Homily on the Obsolescence of the American One-Cent Piece

You are invited to the traveling exhibit of the thirties,

to eat rotten cabbage, breathe dust. Consider the 19th floor

of the Ritz-Carlton and the elevator operator like a hitman

 

in gravity’s mafia. Who dare step over a shimmer then?

They dreamed pennies into rain showers in 1936:

Bing Crosby in talkies, then on the radio he lacquered

 

the thick coats of his croon into a depressed Irish prayer.

There’s the story of four boys in Newark who snipped

a single coin with stolen tin shears to capitalize

 

upon a chain of grocers’ misprinted flyers—“2 pounds

ground chuck a quarter a penny”—such worth

and ingenuity in smallness, America itself a collection

 

of bits of fools’ gold. There must always be a soul

picking through the junk shops and county dumps

like the human residue inside the dust, the crying

 

of the elephant in the ivory keys. The professional piner

aches not for the object but the space

it once occupied. This is why longing so easily turns sacred,

 

why in the face of the commies Ike signed into law

our communal trust in god, 1956, a new national motto

set above Lincoln as though a divine manual:

 

“spend and be holy.” One can almost feel the weight

of every piece of specie like the gilded pages

of a book. Strolling down Fifth Avenue, late fall,

 

an Illinois tourist winces when something sharp

jabs him on the crown and tinkles to the pavement.

The Empire State, the penny, and for all of us he pats his head,

 

pulls down a streak so red the city dissipates

to a smudgy, grayed-up daguerreotype. Wager it’s been years,

eons since the impulse to taste blood struck you.

 

But it, too, is a soupçon of copper, it’s a few million palms

seasoned with salt. It’s one river pulsing for better

with what we accept as the smallest unit of hope.

 

***

Colin Pope grew up in the Adirondacks. His poetry collection, Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral, is forthcoming in 2019 from Tolsun Books, and his manuscript Prayer Book for an American God was a finalist for the 2018 Louise Bogan Award and the 2019 St. Lawrence Award. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in SlateRattle, The Cortland Review, The Los Angeles Review, Ninth Letter, and Best New Poets, among others, and he’s the recipient of two Academy of American Poets prizes. Colin is a PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University and serves on the editorial staffs of Cimarron Review and Nimrod International.

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