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Vol. 25, No. 1: Backward / Forward

For John Brown on the Scaffold

by Jonathan Farmer

Poems by Jonathan Farmer will appear in the Left/Right Issue (vol. 25, no. 3: Fall 2019).

What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed
from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure.
—Thomas Jefferson

Some people have the idea that crucifixion consists in the punishment of an innocent
man. The essence of crucifixion is that men are killing a criminal, that men have got to
kill him… and yet that the act of crucifying him is the salvation of the world. John Brown
broke the law; he killed human beings…. Those people who defended slavery had to execute
John Brown although they knew that in killing him they were committing the
greater crime. It is out of that human paradox that there comes crucifixion
—W.E.B. DuBois

To redeem
the earthly body,
consecrated, free,
the hands that fell,
the legs that swayed
for almost thirty minutes
as two flags rolled on the breeze.
A beautiful country….
Near the end, your ease.

To purchase liberty. To purge
the earthly ledger
of human life. You wrote
of kindness, kinship,
wrote in blood, of sin.
It is hard, you admitted,
riding on your coffin,
to part from friends.

It took
fifteen doctors
to declare you dead.
It took your death to redeem
the power of the state.
You were privileged,
you said, to pay
the debt of nature,
sinner that you were. You
who recommended
the music of the broom
had prospered, you claimed,
finding your happiness
in those who weren’t you.

And yet unpaid bills
forever eddied you. You failed
at almost everything you tried,
save love, save murder,
save justice, conviction, courage,
and the slaves
you helped to free. Businesses
withered in your grip. The raid
on Harper’s Ferry baffled,
bloodied, stalled, and chilled.
Children, some yours, died,
as did your first wife.
Children, some yours, killed.
You were angry, and severe.
When your namesake failed
too often, you whipped him,
then made him whip you
till you bled, till the account
(you kept it in a book) was cleared.

for the abortion-clinic
shooter. Model
for the anti-government terrorist.
Emblem of the religious bomber.
Your only
justification is that you were,
as DuBois noted, right.
………………………………………….To rid
the earth of human purchase
in the name of human value,
in the name of God. To give up
and take life in the service
of the living.
                             ….I am ready
you said, once bound
and hooded, but do not
keep me waiting. Without
intending to (your jailer
adored you) they did.
When they cut you down
and removed the hood
your face was swollen
and purple, your neck
was gashed,
but there was no blood.
Fourteen months would pass
before the flood.

Jonathan Farmer is the author of That Peculiar Affirmative: On The Social Life of Poems and the editor in chief and poetry editor of At Length. He lives in Durham, NC, and teaches middle and high school English.

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