay
to see the Apostate's ruins...
THE OLDER MAN: He lost them somewhere in England…
CHORUS: No rest for the weary, Paine, Tom Paine,
and your work's still annealing.
For every bone's a claw
on every campesino's hand.
In the ghettoes of the New World,
in the favelas,
the scattered bones of Tom Paine
weep blood, gather nerve, and flesh, and steel.
Under the cool jungle moon, the bones
rise from their hiding.
THE MAN: The song of the bones
fills the sleep of the hungry,
rattles the wary minds on verandahs.
Under the soughing bamboo
the bones tap their indelicate Morse Code.
In the sirocco of the desert,
on the broad-backed savannas,
they beat on the drums, whistle the hot air.
THE YOUNG MAN:
In every heart that ever dreamed of liberty
the bones claw and disquiet,
the bones scrawl and chill--
THE WOMAN: --as the wind hones and sharpens them
into indelible quills,
THE OLDER MAN: shining like knives, writing--
PAINE: --for the children of fire born:
the fierce love-song of the world.
(An earlier version of “Tom Paine’s Bones” appeared at “Dandelion Salad” in 2009.)
Gary Corseri has published articles, fiction, poems and dramas at hundreds of venues worldwide, including Hollywood (and L.A.--) Progressive, Village Voice, Redbook Magazine, and The New York Times. He has been a professor in the US & Japan, has published 2 novels, 2 collections of poetry, edited periodicals and websites and the “Manifestations” anthology. He has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta, and his dramas have been produced on Atlanta-PBS and at universities and high schools in the US. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.