First you have to get through
terror and the business,
the culture, of Houston –
as ironclad as any,
though it thinks it’s easygoing:
embarrassed beyond speech
by your terror, hoping you feel the same.
Then last words with your wife and kids
if they can be reached
before you’re out of reach.
Another poem, perhaps at your service,
broadcast online and on CNN,
will make much of those words, make them show
that love exists in the vast universe …
please take that point as given.
Finally, a joke,
created by so thin a layer of your mind
it feels alien, saying you’re glad
you’re heading neither towards the earth nor sun
but will be the first man to reach the stars.
Then silence, static, the business of choosing
between explosive decompression
and staring at your oxygen readout;
after a while you dither into death.
It seems that several Astronomical Units
beyond Earth’s orbit house
let’s say souls.
They sit – do something like sitting –
disconsolately, or stand pensively
as if deciding where to go
or if or how to be reborn,
or drawing at length a bottom line. You try
to talk to them but are still moving,
whether that means you’ve nothing left to say,
having talked with Houston, or no comment yet.
You wonder when the neighborhood will change;
who else there is to meet, and to what end.
Our system seems dingy; a solar flare
and some receding grievous vibe
dispense hard rain, but you
suppose it must be like that everywhere.
Eventually you shuffle off your suit.
Things look clearer. You breathe, in a way,
because it’s a comforting habit. You think –
the verb seems bland but it’s all you have –
of the wife and kids.
Space is a surface, and you understand
how the others, distant now, could stand or sit.
It’s earth, in fact, a rich loam.
You were never much for gardening –
who had time? – but now
you kneel and gather dirt and wonder
where you will find seed.
Daylilies possibly, good in sun and shade.
The glass is washed with our tears, it may even
be made of our tears. The one on the far side
knows we’re watching. Reflection
can’t fool him; he even knows
that we must sit in shadow
to remain invisible. If he had
a gun, one of his many guns,
he’d shoot us. It’s a trick
typical of us that he’s here
unarmed. He glares at the mirror,
raging at constraint, though from our point of view
there is none, and in other moods
he insists nothing can hold him.
Hate sparks him to metaphor: he says
we’re right to hide in darkness because
we live in darkness; he on the other hand
has been saved. A thin, staticky
transmission from us asks
what that means. His response
is to raise his fists and beat the glass,
which shatters. Beyond it lies
a wall. We aren’t there;
there is no we; there are only those
who want to be loved and those who want to cause pain.
Scene from an Epic
The King is outraged by a grating noise
that is not the yelps of the mob
besieging the castle, being dispatched
by arrows, boulders, boiling lead
from the battlements, or greeting
new comrades, the usual starvelings
and opportunists from the countryside;
he knows what they sound like. This
is the strident ululating buzz
of exaggerated, unhelpful,
anachronistic consciousness, or that
of time itself; they are, he tells himself,
the same. He resents the fact
that his tragedy, if it is one,
should be absorbed, debased,
by this static. Which, however,
his counselors – three flatterers, one truth-teller,
one general – apparently can’t hear.
Discussion of the disintegrating
situation has stalemated
but the King is loath to let them go
without expressing anger about something,
which, since it cannot be the noise of time,
must be himself. “I never wore,”
he says, “these robes with any comfort.
They were too sumptuous and thick and hot
for the gnarled body and straitened soul
you never failed to see when you addressed
the crown.” As one, his flatterers
cry that His Majesty is the image
of manly power, though forgivably
oppressed by care and treason. The vizier
stares off like one who daily hears
truths that were disregarded and too
late spoken; the general
is merely embarrassed by this personal
and hence defeatist note. “When the Queen
was alive,” the King continues
(his voice changed in his ear
from a growl that chimes with the sound he hates
to a moan that is the tonic of that dominant),
“she would convince me I was passable.
It was a function, a spontaneous efflux
of her generosity and beauty.”
The vizier allows himself
pity: “We have reached
the point at which all love is retrospective,”
he murmurs. “Perhaps our
policies have lacked a woman’s touch.”
Necessity is sexless, thinks the general,
silent. Alarums, without;
has the mob broken through?
Have they brought up siege engines?
Have they perhaps invented gunpowder,
charisma, and a rising merchant class?
No, says a bleeding messenger; the old
stone holds. “If I had,” the King exclaims,
“the least sense that they represented something!
A new way of life – but that can never be.”
“Their chiefs are as corrupt as we,”
a counselor, bored by excess
of terror into honesty,
remarks. “They’re deep in debt to us
already and, should they win, will marry
well; you know we are profoundly loyal,
yet each of us has daughters in reserve.”
But the King is trying to drown
time’s laugh-track by reflecting
on kingship: “We are paid to be, not do ...
We care, but that is part of being, not doing.
Someday a man will sit in this chair
and house because he bought them. Other men
will see him as a pure function
of greed and calculation;
yet alone here, at the pinnacle,
he too will only pride himself on being
unhappy.” Which deserves at least a pause,
he thinks, but war allows none;
one of the six men
uses the word “abdication.”
“I must confer with my son,”
the King sighs, tonelessly.
The Prince, meanwhile,
high in the castle, is representing
art. It might sound difficult,
given the limited resources
of the time, to draw the sentimental sneer
of individuality upon
faces defined by caste, or carve
the clouds of piety into a stone
of irony, on which, henceforth,
the world will turn; and yet
it can be done, he’s doing it. –
Emphasize, don’t evade,
the diabolus in music. Paint
the little horses peasants carve
for their kids or, in some way, themselves
in new, “unnatural” colors. Retrain
the chroniclers – not for accuracy, that
would be too harsh – but for its gray
distinctive sound. In the churches,
aggressively conserve the mural a nameless,
half-mad folk-painter made of the Plague;
and on the cross above the altar
replace the termite-ridden, fainting Christ
with one whose eyes are inscrutably open.
Of his own work – as opposed
to that he supports or even
inspires – the Prince,
in his remote apartments cushioned
by stone and soldiers, iron and the moss
of dungeons, says little;
is reluctant to show or see, reread
or hear it; yet it grows
louder than battle, more immanent than doom.
He has forgotten whether
he plotted with the leaders of the mob
to seize and/or to redefine
power. And if visionaries
perceived him as the secret king who sleeps
in hidden woods where justice lives
like bears and periodically awakens,
the metaphor no longer
excites him. Betrayal is love,
he thinks, and I love my father
far more than any cause, or any ideal –
save that of Zeno, who says
the battering-ram will endlessly
approach the gate before it strikes;
the enemy never reach
my room because they first must cross
half of the distance, then half of that
forever … The one philosopher
who ever spoke my truth.
And that, perhaps, of Father,
who even now is hurrying here
to embrace me and to weep
or, admirably, laugh,
and sit upon my couch, his wizened
fingers clutching at his crown.
“Father, why do you laugh?” I will ask,
and he will say, “There is only one joke,
my son: the profound,
remarkable one that we are breathing.”
And I will tell him I have been a traitor
since birth. And he will say that every child
in every kingdom is disloyal,
a rebel, till death negotiates its surrender.
Or else he will enjoy, like a flavor
now seldom tasted, rage; and, gesturing
beyond the trembling walls, demand
what I had felt in common
with victims sullying everything they touch?
And I: “Because I never wanted,
I thought, to be a king, I thought
that I must be a victim.” And he,
humor restored, will say
that in his own way he had been an artist.
Beyond which I can imagine
nothing until – per impossibile –
the masses come, triumphant, solving nothing;
merely intensifying that crisis which,
because it never happens, never stops.
© Frederick Pollack