I first arrived in 1987,
Flying with wonder into JFK.
It was December, and the vault of heaven,
As I recall it, was not English grey
But liquid blue. I felt my spirit leaven
As from the Carey Bus I stepped that day
To feel the echoed beat of dancing feet
Near Grand Central on Forty-Second Street.
I knew right then I’d come back here to live,
My union with the City felt organic.
The pace, the noise, the hustle didn’t give
Me pause at all. Instead, they had a manic
And syncopated kick; a combative
Yet welcoming impatience; a galvanic,
Persistent pulse that swung and throbbed: ambition
Was all that was required for admission.
Arriving in the US was, for me,
A break from past restraints of class and clan,
A chance to get a job and to breathe free
Without assumptions of what sort of man
A person of my background had to be.
No one cared where I went to school, my plan
Needed no pulling of the old-boy strings,
Political alignments, or such things.
It’s true, I’m someone with enormous luck:
My gender, race, accent, and education.
I’m tall, I’m able-bodied, and don’t suck
At sports; a common sexual orientation
Is mine, and though I can still be a schmuck,
I try to honor each friend and relation,
As well as strangers that I meet, with fairness,
Kindness, and decency, or plain awareness.
I, therefore, know my views are rarified:
That NYC is not the USA.
I try to be as honest and clear-eyed
About how much Great Britain falls away
From its view of itself; how people died
Directly for my comfort. The UK
Has still not reckoned with its shameful past,
And that is wrong. That silence must not last.
So, I’m aware I’m not much of a guide
To my new-found-land. And I cannot know
What life must feel like when you are denied
Full liberty because of race, although
Your people built the nation. I decide
To what I pledge allegiance, and can go
Wherever I wish. My views, newly minted,
Perforce must be both blinkered and rose-tinted.
When I arrived, in 1991,
The days were dark: the murder rate was high,
The city’s mood was grim. And yet the sun
Still rose and people worked, and, by and by,
With more cops on the street, and CompStat run,
The death toll fell, although the reasons why
Remain uncertain. We may never know
Why homicides have plummeted so low.
Perhaps an increase in incarcerations;
Consolidation of the trade in crack;
Removal of lead paint from installations
So kids could stay in school and keep on track;
Sickened by death, young men left altercations
With no cold body on the hot tarmac:
All these contributed—to which, add one:
The state tried to control who got a gun.
The longer that I live here, it grows clearer
To me how hurt this country is, how cracked.
Elections pass, laws change, but we’re no nearer
To addressing the sad truth that the compact
On race–class, North–South (which a thin veneer, a
Mask of politeness hides), an artifact
Of our virgin birth, is now a curse,
Which, since we cannot deal with it, grows worse.
Yet when I think of this place I call home
I feel more pity, bafflement, than rage.
I revel in not having far to roam
To greet the world, and thereby to engage
With awe at how this city’s polychrome
Environment works as a kind of stage
Where we all play a part. Diversity
Can never be a shortcoming to me.
This month, I’ve binge-watched all the episodes
Of Ken Burns’ series on the Vietnam War.
You see how each choice, fault, and lie erodes
The confidence, faith, and esprit de corps
Of all sucked in—how every action bodes
Ill, and a deep shame is confirmed. It tore
Apart whole nations, people, families,
The ordinary grunts and Vietnamese.
The wall that Maya Lin designed let pain
And grief emerge as you descended in.
We need to plumb that sorrow, and not feign
Either contempt or smugness. No threat-grin
Should censor those who weep for all the slain
However they were killed. We must begin
To face the horrors of the past, not let
Us fool ourselves it’s better to forget.
It seems to me that one way we’re unwell,
Is how and why we’ve fetishized the gun:
A symbol of resistance, pride, a gel
That holds a tribe together; how a son
Shows Dad he is a man. No tolling bell
Can break the itchy trigger that someone
Who buys a weapon, swearing not to abuse it,
Will at some point feel—that he is forced to use it.
Yet, when a shooter murders fifty-nine
Attendees at a concert in Las Vegas,
I wonder if perhaps the fault is mine,
As a non-native, thinking that guns plague us;
Not getting that guns are a piquant sign
Of rural life, freedom, the way a magus
Might brandish his wand and make disappear
The causes of all disrespect and fear.
I understand the Founders’ deep alarm
About an over-reaching central state.
The fragile army needed men to arm
Themselves to combat threats, both small and great,
From foreign foes. I do not get the charm
Of shooting animals for fun, but rate
Such pastimes not as bad as factory farming:
That’s nothing but a crucible for harming.
I guess a gun can make you feel more safe
When you live in the sticks. An indoor range
I’ve shot in, and I think that it would chafe
A sane gun owner (or he’d find it strange)
That anyone would think it cool to strafe
Whoever comes in view. But this exchange
Is not permissible. The NRA
Rules congress, and it will not go away.
Australia once felt a similar pain
And banned some guns and deaths declined a lot.
When sixteen kids were mown down in Dunblane
Restrictions were imposed. Of course, it’s not
As if you cannot kill; and an insane
Person will find a way. It’s just it got
A little harder to commit the crime:
More lives were spared because it bought some time.
But not here, not in these United States.
How can this be the price of liberty?
The opioid addiction rightly rates
As a crisis of public health; how free
Can we be when so many die? What straits
Will make us see what other nations see?
We’re killing one another in the streets
Whether we are (or not) wearing white sheets.
Not even 45 is, thus, to blame
For these old wounds, he merely rubs more salt in.
We like to think he is the worst, but shame
Is yours and mine, whoever we find fault in.
We all are guilty of playing the game
Of thinking that we’re more evolved. A halt in
Believing we’re untainted is what’s needed,
If we’re to heal the body that we’ve bleeded.
So, murder, guilt, or controversy reigns
While seismic happenings are underway.
It’s possible the ulcers and migraines
That he inflicts upon us every day
Disguise a worse disease: that our veins
Are being emptied while we hope and pray
For health. But all he does suggests this man
Has no clue: that he doesn’t have a plan.
And yet it’s also true that great events
Are cooking slowly, and we are distracted.
Even if we swapped him for VP Pence
Occurrences would still leave us impacted.
The elite have failed us terribly, and hence,
When dreadful laws are forcibly enacted
To make survival possible, we’ll know
We blew the chances not so long ago.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
This ain’t. Each tempest and disastrous flood
Makes plain that nature’s might can deliquesce
Each well-laid plan and road; the viscous mud
Tugs at the hopes and knees, and in the mess
Brings progress down to earth with a great thud.
These storms, while often vivid and climactic,
Serve as a kind of mental prophylactic.
For they are not the main things we should fear.
Beneath the placid, ordinary day
Just slightly warmer than the previous year;
Or springs the wettest yet; or early May
Experiencing record temps; severe
Drought, fire, or monsoon—the primrose way
To hell is being paved in each meridian,
Until the terrible event’s quotidian.
Will folklorists describe how massive storms
That devastated regions year on year—
Each one a hurricane that broke the norms
Of only months before—provoked the fear
Of social breakdown, lawlessness, and swarms
Of homeless migrants crossing each frontier,
Leading to martial law, rule by decree,
And tyranny from sea to shining sea?
We are already well beyond the dawn
Of loss and disappearance. Gradually,
We notice birds, mammals, and fish are gone
While we run through our tired repartee
Of just how we are the sine qua non,
The life worthy of life, the apogee
Of the Almighty’s vision. Each statistic
Suggests a self-importance that’s hubristic.
Will poets tell the unbelieving youth
That once there roamed across a fertile earth
Tigers and rhinos, and (“It is the truth!”)
White bears and elephants; that once their worth
Was measured by a skin or horn or tooth,
And so we killed them all? And when the dearth
Of fish was something we could not ignore,
We carried on until there were no more.
The places of the world will vanish, too—
Submerged or just abandoned. Holy sites:
Where life and death took our forebears through
The generations; where the annual rites
That marked time’s passage, formed the social glue,
And brought us joy, were held. No fancy flights
Of virtual reality will sate
The mourning when we find it is too late.
At this pace, though, we’ll not live long enough
To rue what we have and we haven’t done.
The U.S.–North Korean bullies talking tough
Threaten to make things warmer than the sun
By blowing us to smithereens—the stuff
Of nightmares realized. A megaton
Of death that blows ten million to bits
Because these damaged men are having fits.
As ever, making worse the already bad,
The C-in-C mocks Tillerson at State.
Each time I’ve named a person who has had
A role in this farce, they find that the date
Of their appointment has elapsed. This lad
Is likely to go next—a bit too late
To save his reputation. Stick a fork (a
Tine or two at the least) into Bob Corker.
Before we know it, we’ll be off, once more,
To war, and—lo!—we’ll see the nation rally.
A trope as old as time, we’ll count the score
In bodies, and decide what sort of tally
We can call victory. Once more, the poor
Will suffer most from every bombing sally
That we rain down. And, once more, an erasure
Of unknown, nameless thousands in East Asia.
Will we step back and pause, weigh up the odds,
Think of a longer future than next tweet?
Or will we shrug and place all hope on God’s
Great plan for us? Will we find the drumbeat
Too martial to resist? Will our squads
Square off against each other in the street?
Before year’s end will we love Uncle Sam?
Or find ourselves reliving a “Vietnam”?