Paul Bunyan

Your first summons to the Governor’s mansion
saw you pawing back petit fours by the tray,
waistcoat roped across your back still shagged in sawdust, Michigan axe
neatly checked by the door and staff rolling out oilcloth on the carpets.

Paul Bunyan, tall-tale, sound-in-the-valley,
strong backed and sincere,
and eager to please, oh and patriotic,
a lamb (the assistant deputy crossed her legs again and offered whisky)

this damned hill in San Juan—your country’s time of need—
thrown over the horizon, or shaken loose of troops. Plow a hole in the sea-wall
and make it an island! Outside a marten peeked in from his elm;
it was two months to Winter and you both needed fattening.

Later it was the Spanish navy dragged back by their bowsprits, then
Pecos Bill got into the loco weed and was trussing senators—could you come today?
The red telegraph receiver in your camp kitchen, pancakes and the moon
peeking in on your sleeping brow. Finally it got bad:

Indian men in their bulletproof cowhide stung to religion
from no-home, no-food, and you just couldn’t. The cavalry took back your sabre
that blade smelted from a single moon rock was hammered
into an ironclad, and you and Babe sent down to Public Works

to drain lakes. But you still had fame: your pictures in the Post and guest-of-honor
at county fairs across the land, your bust in butter and ice
and namesake on snack-meats, miracle fertilizers and potency tonics,
with a restaurant chain in four states. When reporters had gone

you composed a stern reflection in the glass after flattery had flushed it rose,
and threw your long head back,
studying the hooked nose, keen patrician eyes; not the eyes of a fop.
Looking out at the white streets of Washington you remembered Petersburg

under ice, when thousands of street lamps touched on at noon.
Your Grandfather came to Christmas in a sleigh
and stood in the doorway bashing ice chips from his boots.
Presents for you, Pasha!

You went out later to touch the iron runners of his sleigh
and felt where they had hit stones.
Torches and Christmas lights gathered in the valley
and you knelt on the frozen rail to pray you'd never leave the taiga.

On the night before your steamer docked in New York harbor
there were fireworks and a magic lantern show. Cigarette girls
paced the crowd; you still recall one in sheer red stockings;
her long legs and the sooty smell around Manhattan, even miles out to sea.

Years later Lady Brett asked if you considered
scent or looks more important in attraction. This was at a party,
and you told her about coming into the harbor that day,
smelling the city and looking out on it. She nodded and bit her lip.

Is it possible he doesn't get the hint? she thought,
and so tried harder, much.
But even pinned between mufflers in the congressional cloakroom
you kept a stony, no-comprende face,

like cowboys in the movies who never fool around,
or even think about it (who if they do are shot, pronto).
You left the party business-like,
Medal of Honor swinging freely at your lapel.

At the Governor’s garden party that Spring,
after rounds of croquet and impromptu song, a guessing game and tennis,
she finally lured you to the riverbank pleading a broken ankle
where she stripped you down, got the tree-and-bear undies off in one pull,

with her teeth no less, and that was trouble—maybe scandal:
you an old chestnut for the Democrats, a veteran and folk-hero besides.
She smiled sweetly and helped you to your feet,
brushed damp needles from the seat of your trousers

and led you back to the lawn where you talked with magnates
and further tycoons, exchanged glances with the girl, sipped wine,
felt in your hands where an axe would go,
heard the dry, boneless crack of a wooden spine.

Also an early opera, or as much a musical or music theatre, by Benjamin Britten. The lyrics were by W.H. Auden. Bunyan sings but does not appear. Hot Biscuit Slim the cook loves Bunyan's daughter Tiny. His accountant Johnny Inkslinger goes off to work in the movies. There is lots of eating and celebration, and two cats Moppet and Poppet.

It was not a success at its 1941 première, but did well on revival in 1976.

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