Tom Paine’s Bones
by C. Bichler
(2009, revised 2018)

This is you,
Tom Paine

this living America
where your bones
no longer rest

I imagine you
on whatever cosmic plane
you currently inhabit
scissors and tape
stuck in your back pocket
as in some 200-year-old

These are tools
for taking the measure
of the world

– of the space between worlds

A circle
of an inch diameter
has the same geometrical properties
as a circle
that would circumscribe the universe.

Do you
take the measure of us

The story of the whale
swallowing Jonah,
though a whale is large enough to do it,
borders greatly on the marvellous;
but it would have approached
to the idea of a miracle,
if Jonah had swallowed the whale.

I hear the smile
in your voice
I see you
over desk or drumheadPaine-Nate storm background-bw edge-poem f
quill working furiously
muttering to yourself
You pause
you scratch out
rake your fingers
through your hair
bend over the work
and keep going.

The words mock and cajole
flash and shimmer
across the distance of time
a universe of thought

like your tailor’s hands.

The flick
of a pen
becomes a fish-tail
too quick
for the eye to follow:

The glide of the smallest fish
in proportion to its bulk
exceeds us in motion
almost beyond comparison
and without

These are the known planets
and here
their orbits
each one extending
a bit farther
than the last
one after
after another
in a pond
strings of words
creating new worlds.

You measure
you cut
you fit
and then
–flash of the scratching quill,
gasp of astonishment–
you turn all inside out
the silver blade twists

a final

In this case,
which may serve for all cases
of miracles,
the matter would
decide itself
as before stated,
Is it more probable
that a man

should have swallowed a whale,
or told a lie?

They tried to kill you
over and over
dug up your corpse
buried your words
– a cosmic joke.

Your flesh
now broken
is somehow dispersed
through the whole universe
your scattered bones
now stardust

your words
your mind
are the air we breathe
in a sea of voices
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We know you
without knowing you
This world
is made
of your words
We know nothing
of the void

in which you
imagined us

The words spiral outward
taking the measure
of centuries

You are still here
with us.

This is you
Tom Paine
this new world
this breathing
living world
flesh of your flesh
bone of your bone

We are your body,
our soul.

*All quotes (in italics) taken from Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason (1793-94).


Afterword: This poem was first drafted in 2009, during my initial discovery of the life and work of Thomas Paine.

I don’t often write poetry. I tend to stumble or fall into it when prose seems inadequate – too unwieldy, too distant, or too analytical for a subject that demands immediate feeling. In this case, the event that provoked me to verse was Paine’s The Age of Reason, a book that thrilled me in ways I could not at first articulate. I was fascinated not just by Paine’s arguments, but his brilliant use of language – and above all by the complex personality revealed in his authorial voice. More compelling than fiction, in many ways Paine’s treatise on religion is still the best “story” I’ve ever read. And given that Paine’s writing, even during the most hard-headed argument, often soars into the poetic, it seemed an obvious and natural choice to integrate his words into the poem.

The title I blatantly stole from Graham Moore’s folksong “Tom Paine’s Bones,” which I encountered through actor/writer Ian Ruskin’s play and film about the life of Paine. I resisted that title at first, not wanting to seem unoriginal — but the poem was insistent. It would be called nothing else. 

Many thanks to my creative writing group at Washtenaw Community College, who offered helpful editing suggestions and encouraged me, at long last, to publish this piece.