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Roger Williams, 1678

As I was weeding in my squash patch,
I heard the braying, as of an ass,
down at the nether end of Towne Street,
the first I have heard since England,
and I do love those raggedy-faced beasts.
A crowd down there was milling about
some distraction, which parting
revealed the poor, rough animal in fact,
and mounted thereon, a hairy personage
surrounded by a cohort of apparent itinerants,swu
apple women and broom men I saw
as they came on, strewing wayside flowers
since we have no palms, disciples for this
latest holy imbecile making a progress
through our plantation, or so I prayed
as I viewed from my patch
the wooden face he maintained,
believing it stood for godliness, perhaps,
this new Lord our God or King of the Jews
or Prophet to the Colonies, his followers
at least keeping in their clothes this time,
the little beast supporting him the sole
original detail in his party. Across the ocean
he’d have died in chains, his troop
flayed with the lash for blasphemy. But here,
since liberty of conscience is our byword,
I let the parade pass, being a man
stricken in years, poking with his hoe,
deaf to the latest bewildernessed
tub preacher or mumbo-jumbo man
going down the street of Providence,
Bedlam’s first town. What use
to fall together by the ears with another
self-appointed king and messiah
headed for a beheading elsewhere,
as so often proves the case? He was fare
for a sermon, as I noted, and would leave
his sorry followers at some crossroads,
waiting for the next pulpit juggler,
tailor-at-law, or doctor of tavern flummery.
I thought of that bird in our bosom,
and of those birds who appear at sea
as out of nowhere, and grab onto
the ship’s least spar against a beating wind.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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