What follows is a long poem I wrote a few months ago that will appear (in the opening section) to be a rather obvious riff on world affairs, but which, if you keep going, will, I hope, reveal itself to be more interesting than that. It's really about how, in our daily lives, we do or don't respond to evil.
It's too slippery for an essay, flits from theme to theme, then pulls things together, then pulls them apart again, etc. It's designed to irritate those who expect a well-behaved poem. For example, as is my wont, I go on past many climactic "poem-should-end-here" points to fade out, finally, on what appears to be a trivial point. Do I have a good reason for this? It seemed to be the right thing to do at the time. It still does.
I've put a few notes at the end.
"Only connect, "someone said, and it's good
to make connections. We (when we are the United States)
should connect, shouldn't we, our wealth
to the poverty of nations we've...developed?
We should connect what is done to us
with what has been done in our name,
and we should connect what has been done
in our name (when our "intelligence"
replaces a democracy with a dictator,
for example) with what we ourselves
have done or failed to do (voted? inspected?
listened? understood? spoken out? thought
it enough to watch the network news between
sitcoms and (un)reality shows, yes,
it shows, doesn't it, eventually?)
Yes, connect – but ONLY connect?
What about learning when to dis-connect?
Bludgeoned by too much reality,
some can only connect. Where, beneath fists,
hammers, bombs, remains space for anything
to be separate from anything else?
It becomes impossible to go
for a long walk.
Going for a walk. Writing a long poem.
This is me writing a poem and also
my hand writing words on a page and
also my hand making ink marks
on processed wood pulp, the exercise
of various muscles, the conversion
of various nutrients into energy and efforts,
or, going the other way, the influences
of my childhood or my reading or my
stars hosing through me and my pen,
and it's me thinking out loud and hoping
I'm overheard, and it's this, right here –
lots of possible perspectives, easy
to find one where what I do and
whatever is good or bad may be considered
"Me going for a walk' is as slippery, being
"an American takes a walk in America"
(and speaking of connections, we have felt
no need to coin the term United Statesian",
since we assume what is American is ours,
we much-damned Yankees), and it's also
a body moves in a universe on the surface
of a planet-ball. And Lord knows
what else – for one moves also through
(and thus defines) what the Lord knows.
As I (carrying in my mind like a convention label
my name, Dean) take a walk in Reston, Virginia,
where I live, and also, I hear, where lots
of retired State Department and CIA people
do whatever they do, live, maybe, but
I digress to connect – as I walk the paths
(Reston is threaded with forested asphalt
trails), I, having recently skimmed too many
newspapers (can't help it; a neighbor I hardly
ever spoke to – from Pakistan, I think – has
moved out; no one has yet moved in, but the
Washington Post keeps coming with orgiastically
bold headlines -- nobody is as excited about news
as the newspapers; there it is each morning
in the driveway, so I pick it up, just to read
the funnies – they aren't very funny now,
or is that just too much connecting? The funnies
and the puzzles, but I'm addicted to reading,
got to leave it completely alone or I read it all,
so I'm afflicted with POST-traumatic stress)
[Why all these parenthetical appendages? Because
I haven't learned to disconnect.] – as if Internet
weren't more than enough connection, I dread it,
each day a dozen more petitions and offers that, if I don't
sign them or take them up, may cost us the whales,
our constitutional rights, honest government,
non-toxic food-trees-air-water, our children, energy, money, another million killed
in Darfur-Iraq-Myamar, the wolves, baby seals, bi-polar bears, a livable climate, the chance to please my babe with a greatly enlarged penis...
but I don't, I don't, I can't, I won't
sign them all, order them all! It takes time to click,
bring up the web site, log on, add "my own words" –
time to read enough and see enough to know
which ones make sense, time to wonder if petitions
get seen, if they work, if my time, my own time
(How DARE I take a walk with vital
petitions unread, unsigned!) – if my own time
has value, as much as my name on any petition,
but isn't this everyone's time? Can I have
some of my own? (Value must involve
the creation of time.) So because I have time
or because, having none, I don't have value,
so what difference what I do? – therefore,
I take a walk,
having read too many papers and e-mailed
alarums and petitions (the antique "alarums" adds
a drum to the trumpet of "alarm"), I notice
I am also an American taking a walk
in America, the nation that is occupying
Iraq and doing something or other
in Afghanistan and planning maybe
to do worse in Iran and is fouling its own
eerie eagle aerie in the process, and that is also
(maybe REALLY is) the home of the brave,
land of the free, pilgrim's pride (though currently
addicted to grim pills), destination of teeming
masses yearning to be free (or me's yearning
to be "teams" amassing earnings, for there is no"I"
in "team"). Connect connect connect connect –
sounds more like a train ride than a walk.
And I do. I stroll. The air is mild, bright, dewy
and green-stippled. I meet no suicide bombers
this balmy day. Nothing blows up. Iraq, Iran and
(for that matter) Viet Nam are as far away,
in space or time, as the sun, whose continuing
explosion would toast this marshmallow earth
in a nanosecond were it not for 93,000,000
unremarkable, but felicitously positioned
miles (good feng shui). The sun, some say,
is burning out, one more fuel to be conserved
for our pale children. (I have none,
but I think I'll be someone's soon enough
(if we connect body to body across generations),
and, anyway, my readers are mostly in the future,
if anywhere. They'll need reading light.
Or at least warmth enough to thaw
their fingertips so that they can
distinguish braille characters. If they can get
through page one, they can burn it to read
page two in its light and so on.
But the sun's death is as far in the future
as my death was when I was a child (in a place
where almost no one died – Middle America, Mid-Twentieth Century,
where I thought that by the time I got old enough
to die – VERY old, I thought – something would
have been done about death, someone
must be taking care of it). The bombs,
though...if we fear dominoes may be headed our way,
and we nudge them so they'll fall the other way,
and the file of dominoes, extending out of sight
over mountains and oceans – if it begins here,
right behind us (where we denied
the Vietnamese the elections we promised them
in 1950 lest the Communists win – for example,
or where we ignored tribal boundaries to set up
our oil colonies – that is, nations – in the Mid-East, or
when the children we, through our federally mandated-
but-not-mandated screening programs, are put on drugs
that include among their side effects going nuts and
shooting up schools) – if the first domino
looms behind us, how long will it take
before the contagion of dominoes we shove forward
(hoping it will crush terrorism) winds around the earth and
that shadow from behind us fills the sky?
So because I am out for a walk and feeling good, alive,
safe, full of future, I think, "I will have to pay
for this." I think, "When would this be
in the history of Rome?" I think, "Domino,
I didn't do it. Take our politicians, our corporations –
can't you collapse selectively?"
But I know it has something to do with me,
with all my unnecessary second helpings
while others starved, my TV sprees, my years
of trying to be the world's greatest poet,
instead of saying something of use, my years
of doing less than my best – and though
I'm not sure what my best is, I believe –
I KNOW – I've done good things, and these
things connect too. They make – if
anything does – a difference. And I know
I could have done more.
(The shadows ARE selective, must be,
if there is connection. Hell, even on earth,
will have higher and lower circles.)
Two cabbage moths play tag across the path –
two AMERICAN moths. Must they, too,
pay? These tall oaks, must they be toppled
because retired CIA operatives enjoyed
their shade? (And can retired CIA operatives
enjoy shade, or, like Hamlet's uncle Claudius,
appearing to pray, are they cut off from such things?)
(And do I enjoy these oaks, or turn them into
props for poetry?) Or because I, who have been
a pretty good guy, but not good enough
(to save the world? to feed one fly-bait,
bloat-bellied African child? to get a good guy
elected?) – because I walk among these trees
(to forget that, not only are there nations
where it is an act of daring to walk to the corner,
but also there are vast desert-ovens where no man
can walk in daylight, and a few miles above
these trees begins a skyless dark, near
absolute zero that apparently goes on
(with brief starry interruptions, pinpricks
of nuclear heat) forever) – because I,
who could have been worse, cherish
(if only for the seconds before I swallow
them with my poem) these trees, will they
But out there in forever I'm not an American.
That will be another payback, not for America's crimes,
but for those that come with being human.
And thinking such stuff, I notice butterflies
(tiger swallowtail, black admiral, viceroy – that's
the best I can do, Viceroy of all I survey, Vladimir)
(sorry, you may not know I mean Nabokov,
one of my addictions, a royal vice,
who taught me a few butterflies), wild flowers
(no names, they say – very hush hush), leaves
of varied greens, points and lobes (no names,
sorry, I cannot lobotomize o'er my species' grave),
and I notice birds, their songs, motion, swift rifts
of color flashing through leaves – and I disconnect
them from the argument, shrive them, want them
forgiven. (And our cat, too, though she's not out
for this walk, but she, too, must be forgiven –
or need not be.)
So I begin to disconnect. And I hear
the counter-arguments of those who only
connect: Even the butterflies of America
are corrupt, and must be punished
(broken on the wheel?) for giving pleasure
to the hordes of Satan. (Nazi death camp officers
wax ecstatic over Beethoven, whose music must,
therefore, become hateful to all good folk,
as must the word "folk", for Hitler loved it.)
Every tree, every blade of American grass
shall be blasted. (British grass, too – they're
connected. Samuel Johnson rises from his grave
to assert – irresistibly – that his cat, Hodge
shall not be harmed.)
And if I say, behold, your own empires,
past and to come, were as corrupt
and man-grinding as ours, enslaved
and tortured more...
then I hear a new set of voices, like chilled crystal.
They say, yes, it is a human blight,
not merely the American nightmare.
We need a fresh start, Kaliyurga,
the old Hindu universe-recycling system, from Iron Age
to Golden age via the incineration of everything.
Blast this place, this earth, leave it to wolves,
to cockroaches – no, say colder voices,
sterilize it, leave not a microbe, for all
is corrupted. Leave the void, waiting
for a new, pure creation, for we (Americans,
humans, life, matter) are blots, cancers afflicting
nothingness, filling it with ceaseless images and thoughts.
Remove us and all our polluted symbiotes. All
is connected, so all must go. There can be
no Noah, for it is life itself, even the possibility of life,
that blights infinite space, and space itself – why,
some say, "Don't stop at space. Undo
the universe, heat masses to thin gases,
let all explode or implode, bring back
chaos, reverse creation, make it all vanish,
especially thought, for any dream is a virus
from which new life and matter may ferment
They only connect. They include themselves
in their programs, seeking oblivion – a
coward's end? Where there is possibility
of life and art, there is disconnection: A is not B.
A is not even A. (One precedes the other.)
Will we be spared for 10 good men?
Five good men? One slightly frayed
(So much poetry is only connection,
metaphor by sticky metaphor, or the struggle
to disconnect some trace of us from death,
who is always shown first to be well-connected
indeed. Death is always in-crowd, A-list; Death
has pull. Get in good with Death, and you've
got it made (as a shade). Death can get it for you
hole-sale. Even this poem will end.)
Of course we pay and of course
what we call ours (even moths and trees)
are taken from us. We pay what we have,
no more. Unless we can create more.
And we can. So what? A good cabbage moth –
not such a bad deal.
This isn't about who pays or how much.
("My treat this time." "No, mine, I insist!)
What we are is payment enough.
Nothing worse can be done to us
than to make of us what we make
What do evil men make of themselves?
A righteous solidity. They are what they are
forever or until someone chisels
the pigeon shit off the monuments they've become
(statues are grave stones) to themselves,
then tickles them out of countenance.
Once one, being basically right and good,
does wrong and BECOMES a wrongness,
one – to insist on his rightness – solidifies.
(Statues are so official! How could they be
wrong?) Stupidity by stupidity one petrifies,
like a muscle that can't be unclamped,
that exertion against oneself to be right
in one's wrongness.
And we all make payment in that untender kind –
or, unstuck from any solidity, able to be
anything, what can we owe, we who own and
occupy no space or
all there is?
If we only disconnect, there's no responsibility,
no game. If we only connect, we compress
all games into a black hole. Most of my playmates
are human. How can I disconnect from you, George W. Bush?
Once I voted for you, one idiot
for a worse one. I wonder what I did (long ago)
that contributed to the terror that fermented
to burp out Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam Houssein?
Not much, for they mostly missed me,
but my world is darker for their having been in it.
A Beatles tune gives me such joy – what
did I do to earn it? Or you, by what valor
or cowardice on what battlefield did you earn
the pleasure or affliction or monotony
of this poem?
(As mathematicians might say, let U equal you,
my wife and lover, or you, my reader(s) or you,
my friends, or you, my cat, or you,
my poor undervalued left little finger...)
But I needn't account for it all. I'm a
no-account fellow, not a being-counter.
We pay by being. We connect by considering
a connection exists. We disconnect by considering
no connection exists. Fun requires the ability
to connect (Let's play!) and to perceive the connections
and to disconnect (Fuck off!) and know we've done so,
at will. That's why art, when it is, is fun.
If your left hand knows not what your right hand
does (I want to say "doth", but then I'd have to say
"thy" because I want these things to connect, God
knowth wherefore) – you're a klutz, and, in the bigger game,
(where the murderer insists his hand wielded the blade – he
had nothing to do with it) evil.
If you never let one hand's activities
escape notice, you won't be able to unknow
enough to have a game, because ones own actions
define what one gets. If you never let
one hand hide from the other (nimble hands
like two squirrels at play),
there IS no bigger game.
I am you. I am not you.
(I didn't say that. Letters on a page said it.)
I forgot to mention that I'm a big boy now
and can go for a walk to go for a walk
without dragging along U.S. failed foreign policy
or genetically modified wheat. I began pondering
the guilt of moths (giltlessly white)
because I hadn't written a poem in weeks
and thought the crimes of a cabbage moth
(for being part of America) might give me
a poem, which perhaps they did – wherever did I put it?
How to balance connect with disconnect?
(Should it be "Only balance?" Or must we
investigate the art of unbalancing?)
When to cut loose? When is escape not escapist?
How to move away without disconnecting
(the connection extending, "gold to aery thinness beat").
How the awareness of a previously unnoticed connection –
the awareness alone – makes it easier (if not unnecessary)
to do something about it. How connections become
toxic when one thinks they aren't there –
there where one put and is putting them.
Connections connect, you see.
I'm writing this to disconnect from
the newspaper and Internet world
(A net is a knotted trap) and to connect with a more
you-like world, in fact, you. Also me.
I don't dis connections.
I connect and I cut connections.
That's the state I'm in: Connect-I-cut.
That was a belabored pun. A poet once
scolded me for trivializing my "serious work"
with such stuff. He lamented my slummy choice
of connections, my getting in with a bad crowd.
Oddly, the great proponents of "Only Connect,"
(many of them poets) tend to be fixated
on disconnecting lines from poems. "Only
CUT!" they chant. Cute.
I've ambled far enough today. It's been a long walk.
Notes: The poem begins with a quotation: "Only connect." I'm not sure of the source, but I first saw it as the epigraph to the novel "Howards End" by E. M. Forster (punned later in the poem -- "coward's end."
The speaker (me) lives in Reston, Virginia, a town of 60- to 70,000 people, about 20 miles west of Washington, DC and about 5 miles east of Dulles airport. Many Restonians are retired (one hopes) CIA and State Dept. officials. The walk featured in the poem takes place in Reston, which has about 60 miles of woodsy trails.
The poem refers to dominos -- alluding to John Foster Dulles' justification of our war in Viet Nam by "domino theory" -- if Viet Nam fell to the communists, then its neighbors would fall, causing others to fall, etc., the way one domino, stood on end in a line of dominos, when knocked over, causes the next one to fall, etc.
The reference to a "federally mandated-but-not-mandated" initiative refers to the New Freedom Commission's report to President Bush and the wording of much pharmaceutical-company-sponsored legislation based on it. That report called for the screening of the entire population of the country for mental illness so that we could all be properly treated (medicated, that is). That report shares the rationale TeenScreen programs and is the basis for such stuff as the "Mother's Act" (a plan to mandate the screening of all pregnant women before, during and after pregnancy, so that no mother is left un-medicated). The wording of the report and of such legislation clearly calls for universal screening, but weasel-words it so that when someone protests against "mandatory screening," defenders of the report point out that it doesn't use that exact terminology.
The lines refering to "Vladimir" and "Nabokov" and "viceroy," etc., refer to one of my favorite writers, Vladimir Nabokov, also a distinguished lepidopterist, from whose novels I learned what little I know about butterflies. I call him "Viceroy of all I survey" because the normal phrase, "Monarch of all I survey," seems sad now that there are so few monarchs left, but we still have viceroys, who look like small monarchs.
The reference to butterflies being punished by being "broken on the wheel" is stolen from Alexander Pope's poem "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot," where Pope, writing satirically about a corrupt and delicate homosexual courtier of the day, says he will not be too hard on this guy, for who would break a butterfly on a wheel. The wheel is a Medieval torture device, used to break someone's bones.
Later in the poem there's a reference to Kaliyurga, the Hindu iron age, part of a theory that we go through cycles, and that every eon or so we need an "iron age" when almost everything and everyone are destroyed (a cleanse), so that we can have the dawn of a new golden age.
There's a line about Sam Johnson insisting his cat shall not be harmed. Samuel Johnson, subject of the most read and revered biography in the English language, was the 18th century poet, novelist, essayist, great conversationalist and scholar who, nearly single-handedly, created the first great dictionary of the English language. When he heard talk of a nut who was walking the streets of London, shooting cats, his response was that Hodge (his own cat) would not be shot, a line ever since associated with our human tendency to view massive catastrophes from our personal, narrow viewpoiints.
A line about "lobotomizing o'er my species grave," alludes to a line in a Wordsworth poem where he is critical of science and refers to one "who would botonize o'er his mother's grave."
The reference to those wanting an end to all life, including their own says that would be a "cowards end"--punning Howard's End, a novel by E. M. Forster whose epigraph is "Only connect."
The line about "gold to aery thinness beat" is quoting from John Donne's poem, "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," where he compares the commline to his wife when he's overseas to the thinning out of gold when it is beaten and expanded.