Personal/Political

Remember us with our animals — tabby,
chihuahua, pot-bellied pig, their faces
alive with imputed thoughts
that they thankfully never voice,
antidotes to the never-quiet
barkers on our screens.
Remember us with our screens,
those escape hatches.
Remember us lifting our pets
as we lift each other’s bodies
to our avid, lonely mouths,
saying: these ones we will spare,
these ones we will hold in our thoughts,
hemmed in by indifferent neighbors
& blank streets in subdivisions
where the last untended corners
host colonies from Eurasia.
Remember us on our mowers
sailing alone around the yard,
faithful as any pilgrim to a labyrinth.
Remember us on our toilets, learning
to let go (with the aid of laxatives) in
our most often remodeled room,
enthroned above the waters of a vast
& literal Lethe whose tributaries
drain every home & office.
This is what we love, more than anything:
the privilege of absent-mindedness.
This magic trick. We flush,
& our shit & piss, our used condoms
& tampons, our unused medications,
our extra-soft toilet paper made
entirely from tree pulp —
it all spins around three times & vanishes
with a gurgle. Remember us
with our exclusive membership cards
& our spent members. When we die,
fill us with preservatives & seal us away
beneath an immaculate lawn.
Remember us who labored
so hard to forget.

This entry is part 9 of 11 in the series The Temptations of Solitude

in response to the painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, from his series The Temptations of Solitude

This ash-colored immigrant come
to steal an honest man’s job —
give him the business, why don’t you.
Let every slack muscle learn

what real work feels like,
how it aches & bruises.
Then let him go swimming
with a cast-iron kettle around his neck.

The sanitarium should’ve known better,
trying to hire orderlies from outside.
We’re hungry here.
The sun itself only gets in

a few licks each day,
& the sea eats like a drunk —
a nibble here & a nibble there
to steady itself against the shore.

We’ve all been tenderized.
We marinate in the tall salt cellars —
the rapeseed oil cans —
the cold ovens of our houses,

watch the flickering pilot light
in the corner of the room
& dream of an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Let us pray for the firm

flesh of angels, white,
with eyes that can sprout,
that can finger, that can shove
green fists through the dirt.

On fire, their faces strangely impassive, they kept trying to get up and walk away, only to have their neighbors push them back into the pile of burning brush, beating them with sticks, shouting witch, witch. Why were they not staked down in some fashion? It was as if they were being told: here is the forest you were always skulking off into. Here is your cover and refuge, on fire. Get back where you belong.

Watching the video — as much of it as I can stomach — I’m suddenly grateful to be living in a nation of laws with the era of lynching behind us (I hope)… and also to be living on a mountain two miles from town.

I know how vicious small-town neighbors can be. I’ve heard the jokes about vigilante action against the local gay prostitute who solicits customers by the side of the highway just outside of town. How bad would things have to get before any and all weirdos became scapegoats? According to one line of thinking, witch persecutions are tied to economic insecurity, and flare up during times of widespread scarcity. During the last depression, I’ve heard, the Klan burned crosses in the Catholic cemetery in the middle of town. It’s not just the government you have to watch out for, though clearly the worst, most horrible violence happens when some demagogue harnesses the people’s petty hatreds and jealousies: think Rwanda in 1994, or the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

A few years ago, I read a bunch of books and articles on witch beliefs among the Pueblo peoples of the southwestern U.S. What the ethnographers heard from their informants, over and over, was that trouble starts with envy. Sometimes people became witches without even realizing it, just because they let themselves be consumed with envy for their proverbial neighbor’s ass. Evidently whoever wrote the Ten Commandments was aware of this danger, too. Apart from modern consumer society, I think it’s virtually a universal sentiment. Among the Pueblo Indians, anyone who accumulated too many things too quickly might be a witch — or might provoke jealousy and thus witchcraft in others — and therefore care was taken, traditionally, not to let anyone get too rich or too poor. Witches were thought to be shape-shifters who usually took the form of coyotes, and also traveled in dust-devils, forsaking the proper roads and paths.

Perhaps the people in the video, too, crowded onto a gravel road somewhere in (I think) Tanzania, were waiting to see whether the flames would burn off everything human and reveal the monstrous nature they knew had to be lurking just beneath.

rock oak and beeches b&w

I am not ready to let the colors back in. The sky in black & white retains a pleasing uniformity: it’s either a wall of light or the nightly well. Shadows have authority, making a man appear as solid as a tree and a tree as stolid as a gnomon. I am not ready for brown & green & blue & the grievances of noon. I am not ready to stop being white & seeing white as blankness, the default setting. The kind of self-effacement that ennables is still so comfortable. The old ways might have been wrong but it was a wrongness that required careful attention, like the shape & set of a fine felt hat. It was ugly, yes, but it fit. Now we have such a crowd of proud misfits, loud in their ain’ts & their complaints, shrill as the shills who killed their appetite for books. I watch their hands shaping the air & think, what if someday we all switched to sign language & to Braille? What would that do the hard cell of self? Then perhaps we could free ourselves from the shame of misbegotten speech: the N-word, the F-word, the C-word, the S-word. Then we could all luxuriate in a world of scent & soft outlines — a touchy-feely city on the hill. Then only those without any hands would still stand on the wrong side of the wall, their unbranched shadows inching across the snow.

Prostration had become impossible. I needed a less-demanding god, one I could repair at home with duct tape, a little pine tar, or a well-placed screw. Someone had begun making sandals out of antique plastic Coke bottles, & down at the cafe the kids had learned how to draw a crowd with their impressions of the dialogue in telenovelas, which were the only thing still being broadcast. No one had seen a terrorist in years. I took in a small income in bets, dissassembling & reassembling my rifle in under a minute — nothing wrong with my fingers! The last time the execution bus came through, we all felt a little sorry for it, still on the road at an age when most buses are getting ready for retirement at the edge of some meadow full of goldenrod. The MP driver asked the crowd if we had any volunteers, & I caught my hand twitching in my lap. That’s when I decided I needed some new fire to raise me from my wheelchair, once & for all. Faith is more than what you believe; it’s how you see, & I was seeing too many shades of bruise. It’s what you hear — that murmuration — when you sit in the middle of a crater on a clear night & wait for the artificial stars to inch across the sky, infallible as scalpels. I realized my infrared goggles still work, & sometimes even the heat-seeking missile in my pants. I’m a self-made man.

magic oak

I wake at 4:00
but my right thumb keeps twitching
as if in its own dream.

*

On the plowed driveway’s
hard-packed snow, three dark cigars:
Coyote was here.

*

Winter palimpsest:
inside each white-tailed deer track,
a coyote print.

*

Rabbit tracks
go into the laurel thicket
& don’t come out.

*

A rubbing sound
on the underside of the floor
as something turns over.

*

Hurtling down the hill
while seated on a sled —
I feel so sedate.

*

“Transparency.” “The rule of law.”
Never before have I wept
at such dull words.

*

Nothing has disturbed
the snow on the old statue
of a setter at point.

Over at the cassandra pages, my qarrtsiluni co-editor Beth Adams has been filing reports from D.C. for the past several days: Sunday, Monday, Monday night, and Tuesday. The scene in the capital today certainly sounded like a festival of the dispossessed.

The TV coverage, apparently, didn’t show what really happened: when Bush was introduced, a “boo” arose from all those millions of people that must have been completely audible; it was extremely loud. And when his helicopter lifted off, a cheer arose along with millions of uplifted arms, waving goodbye (quite a few, I’d say, with middle finger raised) — all the length of the Mall. I was a little surprised, and didn’t participate in the booing, but it was not so much rudeness as it was a spontaneous shucking off of a tremendous burden and source of despair, and an acknowledgment that this man never represented us, he was not of us, and Obama is clearly someone entirely other. The day for me was all about being part of that tremendous crowd who felt that America was being taken back, repossessed, by the people who have felt so disenfranchised all this time. Their presence, and the fact that they had traveled so far to be there, was not just a personal desire but also a statement to the world that there actually is another American spirit, and it’s still alive.

UPDATE: Be sure not to miss her final Reflections on the Inauguration.


Video link.

It’s cold. Nothing to do but pull on a thick balaclava, grab the sled, and go steaming up the hill to the top of what we call the amphitheatre, in the field opposite the main house. We have never actually staged anything there, by the way — it’s a little too boggy at the bottom where a stage would go. The only real drama occurs when the feral cat tangles with the opossum in the compost heap above the barn… or when a 42-year-old sledder comes careening down the path, camcorder in one hand.

It’s funny that sledding has such a stigma as being only for children. I’ve been sledding for most of the past 40 winters, at least 30 of them with the same sled, and I’m not about to switch to skiing or snowboarding, which I suspect are seen as adult sports primarily because they require lots of expensive gear. For one thing, I have a terrible sense of balance. Also, I wear glasses: when a friend lent me a pair of cross-country skis for a couple of years, I found myself unable to enjoy them because my glasses kept steaming up and freezing. I decided I prefer slow walking to running/gliding. And the great thing about sledding, after the hurtling, bone-rattling descent, is the peaceful walk back. Ravens flush from the top of a hemlock, filling the hollow with their harsh cries. The snow squeaks — such a satisfying sound — under my boots.

Long after I get back,
my frozen breath is still dripping
from my beard.

The nights must’ve been the worst,
trapped in that half-crumpled house
no longer a home
with the decomposing bodies
no longer their mothers
& the explosions & tracer fire lighting up
the sky no longer a place
for flights of imagination.
By the time the Red Crescent people
got to them, their child eyes
had been emptied & replaced
by the hungry unblinking heart-
shaped faces of praying mantises
& the rats had made off with
their voices, leaving little more
than the crumbs of a squeak.
Also in the news: scientists have learned
that stones in a desert, toppling
forward bit by bit as the sand
is blown out from in front of them,
move in recognizable formations into
the prevailing wind, the sand
forming protective windrows against
the close approach of other stones,
& this holds true even
on distant planets where
the air is so lacking, you’d see
the blackness of space at high noon.

*

Links: Red Cross finds starving children with 12 corpses in Gaza ‘house of horrors’; How Martian Winds make Rocks Walk

Amir Farshad Ebrahimi's photo of two men burying a Palestinian child
Photo by Amir Farshad Ebrahimi (reproduced under a CC Attribution-Share Alike “copyleft” licence)

Dear Todd,

I hope your mother’s heart has settled
& ceased its flutter. I’d like to add
some wish about hearts in general
in this time of rage & sadness,
but I’m not sure poets should perpetuate
such outdated metaphysics about
a thing that turns out to be little more
than an organ, a nest of fat roots
that can be transplanted like a tree
from one body to another, even
across species lines.
I am still agog at this, recalling
my Great Aunt Thera’s pride & wonder
as a former farm girl that she owed
her last years of life to a sacrificial pig.

If there’s a soul, then, I wonder
where it might sit?
I picture a yellow canary flitting
anxiously from perch to perch as
its cage travels deeper into the mine.
I picture the trees our primate bodies
evolved to navigate, their ladders,
their heartwood neither alive
nor clearly dead. I remember
the blossoming branches of a wild
sweet cherry tree one spring,
after an ice storm had toppled it
& a chainsaw had severed the trunk
from the tangle of roots and soil.
Even decapitated, it bloomed with abandon,
it bloomed as if there were no tomorrow:
clouds of white against the brown woods.
The wasps & bees didn’t seem
to know the difference, & surely
their grubs grew just as fat
on that deathless honey.

I have no answers, & am afraid
for those who do. The Aztecs
suffered no shortage of poets, all
wringing their hands at the sweet
ephemerality of life. Their stock
metaphor for a heart was a blossom,
& the chest cavity of a human being
was the sacred ground over which
they fought their wars.
What have we learned?
The Holy Land itself has been vivisected
into slivers that can’t survive in isolation.
Broken sewers on one side of the wall
mean poisoned wells on the other,
& blood spilled in one place
travels who knows how far
through the imperilled veins
of a single subterranean heart.