May 3, 2006

At Summerford's Nursing Home

by Rodney Jones

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Poem: "At Summerford's Nursing Home" by Rodney Jones from Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005. © Houghton Mifflin Company. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

At Summerford's Nursing Home

Like plants in pots, they sit along the wall,
Breached at odd angles, wheelchairs locked,
Or drift in tortoise-calm ahead of doting sons:

Some are still continent and wink at others
Who seem to float in and out of being here,
And one has balked beside the check-in desk—

A jaunty shred of carrot glowing on one lip,
He fumbles a scared hug from each little girl
Among the carolers from the Methodist church

Until two nurses shush him and move him on.
There is a snatch of sermon from the lounge,
And then my fourth-grade teacher washes up,

And someone else—who is it?—nodding the pale
Varicose bloom of his skull: the bald postman,
The butcher from our single grocery store?

Or is that me, graft on another forty years?
Will I become that lump, attached to tubes
That pump in mush and drain the family money?

Or will I be the one who stops it with a gun,
Or, more insensibly, with pills and alcohol?
And would it be so wrong to liberate this one

Who stretches toward me from his bed and moans
Above the constant chlorine of cleaning up
When from farther down the hall I hear the first

Transmogrifying groans: the bestial O and O
Repeating like a mantra that travels long
Roads of nerves to move a sound that comes

And comes but won't come finally up to words,
Not the oldest ones that made the stories go,
Not even love, or help, or hurt, but goodbye

And hello, grandfather, the rest of your life
Coiled around you like a rope, while one by
One, we strange relatives lean to be recognized.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet, essayist and novelist May Sarton, (books by this author) born in Wondelgem, Belgium (1912). She's known for her poetry and her novels and also for her journals, including At Seventy (1984), After the Stroke (1988), Endgame (1992), and Encore (1993).

It's the birthday of folk singer Pete Seeger, born in New York City (1919). His mother was a violinist and his father was a musicologist. As a teenager he rebelled against his parents' love of music, and decided he wanted to be a painter. But the first time he heard the sound of a banjo at the Folk Song and Dance Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, he fell in love with folk music. He dropped out of Harvard and became a singer.

It's the birthday of Niccolò Machiavelli, (books by this author) born in Florence, Italy (1469). He grew up at an extremely unstable period of Italian history. Italy wasn't even a country at the time, but just a collection of city-states that were constantly at war with each other. Machiavelli lived in the most influential city-state, Florence. He got into politics only after Florence formed a semi-democratic government. By the time he was thirty, he became the secretary to Florence's governing council, which meant he was the most influential bureaucrat in the city. Then, at the height of Machiavelli's career, the influential Medici family took power in Florence, overthrowing the elected city council and purging the government of enemies. Machiavelli's name was put on a list of anti-Medici conspirators. He lost his government position, and then the authorities arrested him and threw him in a dungeon, where he was tortured for twenty-two days.

Machiavelli was eventually released from prison. There was no evidence that he had conspired against the new government, but he was still sentenced to house arrest. All his friends and family were terrified to be associated with him, and so he found himself utterly alone.

He decided that the only way to get his life back was to offer some kind of gift to the Medici family, and the thing he had to give was his knowledge of politics. So he holed up in his tiny villa just outside of Florence and set out to write a handbook, incorporating everything he knew about being an effective ruler in a dangerous and volatile world. It took him just a few months to complete his book in 1513, and that was The Prince, the book for which he is remembered today.

Machiavelli believed most people were weak and wicked, but he also believed that a ruler could take advantage of these weaknesses in order to do good. Machiavelli's main point in The Prince is that an effective ruler should use whatever means possible to keep his country secure and peaceful.

Despite Machiavelli's hopes, The Prince didn't win over the Medicis. He wasn't able to get another government job for the rest of his life.

Nicollò Machiavelli said, "It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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