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Len Krisak

Presidents Cards, 1958

Presidents Cards, 1958

Cut sharp, jogged true, and wrapped with stiff pink gum,
The presidents stacked up, topped off with Ike.
These were the powdered packs I studied from,
Shining each dusty card, no two alike
(Except, of course, for Cleveland—twenty-two
And twenty-four). The litho’d scenes that backed
Each bust somehow reduced and summed up who
He was—some gory battle, hoary Act,
Or icon: Arthur sets the navy right;
Polk re-annexes Texas; or the Maine
Blows up McKinley’s courage for a fight
With yellow journalism’s yellow Spain.
How strange that still I’ve got their numbers—ten
For Tyler; nineteen, Hayes—and to this day
Can tell you where they came from and say when
They died in office (if they did), the way
Most think of Kennedy. I can’t forget
That hapless Millard Fillmore was a Whig,
Or that Ohio and New York both set
The record with six native sons. I dig
Down now and read, behind their glossy backs,
On cheap grey pasteboard, dry and rough to touch,
Those potted bios stingy with their facts.
And as I do, I wonder that so much
Of value came from tacky, corny props
That helped me on whatever path I took.
The memory of their meaning never stops
For one who conned them like a history book.
But more alive than even they themselves,
The parents, scraping by, who for their son
Once claimed these men from supermarket shelves.
Who knew? Who’ll ever know what they have done?

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Len Krisak has published book-length translations of Virgil and Ovid, and is the author of two poetry collections, If Anything (WordTech, 2004) and Even As We Speak (University of Evansville Press, 2000), which won the Richard Wilbur Prize. Among his other awards are the Robert Frost Prize, the Robert Penn Warren Prize and the Pinch Prize. His poems have appeared in many journals, among them The Antioch Review, The Hudson Review, The New Criterion, Measure, and Commonweal. He was a four-time champion on the game show Jeopardy!

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