Canto I: January 2020
Canto II: February 2020
Canto III: March 2020
Canto IV: April 2020
Canto V: May 2020
Canto VI: June 2020
Canto VII: July 2020
Canto VIII: August 2020
Canto IX: September 2020
Canto X: October 2020
Canto XI: November 2020
Canto XII: December 2020
Canto XIII: January 2021
Canto I: January 2020
In epics, you will find a verse or two—
Amid the fight-scenes and the rough brigade
Of soldiers from both sides, whose derring-do
Is matched by their revengefulness, arrayed
In glinting armor—when, out of the blue,
The action stops, and some demure young maid
Opens her throat to keen a slow lament
For those who were to graves untimely sent.
Or when the long day’s skirmishes are through,
A senex, white of beard, will wipe his hand
Across his cheeks, slam down his foaming brew
Upon the wooden tabletop, and stand.
His rheumy eye will evaluate the few
Among the scarred, exhausted, ragged band
Who live, and he will lift his voice to sing
Of olden times under another king.
A king from an unpromising beginning,
Of peasant stock, perhaps, or slight of build,
Who had a knack for fighting (and for winning)
And skillfully avoided getting killed.
He bears the wounds of failure, loss, and sinning
With dignity and when his blood is spilled
A final time, this human without peer
Is borne to death upon a humble bier.
He’d taken on the ogre and the beast
Who dwelled in fens where mist absorbs the light.
He’d felled the grotesque monster who would feast
Upon the bodies of his thanes each night.
His lowered sword was shriven by the priest;
He mourned each of his victims in the fight.
But when he died, the kingdom’s borders crossed
Proved what he’d gained was all too quickly lost.
The seeds were always there, the griot sings,
For this destruction: miserable brother;
A weakness for the ladies or for rings;
Disloyal servants; overbearing mother.
Such flaws leave our hero—like all kings—
Without an heir or vulnerable to another
(Amoral, calculating, vain, or lecherous)
Who’ll undermine the ruler; someone treacherous.
As the blind scop intones, the mead hall hushes.
The women fold their kids in an embrace.
Each noble drops his eyes and gently brushes
The tears away; each warrior lifts his face
Toward the horizon; dogs upon the rushes
Curl up and cease their barking. In the space
Between the past and future, all’s suspended:
As lore and faith and make-believe are blended.
Fey troubadour, blithe minstrel, crusty bard:
You’ll find there’s someone handily around
To croon a plangent tune about Asgard,
Valhalla, Hades, and the many downed
Among the demi-gods who had fought hard,
And currently pluck daisies underground,
Or lounge in limbo waiting recollection:
Brought back to life in some mortal’s confection.
The ubi sunt topos is what it’s called:
Translated from the Latin, “Where are they?”
It’s meant to hold the listener enthralled,
As days of yore are evoked, before decay
Set in, or Nemesis and Fama scrawled
Their threats upon the city walls: the lay
Reminds the watchers-on of former glory,
That’s but a shard, a remnant of a story.
Each generation’s utilized the trope
To explain why periods they live in suck.
It’s meant to validate the lack of hope
They feel, or rationalize the dearth of luck
They think that they deserve. It helps them cope
With error or mischance: that if they’d stuck
With how things used to be, things wouldn’t be
Whatever they are now: a misery.
Add immorality, softness, deceit;
Bone-idleness, disorder, and disdain.
The blowing mounds of litter in the street;
Lack of respect, poor tolerance for pain.
The women shrewish and the men effete;
No public spirit, naked personal gain.
Such are the outlooks of those who bemoan
How much has gone, how much they are alone.
As evidence of what has evanesced,
The ruins of the former age remain:
The roofless abbeys, graveyards of the blessed,
Delapidated castles, the refrain
Of folksong, idiom, non–p.c. jest.
Together, these form an opaque membrane
That serves to swaddle us in disaffection,
The coziness of self-righteous dejection.
That it was always better in the past
Is obviously conservative—a throw-back
Not just to youth, but to the trusted cast
Of characters we loved. If one could go back
To those imagined days, one could contrast
Most favorably oneself with now, and flow back
Time’s never-ending river to the source:
It’s mostly a vain fairytale, of course.
For Gilgamesh stood on the battlements
Of Uruk, which he’d built up to its peak,
And saw what he had wrought, at what expense:
A bastion of strength, scourge of the weak.
Yet, at the very height of his immense
Achievement, he foresaw that when we speak
Of Sumer we recall but sand and rubble,
And questioned if it had been worth the trouble.
Thus Ramesses the Second, Menelaus:
Each wondered at the cost of the endeavor.
Send out Armadas, triremes from Piraeus,
Or phalanges from Rome: you’ll find whoever
Commands discerns the Fates will soon betray us;
That our sad victories and oh-so-clever,
Bold failures will be razed, leaving the age
A fragmentary stanza or torn page.
These few weeks feel like that: affairs of state
Vanished in days into inconsequence.
The need for some deliberative debate
On whether he should be impeached; intense
Discussions on what he did when; the weight
Of his disgraceful acts; and the defense
Of what was indefensible: these seem
To me as though they were a wretched dream.
I knew the Senate would let him go free
(They get which side their bread is buttered on).
But that they did it quite so brazenly,
Without concealment, affirms how foregone
Was the conclusion; how the G.O.P.
Functions as that man’s cultic antiphon
And echo chamber; and how each blowhard
For fairness acts as his praetorian guard.
Only Mitt Romney stepped up the well
And stated why he’d not vote to acquit:
Romney—who didn’t climb, but rather fell
Into the certainty he couldn’t sit
Among the toadies anymore or smell
The stench of fealty to him who’d slit
Your throat rather than say that he did wrong.
Mitt couldn’t go along to get along.
He wept and said his faith lent him the guts
To seek a higher good and greater power.
He realized he would be called a putz
(And worse) by that man who, within the hour,
Would take to Twitter, and, no ifs or buts,
Call him a scumbag. So it proved: that sour,
Dyspeptic autocrat took aim and fired.
I bet Mitt Romney wishes he retired!
The others hid away or dodged reporters,
Or muttered something about how the crime
Did not merit removal. . . . These distorters!
These two-faced, lily-livered gobs of slime!
These pimping, empty-suited, bullshit-snorters
Are so high on themselves most of the time
That they freebase their nonsense. How obscene!
They should be frog-marched to the guillotine!
How often have they thundered about dignity,
And vilified us for some slight infraction!
How much they bathe themselves in their benignity
And trumpet Christian virtues! Each bad action,
They lecture, should have grave costs, each malignity
Be punished to the utmost satisfaction
Of Law, of God, and, yes, the Constitution.
All else would be uncalled-for absolution.
And yet they’ve never held him to the fire:
Those gutless, armchair-general Pharisees.
They love themselves so much that they admire
That they can piss straight. They get on their knees
Not to pray to their God but to inquire
Of who is ever riding them to, please,
Ride them a little harder. Yet they bellow
Their rage at the faults of the little fellow.
But then again, hypocrisy—the feigning
Of probity; the hollow-worded cant;
The manifold perversions; the complaining
About procedures that you once had scant
Regard for; the impertinence of maintaining
The scrim of gravitas while you supplant
The norms of decency—is à la mode:
As popular as The Da Vinci Code,
And as replete with balderdash and drivel,
High-minded, shallow poppycock, and plot
Without a jot of sense. How is one civil
When facing politicians who do not
Respect the truth, but hope that it will shrivel
Away, or find some unobtrusive spot
Where it can die: unnoticed, unlamented,
Laughed at, despised, wholly unrepresented?
But even my deep wellspring of contempt
Has been drunk dry by the coronavirus
That’s swept the world, leaving no one exempt
From its cold touch. How openly desirous
It is to make our acquaintance, to pre-empt
Resistance to its advances; and require us
To clasp it to our bosom and encase it,
For we cannot resist it or erase it.
Covid-19 he’s called: the silent kind.
He pulls his gun out and asks questions later.
He goes about his business without mind:
Attending to the old and weak; locator
Of bodies (sick or well) that he can find.
He won’t be brooked (he’s never been a waiter),
But then he’s not impatient. He’ll abide:
Because he’s found each place that one will hide.
He’s come because he’s finally seen enough
Of humankind’s innumerable errors:
From ordinary, thoughtless, stupid stuff,
To wanton savagery, intended terrors.
He’s here to take our species by the scruff
Of our stiff necks and call the stretcher-bearers
To haul each sickened body from the fray
So Earth might live to fight another day.
COVID-19 will not discriminate.
The scurvy politician, CEO,
Tycoon, or maven: he has made a date
To visit them. The ordinary Joe,
The supermodel—no matter how great
You think you are (or should be), he will go
To where your greatest strength resides and break it;
Resist his gift? You’ve no choice but to take it.
Politely turn him down? He will refuse.
Fire guns at him all day? He’ll dodge each slug.
Passive-aggressive? He’ll ignore the cues.
Self-medicate? He’ll blow through every drug.
Try to ignore him? He will turn the screws.
Obsess about him? He’ll give you a hug.
He’s coming for your lungs, and some day soon.
No one is safe, and no one is immune.
One person’s who’s not got it yet? You dig
Of whom I’m speaking? Yes, it’s Teflon Don.
A germophobe, he’s someone who may jig
Throughout this crisis to its denouement,
Untouched by anyone, or give a fig
For other humans. But he will press on
With fantasies of his untouchability
Until we’re all sickened into docility.
And if he got it, or it struck his kin—
Such as Ivanka, Barron, or his wife—
Would we at last glimpse what might lie within
The hollow man who’s lived a hollow life?
Would illness make him humble, pierce the skin,
And open up a vein of empathy: a knife
To cut the hair that held the sword? Who knows?
We may find out before this whole thing slows.
Until then, we’ve a leader quite unmatched
For these momentous days, whose every action
Is gauged by what Fox News dictates; attached
Only to boosterism or distraction;
Whose ego is an itch that must be scratched
By every civil servant, so a fraction
Of knowledge pierces his thick head. This clown
Is who’s been chosen to enjoy the crown.
Canto II: February 2020
At times like these, one’s thoughts invariably turn
To leadership, and what it might entail:
What is innate or what skills one can learn,
Which attributes succeed, and which ones fail.
Do crises bring the best out? Can one earn
Respect where there was none? Can one prevail
Against one’s own shortcomings, and dictate
The nation’s course and so achieve what’s great?
Or does a crisis usher to the fore
Our frailty, shortcomings, self-regard?
When each shred of normality we wore
Is stripped away and what remains is hard
And harsh experience; when the soft core
Of doubt is left exposed without a guard;
And where the impression we will be respected
Is swiftly and entirely rejected.
It may not happen overnight. At first,
The distancing begins, attention swings,
As people switch to others to be nursed;
Or, at the least, believe the state of things
Is understood, although they fear the worst.
The enhanced authority that this move brings
Diminishes your stature even more:
When you speak, people’s eyes drop to the floor.
Before too long, the whispers circulate
That you are ill, or you’ll be stepping back.
You call a presser, just to set them straight,
Say something controversial; or you crack
A few tired jokes, even ingratiate
Yourself again with an unpleasant hack
Who profiled you some time ago. You’re bold,
You assume, and yet you come across as old.
Old news, fine for the times when they were good,
But now a bland reminder of what’s passed.
You didn’t pay attention when you should
Have done, and now they notice the contrast
Between what they imagined that you could
Become, with who you are. And what a vast
Abyss has formed between their once-great strongman
And he who stands before their gaze: the wrong man!
Sheer competence is not enough to lead:
Hoover was capable, well-organized,
And apprehended how to move with speed
To solve a problem. But he was surprised
When the Depression hit, and didn’t feed
The public yen for someone who apprised
The hunger for the major and galvanic,
Lest the US resemble the Titanic.
But then blind self-assurance and fake dash
Are not the answer, either: simply spouting
Whatever comes into your head is rash,
And will come back to bite you. So will touting
Some nonsense off the Internet. Your brash
Performance may have fooled them once, but pouting
And mugging will pale when the crematoria
Are stuffed from Tallahassee to Peoria.
No, what is needed is sober humility:
A recognition that our fears and qualms
Are held by you, the boss. Neither futility—
For hopelessness should not be shared—nor psalms
And pacifying prayers; an ability,
Instead, to see that good administration calms
Fevered imaginations by instilling
A forcefulness that will endure, God willing.
The second quality is being direct:
Telling the truth—no matter how unsavory.
If you can’t find an answer, don’t deflect;
Do not mistake “mean girl” horse-crap for bravery.
Don’t ratchet up the stakes for pure effect;
Or infer swagger will obscure your knavery.
People deserve the facts: to earn their trust
You can’t leave them bamboozled or nonplussed.
The third characteristic is one’s tone:
Restrained and wounded; steady and reliable.
You’re not the center: you’re but the touchstone
Upon which people lay a hand. Thus, “pliable”
Is not the same as “flexible”; “backbone”
Is not mere “stubbornness”; and nor is “viable”
A synonym for “wish.” Don’t speculate
Or second-guess, or your own role inflate.
And leaders always take responsibility,
Even if bad results are not their fault.
It’s not a case of proving your virility,
Hoop-jumping, or doing a somersault.
To value process, custom, and utility
Can be as swift as Zeus’s thunderbolt.
Command does not mean you must be a new man:
The evidence of that? Harry S. Truman.
It won’t come as a shock to you, dear reader,
To observe our C-in-C lacks all of these.
No presser is without our fearless leader
Insisting on his greatness, trying to please,
Distorting, or harrumphing. Special pleader
That he so often is, he shoots the breeze
And claims that life is peachy keen. We shake
Our heads in disbelief as this outbreak
Continues its remorseless propagation,
Picking off victims, young and old alike;
Spreading its tentacles across the nation,
Taking its time or moving in to strike.
In February, this man’s administration
Delayed, bluffed, snubbed intel, and took a hike,
As experts warned that action was much needed.
But he ignored each one; they went unheeded.
Instead, he insisted it was no big deal,
That he would handle it without a sweat.
When it became transparent it was real
And getting worse, he discounted the threat.
When Fox News turned one-eighty to appeal
To him to take it seriously, he met
Reporters with a straight face and said he
Knew it was really bad in January.
It’s so damned infantile, this need to show
He’s never incorrect. He can’t admit
That there are some things that he doesn’t know.
Because he isn’t curious, he’ll flit
From one issue to another and bestow
A judgment on it that he deems will fit
With what his gut or bigotries allow:
It’s what passes for “presidential” now.
How sharply his inadequacies feel
In this dark time when some sense of control
Is wanted from the country, as we reel
From sadness and dismay, and the bleak toll
Of deaths and economic loss reveal
How paper thin the boom times were—the whole
Erection crumbling. What is left is rubble:
The confidence man and his vanished bubble.
Instead of info, a gassy release
Of piffle mixed with sputum, guff, and bile
Descends upon us each day without cease—
Replete with self-absorption and freestyle,
Nonsensical pronouncements that increase
Anxiety and tension. And, meanwhile,
The governors are on the frontline pleading
For federal help to stop the nation bleeding.
But wait! Who’s this before us? Ecce homo!
Someone who grasps the principles to lead:
It’s three-term New York governor Andrew Cuomo.
He tells it like it is. He does not need
His base to beat the drum, or majordomo,
Like Pence, to praise his name and every deed
So he can admire himself. He is direct,
Factual, and caring, and without affect.
Now Cuomo gets that being a Prince Charming
Or even likable is overrated,
Especially at a moment as alarming
As this one. It cannot be overstated:
It’s not about you (you may be disarming);
You can’t skate by or imagine that inflated
Egos or expectations are enough:
Folding your arms and scowling isn’t tough!
Cuomo is an insider and a bruiser;
He wouldn’t be mistaken for a saint.
He’s more an aircraft carrier than a cruiser;
He’s likely to plow on without restraint.
I doubt that he’s much good at being a schmoozer
And Mr. Bedside Manner’s what he ain’t.
His accent sounds as though he’s chewing screws,
Especially when he’s giving you “de nooz.”
And, yes, these men are eerily the same:
Two boys from Queens with overbearing dads,
Who made it big, and lent their sons a name
They had to live up to. They came with scads
Of capital and learned to play the game:
They weathered storms and took the goods and bads
With egos and self-images unchained.
They wouldn’t be rejected or restrained.
One’s president, one governor of a state:
Both rich, both powerful, both Alpha males.
Yet one seems more a hostage to his fate;
More likely to be weighed upon the scales
And found that he is wanting. One’s marked trait
Is execution, one PR and sales:
One doesn’t give a toss what you might think;
One’s on thin ice and owns a skating rink.
And yet the Executive has such great weight
That people understandably confer
Respect upon the Office. “Tell us straight,”
We ask, though we don’t want to know. We blur
Our wish for truth with those who obfuscate
And plot their own survival—each poseur
Who has within the Oval Office flailed,
When others would have struggled but prevailed.
I write these words in April, knowing well
That back in February no one had died
In the US, and that the funeral bell
Had only been a Chinese gong. We tried
To imagine that this somehow didn’t spell
A similar doom for us—or it would bide
Its time to hit us. Oh, why did we think
We would not also end up in the drink?
The precious days and weeks we could have spent
Acquiring masks and other PPE;
Preparing practices that might prevent
The virus spreading widely. Why did we
Not move when experts noticed the extent
Of Covid-19? Iran, Italy,
And South Korea showed what would await
Those who acted, and who left it too late.
Will we look at these months of Twenty-Twenty,
Much as we comprehend Nineteen-Thirteen?
A time of smug complacency and plenty,
Of blithe assumptions covered by the sheen
Of progress; when the blinkered cognoscenti
Assumed that in the Age of the Machine,
Nature would be the servant of technology,
Confined to earth sciences and ecology.
But Nature cannot ever be denied.
She will demand attention when it’s due.
The wizards may claim that we can decide
Our destiny, but humankind will do
What it will do, and loyally provide
Good reasons to despair. It’s nothing new:
Nature will win; it’s best to keep in mind,
That we’ll survive much better if we’re kind.
That means that when we place the civet cats
Among the pangolins and other fauna
We eat for food; or when we down whole bats
Or stuff pigs into crates, we build a sauna
In which viruses mutate: habitats
Where cultivated zoönoses spawn a
Pandemic that will kill thousands of folk
And sicken millions more. This is no joke.
It long since stopped being the fault of China,
Where it’s believed Covid-19 began.
Each one of us created it: to assign a
Precise fault is to find a bogeyman
To point at and scapegoat. If you design a
Large, flawless incubator or you plan
To factory farm all Nature, that insanity
Will leave only one villain here: humanity.
Canto III: March 2020
As Covid marches on, I must confess,
I’m finding it quite tough not to be gloomy.
I’m anxious that the virus feeds on stress;
I monitor each breath in case it’s rheumy.
I avoid expiry rates; strive not to obsess
About my health. But I’m concerned that, through me,
Someone has been unwittingly infected:
The very concept renders me dejected.
I check my temperature. (I’m still OK.)
I feel my glands. (It’s not that kind of bug.)
My limbs ache. (I’m cross-training every day.)
The medicine cabinet? (Wrong sort of drug.)
What is that chill I feel? (It’s not yet May.)
I guess I’m fine. (There’s no need to be smug.)
Thus operates my inner conversation:
Covid-19, under consideration.
I am, admittedly, a nervous ninny,
Inclined too quickly to catastrophize.
I read too much and widely, and the skinny
Leads me to places where I fantasize
Calamities that even older Pliny
Would not have dreamed of when Pompeii’s skies
Grew dark. The resolution isn’t cryptic:
It’s best to circumvent the apocalyptic.
I’m not denying that affairs aren’t sad.
New York, where I live, harbors half the cases
Of deaths in these United States: that’s bad.
Regular folk from ordinary places
Are quietly being lost. A mom, a dad,
A cousin, or an aunt: the worn-out faces
You view on subways, or vacant on corners—
We’re now each other’s designated mourners.
It’s clear that soon the undistinguished blocks
On which most of us live will be affected.
A steady drumbeat of minimal shocks,
Surprising yes, but not quite unexpected.
“Who? Him?” we’ll say. “But he’s built like an ox!”
Sudden mortalities will be dissected.
Partly, we’ll seek to rationalize the threat;
Partly, we’ll breathe out: “It’s not got us, yet!”
The days fly by, as weeks slow to a crawl.
The shutdown is barely a fortnight old.
And yet it seems forever. Every small
Dent in the sad trajectory is sold
By us, to us, as proof that some day all
Disease will vanish: a dreamlike threshold
Where normal illnesses will be resumed:
With average bodies averagely inhumed.
I venture out, attempt to keep six feet
Apart, and don a mask that muffles speech.
I slalom around people on the street,
Struggling to ensure that I stay out of reach
Of exhalations, spit, or indiscreet
Expectoration. At each sudden breach
Of this beset land’s theory of decorum
More daggers are drawn than in Caesar’s forum.
The farmers market where I buy my veg,
The health food store that I’ve frequented often,
Now carry with them an unwanted edge,
That custom or acquaintance cannot soften.
No matter what I tell myself, or pledge
To be responsible, an empty coffin
Is someone else’s destiny or story,
When it should be my own memento mori.
Each night, I clap and holler on behalf
Of medics placing their lives on the line
To bend the mortal curve so that the staff
Can handle patients’ ailments, or assign
Some dignity to passing, tip the graph
Faster toward those days when counts decline.
I yowl and whoop half out of gratitude,
Half in a primal scream that we are screwed!
I get that it’s fortuitous I can
Work from my home, or step into my yard
Without risk of infection. If I ran
A store deemed vital, or I had to guard
An entranceway, or I was forced to man
A hospital’s front desk, it would be hard
To look incoming patients in the eyes
And not descry the Reaper in disguise.
Because this isn’t Eden, the disease
Is now about one’s race and class: the job
You do and where you live, whether you sneeze
Or you are coughed upon. Genius or slob,
Regrettably, this nation guarantees
You’re at a disadvantage if you swab
A floor or orifice in burbs or town,
Especially if your skin is black or brown.
That’s not to say that we white(-collar) folk
Should be unworried when we go outside.
Each handle that we grip, button we poke,
Item we grab, screen touch, or bolt we slide
Could be festooned with molecules to cloak
Receptors should we swipe our face, or glide
An errant finger by (or up) the nose:
Before too long, we start to decompose.
How many of us will discover soon,
A ticklish throat morph into a dry cough;
Contractions in the ribcage that balloon
Into a panting that we can’t brush off?
And just how were we different or immune;
When chills and sweating mean we cannot scoff?
When that time comes, as it most likely will,
Will we live to ingest the bitter pill?
In fact, will there be any pills to take?
Or, like gowns, facemasks, and necessities
For health workers, will it demand we make
The best of it with what the state can squeeze
Out of Washington, DC? Will we shake
The loaded dice, or ask contritely, “Please
Could you send help to us?” and beg and pray,
They toss some clinical supplies our way.
It’s come to this: our freebooter Domition
Is ransoming the realm to please his vanity.
Whatever your position—politician
Or public servant—maintaining your sanity
And resources require his manumission.
You kiss his ring; you stifle a profanity;
And laud him endlessly. How else will Georgia
Get ventilators from Cesare Borgia?
Or Michigan be granted the largesse
From our crass Crassus, scamming Kublai Khan?
How will this Boniface the Eighth express
His pleasure with Ohio? Will he yawn
When supplicants kneel and beg that he bless
The embattled states of Mass., N.J., and Conn?
Will Louis Quinze demand his need for praise
Before his driver spurs on his post chaise?
The court surrounding him is not much better
He’s put Jared his son-in-law in charge.
This cream-faced loon, illegible dead letter,
Has heretofore messed up in ways both large
And small. Nevertheless, like the Great Debtor
Who runs the shitshow, Jared’s going to barge
Through everyone who’s good at what they’re doing.
But who cares when it’s such compelling viewing?
Mike Pence, the president’s po-faced boot-licker,
Is leading the Fed’s efforts on the scourge.
Each time he speaks, he lays the praise on thicker
Than pancake on Mae West. He fears a purge
Should he act independently; a flicker
Of doubt has never crossed his face, nor surge
Of loathing at his boss. He’s like a slab
Of rock or stick of gum (except more drab).
What must Anthony Fauci, M.D. think
As P. T. Barnum redux spouts his quackery?
He’s brought us many times back from the brink
When Mr. Becky Sharp (the reference? Thackeray)
Proclaims his healing art. You’d need a shrink
Of some renown or (failing that) a daiquiri
To steady nerves after he takes the stage,
Or you’ll fluoresce in a great ball of rage.
When will this unremitting nightmare stop?
Not that infection but this infestation.
Why doesn’t he fall ill, or his clogs pop?
Why doesn’t Covid’s evil infiltration
Swamp his security, or on stage swap
A host for that bloated abomination?
It hasn’t happened yet; it leaves me grouchy,
As I imagine it must Tony Fauci.
The decent public servant does his best
To calmly but decisively relate
What’s understood, subjected to a test
To see if it is safe, and by what date.
Facts, unlike Covid, should not be suppressed:
Nor should we lie, mislead, exaggerate,
Or otherwise prognosticate. Yet fibs
Fly from his mouth, as into it go ribs.
He squats and smirks, a constipated toad,
Unwilling acolytes arrayed behind him.
Each day he offers up a mother lode
Of errors that experts try to remind him
Should not be stated. These act as a goad
For more misinformation. I would bind him
With rope and gag him: that’s a medication
That I aver would quickly cheer the nation.
But in this, as so many things, he’s lucky.
His shamelessness continues unabated.
Each press conference he MCs may be yucky
(His sulking that he isn’t loved, the inflated
Self-admiration and disdain, the muck he
Disperses everywhere) but he’s created
An inescapable, hermetic cell
Where everything, for him, turns out just swell.
It’s certainly ironic that it’s he—
A germophobe without an inner life—
Should be the head of state. No enemy
Could have chosen one less suited to strife,
Or less likely to act decisively
Than whom we’ve got stuck with. Even his wife
Has shown she can perform a simple task,
After he said he wouldn’t wear a mask.
How topsy-turvy is the world we live in!
The stern professors of fiscal austerity,
Who preached the state could never be forgiven
For racking up debts, and maintained prosperity
Required a laissez-faire response: they’ve driven
Such thoughts away, and with utmost sincerity
Declare that we must spend trillions of pesos.
I await their call to nationalize Jeff Bezos.
Those who determined that the public’s health
Should be retained in private hands now see
That some things can’t be bought with scads of wealth:
That age and broad-spectrum infirmity
Put you at higher risk. So, in its stealth
And frank refusal to let rich folk be,
Covid-19 proves that it is the wiser:
For Death has always been an equalizer.
Yet how cruel it is that such a sickness
Is blanketing us with fever in the spring.
This is the season when vigor and quickness
Should fill each vein with surging pep and zing.
Instead, the spirits are swathed with a thickness,
As morgues fill up, and every clinic wing
And ER are congested with the dying.
They arrive so fast, there is no time for crying.
In Italy, piazzas are deserted,
La passeggieta left for calmer days.
They cautioned us; but we stayed “unalerted,”
And we fell into a kind of mystic haze
Of fancying that it would be diverted
By . . . what? The ocean, Superman, sunrays?
We were complacent, lazy, dumb, and vague.
We sleepwalked into chaos and the plague.
Some even fantasized God would protect them:
They kissed the shrines; bowed down before the Lord.
They let propitiatory faith infect them
With undeserved trust they could not afford.
The priestly caste continue to direct them
To give up on this world, for their reward
Remains in heaven, to which they’ll go soon,
Especially if they gather to commune.
Now boulevards are ghostly. One awaits
The arrival of the alien invaders;
Or zombies creeping upward from the grates,
Gobbling up tourists and rich Wall Street traders.
The Martians may land in the United States,
But they’d be foolish, as eleventh graders
Will tell you: they were brought down in the end,
Not by the army, but microbes, my friend.
We’re on our own recognizance: to hunker
Inside and count the hours to release.
In man-cave, attic, or lounge, each spelunker
Surveys the stats and hopes that they decrease.
Meanwhile, the C-in-C, this Archie Bunker,
Obscenely lights his fires and pours on grease.
At some point, the infection will subside:
But when? And just how many will have died?
Canto IV: April 2020
Malignant worm, fell harbinger of doom,
Intruder into each nightmarish thought;
Demonic spirit haunting every room,
Whose penetration leaves us overwrought;
Invasive incubus who will entomb
Us all: What pandemonium you have brought!
The horrors you’ve unleashed, sorrows aplenty!
We’re not even halfway through Twenty-Twenty.
Horrid, malicious, murderous mutation;
Promiscuous defector from the norm!
Unholy and bloodthirsty aberration;
Shape-shifting, breath-snatching, sense-blocking form!
Your cataclysmic, unchecked conflagration
Has razed the world; you are a locust swarm
That lays waste all that’s nourishing and living:
Compassionless, callous, and unforgiving.
Inhuman tyrant, master of confusion,
Ravager of tranquility and hope:
Even the thought of you is an intrusion,
An endless panic! You slither and grope
Your path into the brain; puncture illusion;
Insert yourself—a viral proctoscope—
Into each cavity, proliferating:
Your terminal contagion circulating.
Despoiler of the future, spittled sprite:
Whose squalid breath sickens the air we inhale!
Whose lipidated presence, viscous spite,
Glom onto every neuron without fail,
And replicate malevolence and fright!
You vat of venom, rancorous cocktail
Of sweating, pulmonary hypertension:
There’s no escaping you, or (yet) prevention.
Relentless, feckless bully, you select
The frailest and most selfless to attack;
At those who care for others you direct
Your loathsome administration, and hijack
Their will to live so evil spreads unchecked
Among defenseless masses. Thus, you rack
Cadavers upon corpses as your prize:
No need to justify or apologize.
Heedless, opportunistic, you attach
Your purulence to every open sore;
You clog the lungs and pustulate each scratch
With blithe indifference. You poke and bore
Your way through one’s defenses, and you snatch
The élan vital with each pernicious spore:
Your omnipresent germs leave none exempt,
For everyone you demonstrate contempt.
Revolting specimen, vile desperado,
Despicable impostor who’s hell bent
On killing: you should be incommunicado;
Locked up without the means to spew and vent
Your deadly inflammation. Your bravado;
Your unmasked, germ-filled, ugly discontent;
These place at risk all those within your reach,
Whether they wash their hands, or ingest bleach.
Revulsion permeates the tender soul
Whenever you are mentioned in the press!
The ground trembles beneath us; a sinkhole
Opens under the feet; in much distress,
We find there’s no escape. You’ve reached your goal
Of ensuring we’ll be buried by the mess
That you’ve created: in so short a time,
To kill so many, old and in their prime.
Your all-pervasiveness respects no bound;
Your amorality honors no code
But your self-replication. You compound
Each injury; you gloat as you unload
Your nauseating cargo; you confound
All efforts to restrain or discommode
Your onward march to our annihilation:
The undermining of this once great nation.
You brook no blame, brush off those who would call
You to account. You exhibit no remorse.
If people ail, you will not take the fall,
For viruses will not delay their course.
They adapt to keep themselves alive, forestall
A remedy; or blame another source,
Rather than act decisively to abate
The total infestation they create.
What can we do while you still walk abroad?
Who do we turn to? How can we be healed?
No matter where we go, you and your flawed,
And pathogenic agents have congealed
And locked in more pollution. They have clawed
And scratched away each insulative shield,
So that those who outlive an early grave
Will meet their maker in the second wave.
Will your vampiric clutches be released?
Or will you suck us dry, drain off the blood,
Until we’re but hollowed-out shells? You feast
As we fall ill or lose our jobs; you flood
The US with your toxins. You have greased
Our fattened bodies like an oiled-up spud,
And now we’re bound and prepped for your incisors:
If you can’t have us, you’ll bite the advisors.
For, in the end, it’s always been about you—
Your prospects for survival, how you spread
Your pestilence throughout the globe. No doubt you
Have never once thought of the empty bed,
The vacant chair, or (in a world without you)
How sadness wouldn’t multiply; nor dread
Attend each moment when we think of you,
And wonder what you will, or will not, do.
Merciful God: rub out this noxious strain!
Lysol my mind till it’s fresh as a daisy.
Protect from poison each too-open vein;
Inoculate me from becoming crazy.
Lend me the strength to flush it down the drain,
Where it belongs: let this hellacious, lazy,
Unprincipled pollutant disappear,
Never to be heard from after this year.
You ministers of justice: Intervene!
Banish this pitch-black shadow from the land!
Eradicate this plague, scrub down and sheen
Each surface where its dirty, little hand
Has come to rest! Prize off every obscene,
Unwelcome touch from this molester, and
Exterminate this miserable excrescence,
This hateful and detestable tumescence!
Mask it and gag it! Stop its path of spreading!
Remove its source of vim; starve it of fuel!
First isolate it, then a quick beheading;
Or, if not that, drown it in the cesspool
Of its own making. End the endless dreading!
Diminish it, until it’s minuscule:
And we at last can breathe more easily,
Without fearing that we may cease to be.
Open the windows of my heart, let in light!
Draw back the curtains; inhale the fresh air!
Dispel this fetid brume; extend us insight,
Wit, and self-knowledge that we might forbear.
Give us the force to lessen its strength, in spite
Of super-spreaders who are everywhere:
The sneezers and appeasers and naysayers,
The hacks, the quacks, and fairytale purveyors.
These prop it up, make sure that it’s supported;
They seem to think of no one but their own.
They think it’s just fake news, and they feel thwarted,
As if the virus cares for them alone,
Or will protect them. Reasoning contorted!
It won’t be stopped, and it will chaperone
You to your death, and when you least expect it,
Unless you act maturely and reject it.
These voices sometimes break out from within us.
“We’re relatively young and in good shape.
These doomsayers are just trying to spin us,
To generate their clicks or warped red tape.
They don’t like gadflies—for they try to pin us
As ‘enemies of the state.’ They love to drape
Themselves in the American flag, that’s certain.
It won’t stop us from pulling back the curtain.
“Don’t tell us that we can’t declaim ‘Oh, screw it!’
Don’t lecture us on our responsibility!
Spare us the truth that we’ll have to live through it,
With more cooperation, less motility,
And more awareness. We know that we blew it,
But we’d prefer to hold onto puerility,
And while away what’s left of our existence
Both proud and free (on government assistance).
“Don’t ask us for a noble sacrifice,
We’ll clap for essential workers, but no more.
We’d rather not take orders, or advice;
Being a stand-up citizen’s a bore.
We’ll be alright, Jack: altruism’s nice,
But mostly, it’s much simpler to ignore
What others do: to each his own, we say.
For after all, we’ve got to go one day.
“The care homes are just heaven’s vestibule,
Full of the ill and old, waiting to die.
A few weeks less of life may not be cool,
But why does that require we all comply
With this dumb lockdown? Look, I am no fool:
I watch the news; I know the reason why
They want to hold us back: they seek control,
To keep the people down—that is their goal.
“So, we’ve a duty to take to the streets;
If I fall ill, that’s my concern alone.
My family supports my actions, treats
Me with the respect I’m due. I’ve a backbone,
And I’m not going to sit here while elites
Destroy America. History has shown
That it will take more than a mild infection
To hold back a free people’s insurrection.”
This is an older and persistent strain
That’s part of the US’s DNA:
“Don’t tread on me,” also “No pain, no gain”;
“Freedom’s a price that everyone must pay.”
As long as you are on the gravy train
All’s fine—but “others” must not get away
With “stealing” what is yours. So, with this bug:
“Live free or die”—the antiviral drug!
Upward the numbers go, each new day brings
Another list of folks who have succumbed.
The nursing homes are morgues, Death spreads his wings
And folds them in his cold embrace. Benumbed
At how much loss this cruelest of springs
Has brought, we pray each night that we have plumbed
The depths only to find, the morrow morn,
That more have crossed the other country’s bourn.
In such a circumstance, you look for folks
In leadership who’ll tell you what you need
To know, not what you want. Those who can coax,
Command, and grieve in equal measure; seed
Courage, but keep it honest: quash each hoax
And speak the truth, while showing their hearts bleed
When someone dies. To show you’re strong and care:
A combination that is very rare.
Especially if you’re a man, it seems,
Plume-haired, and prone to whim, bluster, and lies.
Obsessed with their own brands, these men of memes
And random thoughts, these flippant thin-skinned guys,
Who think they know enough to drive their schemes
Through any fact, have been cut down to size:
Revealed as overwhelmed, scared little boys,
With little to disburse but froth and noise.
In Blighty, Boris Johnson has been felled
By the coronavirus. For ten days,
He languished in intensive care. He’d rebelled
Against safe distancing, kept to his ways
Of glad-handing and bluffing, though it spelled
Illness for him and death for others. Praise
He lavished on the NHS. Their care,
He said at last, ensured he had a prayer.
Only Jacinda Ardern seemed to know
Just how to mix the gentle with the tough.
She’s handled it with grace and style, although
She’s had to deal with lots. For her, no bluff
And nonsense: just the facts, ma’am. She won’t go
For easy options, or smooth out the rough,
With blandishments and bromides. Nothing shady,
For her—perhaps because she is a lady.
Mostly the women have done well. The men—
Like Bolsonaro, Johnson, 45—
Have dithered and pontificated, when
They should have been keeping people alive.
They showed who was the weaker sex again.
That though they may have some will to survive,
Its price is chaos, loss of commonsense,
And all too often at others’ expense.
Canto V: May 2020
One hundred thousand dead, and still they mount:
Each one is listed in The New York Times.
At what point will the count begin to count?
When will these many deaths be seen as crimes
Against the citizens? When will the fount
Of wretchedness run dry? When will the chimes
At midnight ring for those who didn’t act?
When will a fact be accepted as a fact?
One hundred thousand dead, and on your watch,
And forty million people unemployed.
Of course, you strut and fret that you’re topnotch,
And blame the governors; try to avoid
Reminders of each flop, or how you botch
Each “effort” to respond. Your paranoid
Harangues won’t help you: for what lies ahead
Is much more than one hundred thousand dead.
One hundred thousand dead—play an eighteen;
Blame it on China, say you’re doing great.
Tweet something that’s untrue and half-obscene
About Joe Scarborough; and agitate
To punish social media when your spleen
And vitriol are flagged. Intimidate,
Distract, and trivialize so you can shred
The truth of it: one hundred thousand dead.
One hundred thousand! How does one convey
The senselessness of it, each single story:
A life well-lived or one just underway;
One future-bound, one filled with former glory?
What can you give but a wilted bouquet;
A hurried, one-line, paltry inventory;
A token, epigraph, or aperçu:
An “I See You” within the ICU.
There’s Kious Kelly, only forty-eight,
One of the earliest nurses to have passed.
And April Dunn, who sought to advocate
For those who were disabled. In the vast
Extinction, it’s not easy to relate
To individual lives, yet, at the last,
Unfinished grief requires an in memoriam,
To partner the smoke of the crematorium.
The carer, angler, firefighter, joker;
Grandparent, family man, good neighbor, wife;
The working stiff, the would-be powerbroker,
Those who dreamed of a long, amazing life;
The gambler, bon vivant, drinker, and smoker,
The alumnus, bold arbitrator of strife;
The champ, violist, founder, busy bee;
John, Stanley, Doris, Charles, James, Rosemarie.
The cut-up, father figure, the survivor;
The clarinetist, teacher, and the baker;
The electrician, lawyer, and cabdriver;
The baseball fan, marine, the cookie-maker;
Traveler, singer, wordsmith, and Macgyver;
Detective, paramedic, and muckraker;
The reader, student, nun, bodega-owner;
The friend to everyone; the thoughtful loner.
The lifelong resident of Westernport;
She who believed herself Dylan’s great fan;
Someone who laughed, was a mischievous sort;
The quiet soul who was a gentle man;
The Westinghouse employee; the good sport;
The social butterfly; Elaine and Stan;
Donald, Idris, and Ethel; Bill and Larry;
Patricia, Judith, Angeline, and Barry.
Many departed on their own, with nurses
Their psychopomps; who looked into their eyes
And held their hands. They heard their prayers and curses,
Received their parting thanks, their final sighs;
Muttered beneath their breaths some broken verses
(The fragments of a rite), which they’d reprise
Three or four times a day. Michael and Donald;
Richard, Sushil, and Carol; Ella; Ronald.
The many days upon a ventilator
Until a final exhale—and the end.
The “pistol-packing preacher,” educator;
The ballroom dancing star, the generous friend;
The interpreter, the pianist, operator:
Will it be possible to comprehend
The shape and scope of what we should remember?
What if these numbers doubled by September?
The studied hero, lifer, pioneer;
The spouses who succumbed on the same day;
The guy who managed Big Bob’s pizzeria;
The diva and recluse, the straight and gay;
The surgeon, radio ham, chef, volunteer;
The lass who loved to paint and to crochet:
The failing breath, the cough, absence of smell;
The horror when you know that all’s not well.
From Cedar Falls to Bethlehem, Pa.;
From Orangeburg, N.Y. to Plainville, Conn.
From Brookfield, Illinois, to Rome, Ga.;
From Ocean View to Chino; Farmington
To Silver Spring and Harrisonburg, Va:
Whether an immigrant or native son,
Or Dennis, who’ll “be missed at Mad Jack Brewing,”
Covid-19 proved to be their undoing.
And now we know thousands could have survived,
If we’d locked down one week before we did.
The “true Renaissance man”: he could have thrived;
The card sharp could have made another bid.
The dancer could have boogied on and jived;
And Skyler Herbert, who was just a kid,
Could have transformed Detroit. We’ll never know.
We were too late, and so they had to go.
Of course, it’s true that all of us will die,
And some of us will pass without a sound.
We may not have a chance to say goodbye:
Struck in the night, or by a car; or found
Face down upon the floor. Death may be nigh
Or far away to us; common or crowned,
We will all meet it—what more can be said?
I’ll tell you now: one hundred thousand dead.
You’d have to be a monster not to care;
Not to be shaken to the very core
By what is happening! Who’d not despair
Or at the least feel there is something more,
Some deeper truth that’s struggling for air
(Just like George Floyd)? And you may be a poor
Emoter, but by God, what we are dealing
With here is fundamental fellow-feeling.
But, no. No gasp or gulp, no ululation,
No genuine reflections on the pain,
Have passed his lips. No message to the nation
Of common purpose, grief; no speech to explain
To children what is happening; no narration
That charts the shadowed valley, darkling plain,
Where we now find ourselves; no obsequy:
No sentence that begins with a soft “we.”
No lines that deepen round the gutted eyes;
No sweat-soaked sheets upon an unkempt bed;
No inkling that he has to agonize
About what’s best to do; no heart that’s bled;
No pillow stained with tears; no bootless cries;
No halting voice, or sacred scripture read;
Only the self-regarding piteous mew
Of a man-child who hasn’t got a clue.
No podium is gripped; no “Amazing Grace”;
No better angels has he once evoked.
Where are the honored caregivers? The face
Of our service workers? No: he’s stoked
Revenge, contempt, the hatreds of his base;
Each of his daily actions has been cloaked
In enmity and victimhood, instead
Of grief for the one hundred thousand dead.
No particle of sorrow or regret,
No agenbite of inwit or remorse;
No resolution; no “Lest we forget”;
No declaration, “We will stay the course”;
No gathering of thoughts; no lone cornet
To start the silence; no riderless horse
To represent a generation gone;
No one America can lean upon.
Then to my mind comes a familiar shade,
His cadence weary, wry, passion contained
Within the bite of every word. I paid
Respects to him in Seventeen, when, pained
By the Inauguration, and dismayed
At what the recent election had ordained
About this country’s past and future, sought
The honored dead, to find out what they thought.
“Have you, as well, got only one Black friend
To whom you turn to explain what’s going down?”
James Baldwin sighs. “I don’t mean to offend,
But really it’s absurd that Black and brown
People like me are called upon to end
Racism and white supremacy. You frown,
And shake your head, and says, ‘Too true, too true.’
Before you ask what we think you should do.
“The man who placed his knee upon George Floyd;
The cop who shot the fellow in his house;
The guy whom Sandra Bland somehow annoyed;
The pair who thought Ahmaud less than a louse;
The killers of Trayvon and Michael toyed
With them, much as a cat does with a mouse.
The murderers knew what they had to do.
Why not ask them? I’m sure that they’ll tell you.
“You can’t imagine just how very tired
We are. Ask Fanny Hamer: she won’t use
Her phrase again, she’s vowed. ‘It has expired,’
She says, ‘Because it turns out whites abuse
Us even when we’re shattered. We aspired
No longer to be sick or tired. They choose
To solve both needs by letting us get killed:
By Covid or the cops. Promise fulfilled.’
“How rich it is that when Floyd was arrested
For some duff cash, he got it in the throat.
When Martin King in Washington suggested
This country had a promissory note
It owed Black people (how we marched, protested!)
The end was just the same. You can devote
Yourself to public service or cheap scams,
You’ll still become the sacrificial lambs.
“So now another white man has laid bare
The literal experience of Black folk:
A blue-clad knee upon the neck; a stare
That says, ‘Nothing to see’; embodied yoke
That pins a body to the ground: ‘Beware,’
The gesture says. ‘However cool or woke
You think you are, we white men will feel free
At any time to squash your liberty.’
“That’s what they mean when they declare that they
‘Love freedom’ and are patriots to boot.
Or when they claim to ‘defend the USA.’
Or pack their guns and point. Simply to shoot
Is the mere coup de grâce of how much sway
They feel the right to exercise. It’s moot
Whether it’s legal. They know they can do it,
They have the upper hand: that’s how they view it.
“And now the useful suspects clash and burn:
Cops in disguise, the fascist agitators,
And kids who love the thrills. When will we learn
How right and left are joint coordinators
To keep the status quo? Each one will earn
Their kudos from their own squads’ picked narrators,
That will entrench either of them as right;
To set them up to start another fight.
“For love is much more difficult than hate.
We’ve been so steeped in hate for centuries
That it’s our mothers’ milk. This nation state
Relies on it to continue to appease
White people’s wish to ‘Make America Great’
By stamping on the rest. So, spare me, please,
Your virtue signaling of an ‘uprising.’
I’ve heard it all before: it’s tranquilizing.
“Stop asking me then what white folk must do,
To be an ‘ally’ (God-forsaken term).
Trash your own neighborhoods; take crowbars to
Your ATMs; engage a legal firm
To bail out your protestors; cook a stew
To feed the placard-holders; donate sperm.
Whatever makes you feel good is all right:
Your bag is yours: you’ll never not be white.”
I hear the sirens wailing in the distance,
The helicopters droning overhead.
The viruses within—with our assistance—
Will not be stopped. Instead, they will be spread.
A long hot summer waits, weakened resistance:
And much more than one hundred thousand dead.
Unless we deal with comorbidities;
We won’t outlast this terrible disease.
Canto VI: June 2020
Five-thirty a.m. I lace up my shoes,
Slip on my hat and glasses, grab my keys,
And head out for a jog. I’d like to snooze,
And go back to my bed. Instead, I wheeze
And stumble on as dawn starts to perfuse
The sky. I’m lucky that a gentle breeze
Keeps me cool-ish. I wear a red kerchief
Over my mouth as a Covid fig leaf.
I’ve got to be more careful, now I’ve turned
The almost passed-it age of fifty-five.
If any good has come from this, I’ve learned
I’m now in a risk bracket. I’m alive,
But as far as my own years are concerned,
Most of them are behind me. I derive
Some consolation that I am quite fit,
So I might yet enjoy some span of it.
But now I’m old enough to be the kind
Of man who shovels snow and drops down dead.
Or geezer who assumes he’ll bump and grind
As if he’s twenty-one. Or cracks his head
By acting like he’s Larry Bird on court,
Or Roger Federer; who will, instead
Of functioning as an unobtrusive dude,
Fire up TikTok and frolic in the nude.
Ahmaud Arbery closes his front door,
Smoothes out his khaki shorts and his white shirt,
And eases to a trot. Wind off the shore
Softens the heat. He tries to stay alert
As he crosses the “border.” In his tour
Of parts like these, he knows he might be hurt
If he does something wrong, or tries his luck:
Memo to self: Avoid the pick-up truck.
So, now I must watch out for suspect moles,
And monitor the creaking in my knees.
I subtly calibrate my long-term goals
To account for failing powers; try to squeeze
Whatever I can out of worn-out soles
To finish before tendons blow, joints freeze,
And lungs collapse. I open my front gate.
Five miles should be enough; six would be great.
But let’s be honest: marathons are done
For this year: too much closeness, sweat, and spit.
Who’d want to risk infection, and for fun
Expose yourself like that, or worse, transmit
The virus to a medic or someone
Who came to cheer you on? It’s best we sit
This winter out. And now I can go slow:
Avoid the chafing, portapotties, dough.
Breonna Taylor stretches, yawns, and sighs:
It’s been a long day as an EMT—
Ensuring that you’ve adequate supplies
Of respirators, swabs, and PPE.
You mustn’t find yourself caught by surprise
Should you be called to an emergency.
This is a stressful time; it’s time for bed.
A chance to rest, restore, and clear my head.
I’m not much with nostalgic sentiment,
What is the point of wallowing in the past?
What I did wrong, I cannot reinvent.
The choices that I made, the dice I cast,
Whether I could have fought more to prevent
The suffering and tragedies—these last
But seconds. And regrets, I have a few:
But nothing I can alter or redo.
I wonder: Could I have been more kind, too?
Could I have been more generous or bold?
These are the thoughts of aging: they renew
Themselves each morning. And when I am old
Perhaps they’ll sit upon me like the dew,
To burn off when my rotting corpse—so cold,
Incurious, unbending—is cremated:
All self-regarding questions terminated.
Elijah McClain loves the violin,
And to the shelter cats he’ll often play:
It gives them comfort; it helps him fit in—
This awkward young man, with his special way.
He’s near his house. Three officers begin
To wrestle him to the ground. In the affray,
He cries out, “Why are you attacking me?”
He says he’s sorry; that he has I.D.
“I will do anything”; he adds he’s trying
To “become better.” He doesn’t eat meat,
He avers, but doesn’t judge. As he is lying
Pinned down, he vomits on the darkened street.
He apologizes once more. As he’s dying,
He announces they are beautiful. They treat
Him to a dose of ketamine to still him;
This, in the end (and their assault), will kill him.
On Court Street trash has piled up overnight;
Raccoons and rats have strewn it on the road.
I’m glad that creatures can put up a fight,
Disturb our wish to wipe them out, and goad
Us to recall that they may be out of sight
But they are with us everywhere. They’re owed
Our sympathy: for of all God’s creation
We are the messiest, cruelest contagion.
On Union Street, at Precinct 76,
The cops have blocked the road, to prevent . . . what?
Yoginis rioting? Tots throwing bricks
Of Lego at the thin blue line? I cut
Down Sackett, passing Henry and then Hicks.
I think, Its gang’s the biggest. It can shut
Whatever and whenever it decides.
What’s it to you? My irritation slides.
Such impositions will not slow me down,
I cross the BQE. The traffic’s jammed.
It didn’t take too long for a ghost town
To go back to the bottlenecks, the crammed
Highways, commuting, and the dirty brown
Pollution that will make sure we are damned
To an eternal fire lest we confront
What this is. I hang sharp right on Van Brunt.
A traffic cop pulls over Sandra Bland:
Failure to signal as she changes lanes.
The next day, she’s found dead—by her own hand?—
Within the jail cell. Here, the conscience strains
Against the horror, tries to understand
How the end could come so easily; remains
The first or second option for these men:
At least she won’t resist arrest again.
Along the greenway, trees are in full flower.
The slaughterhouses where the ducks and geese
And rabbits come in trucks will in an hour
Commence brutalities. When will it cease:
This fervid wish to harm those without power,
Who can’t fight or defend themselves? Release
These thoughts, I tell myself, just for today:
The tempo will melt the unease away.
Juneteenth. I stride along the reclaimed piers
Of Brooklyn Bridge Park on this foggy morn.
Manhattan’s gilded temples stand like spears
Brandished against the rising tide—they warn
That some things won’t be toppled. The mist clears:
A day of liberation that was torn
Quickly away. Later, I’ll say his name,
And hers, to lift the heavy veil of shame.
A twelve-year-old plays with a plastic gun,
Perhaps he is a hero . . . or a cop.
Tamir Rice is a child; he’s having fun;
Within six seconds, there’s a pop . . . pop . . . pop.
Another Black kid’s shot. He didn’t run;
He didn’t stand a chance. Who’ll make it stop?
A kid who dared to have an imagination:
At least he didn’t die of suffocation.
My footfall’s steady on the concrete track,
But then no one is chasing me. I hear
No sound of chambers emptying at my back,
And where I go, the way is always clear.
When I pass someone, they don’t give me flak,
And when I mask my face, I scan no fear
Shadow their own: my path is straight ahead;
No corner’s blind, no roadway full of dread.
Across the water, I spot Liberty:
Her torch opening the way to Ellis Island.
The “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,”
After an ocean journey, on this dry land
Set down battered valises. Can we see,
As each one disembarks and whispers, “My land,”
Earlier seafarers, who disembarked
Shackled, half-starved, and for enslavement marked?
I turn. The Brooklyn Bridge heaves into view:
Its latticed span a triumph of technology.
When I first crossed it, I felt it renew
My feelings for New York, without apology.
Did Amadou Diallo feel this, too?
Did Eric Garner inhale the mythology
Of Gotham? Did they believe NYC
A place of hope, or the NYPD?
The packet boats and steamers are long gone,
Replaced by strollers, pick-up games, and me.
The clippers and the freighters, one by one,
Arrived in their dry docks across the sea.
The blue sky deepens and a stronger sun
Now blankets soccer fields and the debris
Of plastic waste that floats upon the swell,
Or loiters by the bins and carousel.
Along the BQE the traffic thrums:
New York’s reviving from its months-long hush.
Restraint is loosened as the spring becomes
The summer, and once more we surge and crush
The streets with bodies, walk to meet our chums
In outdoor spaces, or (without a blush)
Protest injustice, though Covid-19
Cares not how virtuous we think we’ve been.
I stop to rest where Fulton moored his ferry,
Read Whitman’s lines, “ And cross from shore to shore.”
His rhapsodies on multitudes; his very
American expressiveness; the core
Of his beliefs in people; the contrary
And vital breaking of the lines: What more
Could we demand of him—except to face
His denigration of the Negro race?
I learn New York itself almost seceded
In 1861, to form a nation
With Staten and Long Islands. That receded,
With other awkward facts, on the cessation
Of the great war that followed. It impeded
The City’s image as the great salvation
Of the oppressed, not built upon the graves
Of those who labored and expired as slaves.
The river flows into the restless bay.
I pass two Black men sitting on a bench.
I bid “good morning” and they glance my way.
Do I detect their bodies slightly clench?
Have I disturbed them from their thoughts this day?
Did we release or did we just entrench
The prejudices that hold us back, or down;
Whether we’re Black or white, yellow or brown?
My porous dermis; each organ completing
Its task; my heart pumping its steady beat.
I sweat to stop my body overheating,
My muscles move in concert. What a feat!
Miraculous! For while eating, excreting,
And inhaling, my life—fragile and sweet—
Could halt at any moment. One skipped breath;
One miscued pulse; one sudden shock. Then death.
I bank and head home. Huff up Everitt’s hill,
Along the promenade on Brooklyn Heights.
The view of New York Harbor thrills me still:
I flow through quiet streets, the old lamp lights,
And brownstones: every step an act of will
To stay the course until the final rites
Are read, and who I was withers away.
At least, I’ve postponed that for one more day.
Up Remsen, right on Hicks, down Garden Place,
Then right on State, down Henry to Atlantic.
Before he died, did George Floyd glimpse the face
Of his late mother? In his final, frantic
Attempts to suck in air, did he retrace
His brief existence here? In the gigantic
Disgrace of our collusion, can we start
By acknowledging that we all possess a heart?
Can we (turn up Verandah) extirpate
(On Clinton, right) the poison that killed Floyd;
(Up Kane then Tompkins Place) eliminate
Our blind faith in a system that’s destroyed
So many (then Degraw and Court); create
A less imperfect union, one devoid
Of murders of those whose singular “crime”
Is that they are Black people all the time?
Canto VII: July 2020
I’m worried that I’m running out of things
To say about this goddamned president.
It’s not that I’ve dried up the squalid springs
Of inspiration, or that he’s not sent
Me gusts of outrage to support the wings
Of poesy, or that I have not bent
My back to frame his horrors in my rhymes:
My couplets encasing his many crimes.
It’s not that I have settled in a groove
Of quiet desperation; or I’m shocked
Into a sullen silence; or can’t move,
So stunned am I by who or what he’s mocked
And ripped to shreds. I’m satisfied I prove
Through these my many words that he’s not blocked
My creativity—or logorrhea.
Trust me: He won’t force me to disappear.
It’s not that Covid isn’t growing graver:
One-fifty-thousand dead by August First.
It’s not that he’s not mired in disfavor
(His negatives are high), or that the worst
Is over. He waves his eternal waiver
Bestowed by right-wingers, despite each outburst,
Lie, or divisive statement: They’ll decide
Together when to stage their suicide.
It’s not that I detest him any less,
Or that he’s not in every way despicable.
Each day, he blasts the functional to mess;
Each day, his deeds are either inexplicable
Or reprehensible. Each day’s duress
Leaves his fat backside eminently kickable.
Each day, he proves his rank unsuitability,
His grossness, ignorance, and incivility.
He’s not someone you’d tune out or ignore;
Like an old sofa with mysterious stains
That over time mutates from an eyesore
To awkward fact of life. He is at pains
To force you to attend to him: “Adore”
Or “Loathe” is what he wants most. He remains
Insatiable for all who scorn or love him:
As long as everyone is thinking of him.
Acts of resistance—as might be this verse—
Merely enforce that he is top of mind.
Of course, he’ll never read this or rehearse
A grievance on it or me. (He won’t find
Me, as I’m not on Twitter.) What is worse:
To toil for years unnoticed and consigned
To comfy unimportance, or attacked
And briefly famous (Faustian compact!)?
The real problem is, his sins (though legion)
Are still the same as forty years ago.
He’s not more crafty or deft a strategian;
He’s not more able or inclined to grow.
He’s just as lazy; lives within a region
Of knowledge that’s not broader; still won’t show
The slightest interest in openness.
He still lacks honesty and politesse.
It’s striking how wholeheartedly banality,
The unmasked bigotry, the lack of pity,
Are now accepted as the new normality.
He’s tarnished everything: a kind of shitty
Dysfunction now obtains; daily lethality
And degradation reign: No burb or city
Or village spared. Each day a thousand go:
He hasn’t mourned a single one, you know.
Somehow, when I began this, I had thought
He’d crumble in the face of his defects;
That not much would be lost; that we’d be taught
A useful lesson on nasty aspects
Of this Republic. These years would be fraught
And unrestrained, but history corrects,
And we’d be spared the worst of this regime,
And would awake as if from a bad dream.
I’m much less sanguine now. For he has molded
The GOP in his own image. Clan
And cult now dominate. The party’s folded
Its tent and kowtows to the charlatan.
Craven enablers: they, so easily scolded,
Have meekly bowed their heads to this bad man,
Who’s bitter, shallow, spiteful, and a sham;
A walking con-game; living, breathing spam.
The worst lack all conviction: So said Yeats,
When forecasting the approaching bloody end.
McConnell, Graham, Paul, Sasse—what awaits
You in the rings of hell? Will you defend
Your abject muteness should you reach the gates
Of Heaven? Will some day you comprehend
How much you failed this moment, as this nation
Descends into chaos or subjugation?
The truth is that he’s always been a bounder,
He was unfit for office from the start.
He’s always been content to flop and flounder,
To bullshit, gaslight, bluster, lie, and fart
Around. He’s like a human quarter-pounder:
Unwholesome, bad for you and for your heart,
Unnatural and greasy, sickening,
A discount store of lard and suffering.
But this was evident for many years!
He was a fraud, we knew; a reprobate,
A bankrupt schemer. He stoked racist fears,
Belittled women, cultivated hate,
And shirked his obligations. To his peers
He was a laughing stock, a crass cheapskate,
Without an ounce of tenderness or grace;
A fatuous Pantaloon in orange face.
I never watched his show, but you’d be blind
Not to discern how “show” is what it was
And always would be. In place of a mind
At work was flex and humbug without pause;
The drive to win and dominate—a kind
Of mania for the game, not for a cause;
Conniving for the sake of it; the scam
Defining Self: “I intrigue, therefore I am.”
When it was real estate, the grift and plot
Was half-amusing: Eighties shoulder pads,
Big hair, white limos; scandals we forgot
(Like Ivan Boesky’s, Michael Milken’s—cads
Who stole and earned their transitory spot
On Page Six of the tabloids with their scads
Of unearned fame and gravy). He’s their ilk:
But spandex, chintz, and rayon to their silk.
Of course, he was excessive and grotesque,
But so was that decade: a folderol
Of cocaine and pep pills; a camp burlesque
Of easy moola, lays, and alcohol.
Sure, AIDS was present, and a Kafkaesque
Terror of Armageddon. Through it all
His frank absurdity seemed like the cherry
Upon a rancid cake. Thus, he made merry
Throughout the nineties, until he went bust:
His flimflam failed to lull too many foes;
And stiffing creditors and clients must
At some point lead them to fold up and close
Their accounts, turn off the loans, no longer trust
Your claptrap. You can strut or jab elbows,
And threaten, but someone will say “Enough!
Show us the money.” And they’ll call your bluff.
And that is what they did: time and again,
He found himself caught short, and on the outs,
By the late nineties. Each legerdemain
A flop; each certainty piled high with doubts;
Each launch a dud; each venture down the drain:
All money fountains ending up as droughts.
A washed-up loser, friendless and alone,
Condemned to die unwanted and unknown.
But then a stroke of genius: All that fame
In essence was, he saw, a fond mirage,
The perfect demonstration of the game.
He’d mastered it: the swag and camouflage,
Deception, smirk, and glitter. And his name!
His character was merely a collage
That needed to be pieced together. He
Would come back as a brand identity.
So that is what he did: he sold himself.
The title on a building, way of life.
He took a vision, plucked from off the shelf,
Along with a career and a new wife,
That tallied victory as glitz and pelf.
The builder morphed into a Mac-the-Knife,
Faux anti-hero, wiseguy, Dapper Don:
The ugly duckling turned into Black Swan.
That’s what we voted for four years ago:
A damaged trickster void of any charm;
An involuted Id whose hustle and flow
Brought out the worst in us; the shuck and smarm;
The onanistic Braggadocio;
The use of social media to harm
Not heal; the goal to sow total distraction
To cover up each terrible infraction.
What’s changed in these last months is that his flaws—
A sucking and impermeable morass
Of envy, fear, and disregard for laws;
Of indignation and poisonous gas—
Have led this nation to the very jaws
Of dissolution; where no one can pass
With any hope of healing restoration:
But squalor, filth, shame, and disintegration.
Will all this frenzied madness melt away
After November? Will we awake and stare
Into the glass on Inauguration Day
And wonder who we are? Did we not care
Enough about our polity to say
“Let decency prevail!” And will we spare
A thought for those who do not have a choice;
Who have nothing to raise up but their voice?
Who will they turn to if he’s re-elected?
When he enacts revenge upon the rest of us,
Do you think that he’ll care who he’s selected
For his contempt? He will take all the best of us
And ground us into dust. Scores of confected
Revenges will be launched. The final test of us
Will be whether there’s anything to save
Once we have four more years of this rank knave.
How much the Russians must be entertained
By what they’ve managed to achieve, so fast!
How well they have their hapless puppet trained
To do their bidding! They hoped he would cast
A pall on norms, embrace every harebrained
Conspiracy they planted, flabbergast
The institutions till each one was worn out.
Their slender hopes for anarchy were borne out.
How weak the USA is now: consumed
By self-obsessed dissension and division.
The trolls and bots have brilliantly groomed
Us as his gameshow foils. With precision,
He’s made us his apprentices: we’re doomed
To fight each other, pending his decision
On whether we’ll succeed or will be fired.
In either case, he’ll always be re-hired.
Miranda’s Hamilton, which I devoured
On Independence Day, illuminates
How far and yet how close this fraud and coward
Is to “America.” The delegates
Who wanted presidents to be high-powered
And quasi-kings; the slave-holding estates
Of freedom-loving men: they set in train
Two centuries of struggle and of pain.
The petty spat and personal vendetta;
How small the room is where fates are decided;
How sex and class can turn an operetta
Into a tragedy; just how divided
This country always was; how we forget a
Profound truth that the printing press provided
Both slander-sheets and words of weight and worth:
That honor killings marked this nation’s birth.
But then there is the gorgeous tapestry
Of cultures mixing, upstarts breaking through.
The crazy faith that someone can be free
To be themselves; that here you can renew
What history has broken; and that We,
The people, is not fake but something true
That binds us tighter than the bonds of hate:
That Liberty is our natural state.
A state of unremitting innovation
(New voices and new patterns—they will rise)
Will waylay odium, and integration
Will dilute white supremacy; the “ayes”
Will outvote “nays”; and each new generation
Push back those who still wish to valorize
A vision of a past that never was:
When we shared but one vision, one great cause.
Like Adams, he would love to be a king.
Like Burr, he is unprincipled and small.
Like Jefferson, he likes to say one thing
And do another. Like them, he has gall.
But, unlike them, his pettiness, his string
Of lies, betrayals, cruelties—these all
Must bring to earth his flaming, dying star:
More like Buchanan than, say, FDR.
Canto VIII: August 2020
“Just when did this stop being fun for you?”
A voice echoes within my head. De Sade,
Again: that putrefied cadaver who
Has been my constant scourge. He’s said my bad
And blatant verse displays neither the true
Spirit of satire nor erupts in glad
And blithe, non-partisan obscenity.
I wish he’d shut up; so does he of me.
“I thought you might give me a boost,” I say.
“Embolden me to stay focused and strong.
I’m so disheartened at the disarray
That he has caused, de Sade: It’s just so wrong!
I hanker for him to go far away:
This tragic farce has gone on too long.
I know it’s three more months, and yet it seems
As though the end is only in my dreams.
“Biden’s so old, and Kamala’s untested.
Will he be tough enough; will she hold firm?
We know the orange monster won’t be bested
In hatred, lies, and cruelty. The worm
Has made sure that the public sphere’s infested
With ludicrous conspiracies, whose germ
Is, like his fevered brain, unmoored from reason:
We’re trapped in a forever silly season.
“Distraction, nonsense, nothing to address
The climate crisis, healthcare, national debt,
Inequity, and race. Instead, a mess
That he ignores or struggles to abet
Or actively makes worse. I must confess
That Covid’s death toll has left me beset
With sleepless nights and unrelieved anxiety
At whether we’ll still have civil society.”
“Pah! Nom de dieu! When will you grow a pair,
Connard—you imbécile, you useless schmuck!?”
De Sade replies. “I’ve had enough, I swear,
Of your chest-beating; couldn’t give a fuck
If you’re adrift or blocked. Why should I care
If you’ve mislaid your muse or lost your pluck?
I’ve lent you my advice for four long years
To show you how you can dispel your fears.
“How many evocations will I face,
Before you let me rest beneath the ground?
How many times will I be called to grace
Your shallow angst with something more profound
Than anything your efforts can showcase?
My name’s secure, yours is . . . well . . . less than sound,
Would be the most respectful way of saying it,
Although ‘on thick’ describes how I am laying it.
“I used to pity your ineptitude.
But now I am aghast at what weak tea
Your staggering incompetence has brewed.
And all for what? So, you can claim to be
A chronicler of sorts? I must conclude
That you’ve no wish to change; you’re using me
To fluff your prosody. You waste my time
(And not just mine), and all of it in rhyme.
“Each month, we get another maudlin rant,
Jam-packed with windy words, empty of wit.
Littered with commonplace bromides, with scant
Regard for whether folks crave each tidbit
Of pious virtue-signaling. You can’t
Admit the truth that you are full of it.
We’re lucky if a few lines are surprising:
They’re usually not of your own devising.
“Now you could say, I s’pose, he’s done you in,
Comme tout le monde. He’s sucked each sucker’s marrow,
Sunk teeth into each neck, peeled off the skin,
And led the country off the straight and narrow.
He’s stuck the citizens on a new pin
And watched them squirm, buried them in a barrow,
And set the boat aflame. What else is new?
I’ll tell you: Cry havoc, scream till you’re blue.
“Your job is not to emulate this shell,
This hollow soulless man, but grab each ball
And squeeze until he’s hurt in every cell.
You lock him in filthy toilet stall,
Brimming with piss and crap, force him to smell
Each surface, make his tongue lick every wall
And clean the effluent that he produces:
Let him imbibe all your creative juices!
“You’re meant to stick his penis in a vise
And close it till its purple head explodes;
To load his mouth with fat cubes of dry ice
And freeze his teeth until his jaw erodes;
To seed his follicles with scabied lice,
Or inter him with hungry nematodes;
To heap on him ceaseless indignities,
Until he ends up on his wretched knees.
“And then you’re meant to carry on. Why stop,
When he has not? Why should you be restrained
When he’d kneel on your neck? Force him to hop
On burning coals for hours, and be drained
Of confidence that you will spare the strop
Upon his flabby ass. He must be trained
To know indecency can work both ways;
And just how you will demonstrate for days.
“Does ‘decency’ have power to persuade
Or force someone to act against desire?
Of course not: decency’s always betrayed
When power’s up for grabs. For why go higher
When lowness is much quicker? You’ll be played
If you believe honor’s a rectifier.
Consider Romney: What a hypocrite!
His honor’s dumped each time he takes a shit.
“That’s true of all of them: the men in suits
And solid chins. They’ll flee the crowded coop
When he starts to go down. They’ll grab their boots
From underneath the king-sized bed, and scoop
Up pants, and cash, and run. These prostitutes
And bumboys have bounded through every hoop:
Each one who has his stubby gland fellated
Must be poleaxed, whipped, and defenestrated.
“See! You’re already blanching, feeling sick.
Preparing reasons why you will eschew it.
What’s your response, then, to the little prick:
A hearing? Voting? Trial? Yes, I knew it,
You haven’t got the stomach, are too quick
To go back to the center. Well, you blew it,
You feckless fecker. Wasted four whole years
In empty gestures, futile liberal tears.”
“But I hate torture,” I declare. “Why ape
The horror, why not forcibly resist it,
Defend the rule of law? Why should I scrape
The barrel with him? Why shouldn’t I insist it
Matters that presidents do not escape
Scot-free but are held to account. I’ve missed it—
The Obamas’ decency, I mean. This verse
Is partly a lament. It’s so much worse!”
“Then call up Horace, if you want an ode,”
De Sade spits back. “You want to wail and weep?
Then be my guest. But this hybrid—half goad,
Half dirge—is putting your two fans to sleep.
And if you sought to take the higher road
Then why write quite so much? Why do you keep
Insisting you are braver than you are?
It satisfies no-one. It’s most bizarre.
“This work is not so much a lyric skip
To a winning conclusion, but a slog
Full of spondaic gloom. A sinking ship
Far from its port; a tank caught in a bog,
Its weapons useless; an annoying drip
And no cascade of fun. Why do you flog
Your readers so, and with such little pleasure?
Have you not better ways to spend your leisure?”
“I cannot let him win,” I mutter meekly.
“I will not stop until he’s been defeated.”
“Then why not pen haiku, or something treacly
To lift the spirits? Why should we be treated
To months of verse where you protest obliquely
About the nation, leaving us depleted
And no nearer to thrusting in the shaft?
You have some skill, but very little craft.
“You’ve failed at taking up the righteous hammer
When he’s laid down upon a bed of nails.
Rather than rebel yells, you weakly stammer
That you are shocked—shocked!—that he gropes females,
Tells lies, corrupts all he surveys. You yammer
About ethics: what happened to wassails
And sex? Why not out-vice him, show he’s weak,
By speaking of things even he can’t speak?
“You’ve never grasped his obvious fragilities:
His yearning to be liked, his love of spite,
His wish to be a player. No abilities
Of any kind, cunning without being bright,
And one who demonstrates that he is ill at ease
In any situation: you could fight
Him by tweeting a line or two a day,
And he would willingly enter the fray.
“Yet you enjoy your splendid isolation,
Shooting your paper volleys from your brain,
Hoping they coax a reader’s indignation.
But half-amusing pique or bland, arcane
Rejoinders will not serve. Perseveration
May be a virtue, but quatrain after quatrain
Of unremitting irritation’s boring.
No wonder you have left each reader snoring.
“Each year you’ve raised me from the dead to taunt you
For this fiasco. Just what do you want?
To let your sentimentalism haunt you?
I try to shake you from your nonchalant
Complacent self-regard, and yet you flaunt—you
Beige dandy!—your limp iambs. Ç’est quel honte!
You could have seized the moment, made a splash!
Instead: four vols of euphuistic mash.
“The trouble is you’ve never left behind
The comfortable embrace of your convictions.
Instead of rage you’ve searched for peace of mind,
Sought answers, not embraced the contradictions.
Your faith in laws, belief in humankind,
Are touching, yes, but unresolved afflictions,
Disgust, and anarchy are more revealing,
Even if you shun them as unappealing.
“A satirist would look upon this fall
As rich in possibility: a vote
Contested; warring factions; mêlée, brawl,
And armed militias. Why would you not gloat
When politicians flail? Amidst it all,
There’s you, the writer, bobbing like a float
Upon the squalid tides of frothing spittle:
Contemptuous and intensely non-committal.
“Remember, you want palaces to crumble,
The rioters to disembowel elites.
You hope the statues and conventions tumble,
You yearn for blood spilled in the smoke-filled streets.
You dance in glee as foes get set to rumble,
And relish how each officer retreats.
The baton’s thud upon the head delights you;
It’s hypocritic harmony that frights you.
“It’s time that rotten institutions faded
Into the history books. The ancient norms
Serve no more purpose, old mores are jaded,
And what is left are much more honest forms
Of contest: the invaders and invaded
Battling each other to direct the swarms
Of crazies, thugs, idealists, and asses
Who make up the manipulable masses.
“When revolution’s in the air, you leap
For joy, for then reality will out:
No soothing platitudes or oaths to keep;
No room for error, sympathy, or doubt.
Instead, a naked terror, loss of sleep,
And frenzy shape each action. Any lout
Can rule the mob, and princeling lose his head.
Even the most alive may end up dead.
“Are such days not upon us, don’t you sense
How anger pulsates in the summer air?
Street protests, bully boys, the land is tense
With riotous dissension. Who will dare
To pull the trigger (claimed in self-defense)
And get the mayhem going? I could swear,
I’d do a better job of stirring trouble
Than you, fretting within your Covid bubble.
“For sure, you’ll never be satire’s John Brown,
Willing to attack the fort and start the war.
If not an insane prophet, be a clown
Like Dario Fo, and let derision pour
Like rain until your adversaries drown
In words, or they can’t take it anymore,
And beg for mercy. Whatever you do,
Retain your savage ‘I’ and see it through.”
Canto IX: September 2020
De Sade departs once more, and my head clears.
What stays is the dark cloud of his deceit.
Two hundred thousand dead! And yet no tears
Or sorrow from him. No words that will meet
This moment with a gravitas that steers
Us to some healing. But, tweet after tweet
Befouls the airwaves so that death and loss
Is lost amid the poison and the dross.
It seems to me we’re getting near the end,
The point at which the weft starts to unravel.
The moment when there’s nothing to defend
That hasn’t been traduced or sold. The gavel
Is poised above the bench: it will descend
And pass rough judgment on us. We may cavil
And murmur some dissent, but bald misprision
Is the correct decree for such division.
Some sort of course correction is in order;
A puss-filled abscess, fingers poised to burst;
The desperate refugees along the border,
Who as bullets rain down won’t be dispersed;
The prisoner who overwhelms his warder;
The scared, the brave, the best of us, the worst:
All face our reckoning. Which way we bend,
Will govern whether we survive or end.
The forces of repression are amassing,
The comfort of autocracy awaits.
Democracy’s frail blossom may be passing;
Barbarians are gathering at the gates.
Except, this time, the ones who are harassing
And threatening are not those in dire straits,
But those who flex their muscles and won’t cede
A foot of space unless they’re guaranteed
Perpetual control. Parties just shells:
The rubber stamps that let dictators rule;
A hopeless opposition that just kvells,
Sanctioned only for show. With every tool,
The boss-man rules by whim; he buys and sells
Drained institutions, while the foul cesspool
Of exploitation fills. He binds it all
Under his orange visage. Thus, we fall.
Did Weimar end thus? Riots in the streets,
Battles between the left and right. The mass
Of average people craving peace; the elites
Waiting for someone to break the impasse
By bashing heads, while tossing them some treats.
Someone to rouse the nation, give each class
Reasons to love America once more
By hating those who held office before.
The anti-Semites are already here:
Peddling dark threats of Soros and the rich
Running the world. The old blood-libel fear,
That Jews killed Christ, with just a minor switch
Has morphed into the pedophiles who steer
The ship of state, led by that wicked witch,
Hillary Clinton. He will say “Be gone!”
And purge the world of sin: thus, Q-anon.
The cultic adoration’s here as well.
That nothing that he does is bad or dumb.
It’s all a masterplot, part of the spell
He weaves to cause confusion or benumb
The opposition, whom he will expel
As life not worth a life, when the days come.
Then real America will rise and reign:
So he will make the U.S. great again.
I wonder what will be the Reichstag blaze
Later this year? Biden’s hospitalization
And death from “Covid”? In the last few days
Before the election, perhaps a nervous nation
Will wake and learn that (in a kind of daze)
Voting’s been put on hold: an aberration
Has been discovered; or a plot to hack
Democracy: “And we must take it back!”
The enablers are already in their places:
Fanatics, cowards, frauds, and double-dealers.
The cut-price Gauleiters, the same old faces,
Who mewled their protest once, are now the squealers
Who squawk his praises, multiply disgraces,
Prepare to kiss the ring, and put out feelers
To rape the body of the nation state,
And grab their piece before it is too late.
Perhaps we have a Hindenburg as well
In Biden: genial, ancient, out to lunch;
Someone who thinks it possible to quell
The fascists with his charm; who will not punch
Them but imagines that he’ll cast a spell
To make us get along. This lawless bunch
Won’t step down even if he wins. They’ll brawl,
Until they get to rule once and for all.
What is McConnell’s vision? Mr. “No”
Aspires to dominance for its own sake.
To take us back to . . . what? Is all for show?
There is no legislation; he can’t make
A claim for righting wrongs. He wants to slow
All progress to a stop, to bend or break
The administrative state. But why? For whom?
To bury the US in its own tomb?
When the Republicans held total power
For two full years, what did they legislate?
Nothing but judges. Did this wretched, sour
And uninspired man deliberate
On what might be his legacy? This dour
And stolid roadblock will not hesitate
To keep the U.S. failing as a nation.
Is that his summa? His great consummation?
McConnell may be this era’s Ernst Röhm:
Venal, disposable. He will assume
That he’s a source of strength; but this man-gnome
Will recognize one weekend that the room
He dominates is not the hippodrome
And he the charioteer, but catacomb.
By then it will be too late: pushed aside,
It will be better for him if he’d died.
Instead, a mummy, like the G.O.P.,
A corpse in wrappings waving bony hands
At the Dear Leader. Oh, say, can you see
How they adore him, bow to his commands,
And let his kin take over? “’Tis of thee,”
They sing, “that we disburse the public lands
Of these United States to kith and kin.
For after all, with you, we’ll always win.”
These are the industrialists, crawlers, and flunkies,
Who hoped they’d hang on when the tiger thrashed
Its tail in Thirty-Four. These power junkies
Thought they were dealers but found themselves trashed
And in the cold—or worse. Performing monkeys
Replaced them, took their assets, left them smashed.
Their reputations, honor, name—all shattered;
Their opposition not voiced when it mattered.
Meanwhile, the loathsome toad threatens and mugs,
Distracts from failure so huge and so dire
It might sink everyone. He talks of thugs,
Terror, and insurrection; stokes the fire
Of hatred and division; pushes drugs
Of racial animus and tribal ire
To feed the addiction of self-righteous rage
Because he doesn’t wish to leave the stage.
He seeks to stay forever out of spite.
To settle his bleached kinfolk in his stead:
The blonde, the bland, the sharp, the not so bright,
The plastic filching lot—the family’s head
Is grooming to preside over midnight
Throughout the USA. An age of dread,
Of civil war, oppression, and autocracy,
As they strip-mine the veins of this democracy.
And now he has the death of RBG
To stir his base to action. With what luck
The occupant is blessed! How richly he
Coasts on the waves of panic, comes unstuck
When others would be mired in infamy.
It’s not that he has nous or cool or pluck
To lightly weasel out. His single gift
Is finding every opening to grift.
“Enough with your defeatism,” says one,
A recent ghost who always walked the talk,
Bloodied and yet unbowed. “What we begun,
Remains unfinished, yes, but you can chalk
It up to experience and get things done.
Do not concede; resist. Don’t submit; balk.
The stakes are too high to be so dismayed.
Be of good spirit, bold and unafraid.
“The forces of suppression always know
They can rely on fright to keep control.
It’s easier to maintain the status quo
By conjuring rampant hordes, or to extol
Forces of ‘law and order.’ They will go
To the extremes to incite or bankroll
Agents provocateurs to foment trouble:
Nothing pleases them more than piles of rubble.
“Even de Sade falls for the mocking ‘easy’
Instead of working hard for something better.
True justice leaves patricians like him queasy,
Even if they’re a scoundrel or debtor.
They’re used to influence, moral or sleazy;
They claim the state is only a dead letter:
But you’ll see when the law goes up in smoke,
How much they fear the people they provoke.
“That’s why nonviolence is such a threat,
And discipline so hard to counteract.
Short of being shot, stabbed by a bayonet,
Or burned alive, the inconvenient fact
Is someone who’s knocked down, bloodied, or set
Upon can rise again. You can impact
The destiny of nations through resistance:
Not one big march, but slow, steady persistence.
“The question is: What will you sacrifice,
In order to prevent this man from winning?
We know the other side will not play nice.
We realize they are merely beginning
To use their dirty tricks. They’ll load the dice,
Distort, cheat, forge, and bully. They’ll be spinning
Each step you take as unrest and sedition:
A much-abused American tradition!
“Watch out for traps. Beware! Don’t take the bait.
Don’t let them see you lash out or be dumb.
They need to get you to retaliate,
They need the multitudes to grow more numb
Because they see each side as reprobate,
Or threatened by the lie that you will come
To take what’s theirs. By being resolute
You hold a mirror to the real brute.
“Believe me, it is hard not to hit back,
When someone takes a billy to your head.
You see the arm and hear the whoosh and crack,
And wake up in some ward, lying in bed,
Or sitting in a jail cell. To attack
And give them holy hell till they’re half-dead,
I understand too well, is damn attractive.
The trouble is it’s utterly reactive.
“Not only does it render you as bad
As them, but it intensifies the force
With which they amplify themselves. The sad
Reality is this state has recourse
To endless weaponry, an ironclad
Commitment to repression, and will source
Each trope of patriotism to destroy you.
You can’t let anything they do annoy you.
“The truth is that this battle’s not a fair fight,
All you have is decency and moral suasion.
Your arguments and data may be airtight
But they won’t help you balance the equation.
But suffering and witness can dent their might,
As long as you master the grand occasion.
Give them an ‘out’ to leave the field of war
And you might gain advantages . . . or more.
“You’ll fail more often than you win, it’s true.
You’ll often feel you’re standing still, forgotten,
Or snubbed. It’s tempting to try something new
To turn your hand to. You may hope the rotten,
Corrupt, and racist edifice that you
Oppose, should fall. You may wake with a knot in
Your stomach every morning. But you rise,
Resolve to keep your eyes upon the prize.
“Remember late, lamented RBG:
No doubt she felt sad when she was mistreated.
But she endured, searched for another key
That might unlock the door. She was defeated
But never lost her focus. Victory
Would come because the truth may be unseated
But will not be denied. You can disguise
The lies as facts, but they will still be lies.”
Canto X: October 2020
John Lewis leaves, and in a better mood,
I muse upon the race. The polls look good:
Biden’s ahead. Of course, they should be viewed
With trepidation. In Sixteen, Clinton stood
Upon the brink of victory. The dude
Was toast—as “pussygate” etc. should
Have cooked him. Yet he beat her by a thread
In but three states. So much for “way ahead.”
It’s indicated Biden’s lead is greater
And has been strong for eight months on the trot.
And it’s not easy to be a Biden hater
Since he’s a genial white man who is not
A Clinton. So, the orange master baiter
May coax him to lash out, but a cheap shot
Won’t land with his supporters quite as fully:
A bully is a bully is a bully.
I’m thinking this when there appears a sprite—
Begrudgingly, and acting royally pissed—
But with me nonetheless. I am contrite:
“I’m sorry, Maureen: I could not resist
Your counsel in this presidential fight.
It’s not too much to say that I have missed
Your pungent thoughts on what we might expect.
And what will happen if he goes unchecked?”
“Summoned once more!” The specter of La Dowd
Laments. “What have I done to be so abused;
To be dredged up to part every storm cloud
With shafts of common sense? I am confused
By these commands, and nor should you be proud
That you’ve called forth so many, and misused
Your own poetic gifts by spouting tripe
In someone else’s voice. Here is my gripe:
“Give up your pained ‘to catch the zeitgeist’ shtick,
And catalogue this era’s passing players;
Relinquish hope you’ll wound him to the quick,
Thus answering a nation’s grateful prayers;
You’re but a shadow of this lunatic,
His dreadful flunkeys, and nation betrayers:
Nothing you’ve said or say, or want to do,
Will sink his ship or drown his wretched crew.
“For several months now, he has run the odds:
Declaring that the election will be fixed.
If he should win, then it will be, ‘The gods
Are with me.’ Meanwhile, if he is deep-sixed,
He’ll say, ‘I told you so.’ He’ll summon squads
Of his supporters to defend him. Twixt
The devil and the red/blue sea is where
We’ll be. My friend, we’ll sink and drown from there.
“What do you plan to do if he should win?
Go on? If so, what do you think you’ll say
That you have not before? Will you begin
From scratch? A different theme, perhaps? Portray
The dissolution of the state within?
What happens when you realize the day
Has come to cede that the experiment
Is over: we’re in permanent descent?
“Perhaps your classic template might be Dante,
Replete with sin and Virgil as your guide.
Those four years will be hellish and picante,
Without a place on Earth that we can hide
From his revenge. This tinpot Duce Infante
Will burn the world up so he can bestride
The ashes of his rule. A Hiroshima
Within our polity—in terza rima.
“Considering the subject and your ‘gifts,’
The epic won’t be epic, merely shoddy:
Half-hearted tyranny, ham-fisted grifts
That don’t pass muster or fool anybody.
A formulaic clusterfuck that drifts
To its un-paradisal end as gawdy
Yawnfest in a fleapit of Barnum bunk:
The presidency maugered, feeble, shrunk.
“Your problem is there’s no arc to this story,
No truth revealed, no Damascene conversion;
No final victory or path of glory,
No perp parade or baptismal immersion;
No knelt confession or a posteriori
Conclusion that can’t be undone by aspersion.
Arendt was right about evil’s banality.
He’s not shown finesse even with depravity.
“His hackneyed self-regard, his tedious sniping,
The triteness of his yen to stay ahead.
The sulking, petulance, whining, and griping;
The charmlessness, the faithless marriage bed;
The debts, the stiffing, racist stereotyping;
The vanity, the lies as daily bread:
Nothing is new, it’s trotted out each minute:
His sad, tired universe: we live within it.
“A world of flattened features, a vast waste
Of malls marbled with gold, baubles, and tat.
His children trade on chintz and lacquered taste,
A planet paved or stripped of habitat;
Where nothing’s true, reality’s debased,
Success shaped like a leering autocrat:
No grain or shade, mere shimmer and veneer:
The vision of a discount racketeer.
“He’s fatal to flights of imagination:
A weight without the sacred albatross;
St. Anthony succumbing to temptation,
St. Simon of Cyrene with no cross;
A prophet with no promise of salvation,
An alchemist who turns what’s gold to dross.
He has no dying fall, sense of an ending:
All’s surface, glitter, what is ‘now’ or ‘trending.’
“You could, of course, consider something greater
Than churning out verse cribbed from Headline News:
A work commendable to your creator,
That doesn’t struggle so hard to amuse;
That doesn’t club Erato or sedate her,
Nor insincerity and smugness ooze.
I’m not expecting much. Judging by this,
It won’t be worth a bucket of warm piss.
“Why not something that excavates the soul?
The tremors when one’s life reaches a place
Where each ambition, every tiny goal
Is stalked by your demise—your youth-splashed face
Now lined with disappointment. What you stole
From Time, it has recouped; and that slight space
You thought you had before you gained success,
Now closed, without rejoinder or redress.
“Is not that where you are now, win or lose:
The options narrowing, the best behind you?
Each day reduces prospects you can choose;
Each day, a genuine thought to remind you
That you have still to pay your final dues
But you will not escape them. Death will find you
And every word you’ve written will not change it;
Nor literary talent rearrange it.
“What have your scores of stanzas really brought you?
Not peace of mind, for sure, or some repose,
But greater anguish. And what have they taught you,
Beyond the fact that you should stick to prose?
Were you to be this era’s voice? Who sought you,
A nothing, to speak out? Who thought your throes
Of woe gripping enough to read or share?
Did you, so clueless, think that we would care?”
“Et tu, Ms. Dowd?” I answer back. “De Sade
Has just laid in to me for being weak.
And now you tell me that I am as bad
A thinker, writer. Wherefore do you speak
To me like this? I will admit I’ve had
No influence and this lengthy critique
Is lost on those who wished I was concise;
But when was productivity a vice?”
“No vice,” Dowd mumbles, “but it is sooo tiring.
“De Sade’s correct: uninterrupted pangs
Of doubt and pother, mixed with uninspiring
And mundane cogitations; withdrawn fangs,
Pulled punches, swings and misses, and misfiring
And ill-considered humor. These harangues
(De Sade also speaks truly) are the best of it.
It’s better, frankly, to ignore the rest of it.
“The only service that this work provides
Is making Biden’s hoped-for triumph sweeter.
If he should lose, then we risk suicides
And other bad stuff happening. Demeter
Will withdraw harvests; Eos, who presides
Over the daylight, will not rise to greet her.
Creation will stop dead, and we will urge
You not to add one more line to this dirge.”
“I’d much prefer to stop,” I say. “I told
De Sade as much. But I point-blank refuse
To let this tweeter heckle, barrack, scold,
And daily shame us all. Why should he abuse
The English language, and fail to uphold
The rules of grammar? I cannot excuse
Someone so slovenly and full of shit.
My answer to him? Flood the zone with wit.”
“Who’d disagree?” La Dowd offers a shrug.
“Where is the flood? I only see a trickle.
I’d love to frolic, even cut a rug,
If you my funny bone managed to tickle.
Yet you dispense a sleep-inducing drug,
Or, Death-like, sweep your undiscerning sickle
To cut down any joy raising its head
Above the fields of drabness that you’ve spread.
“Where are the giggles, snorts, unending mirth
That we assumed you might present your flock?
Why is your badinage strangled at birth?
Why does each wisecrack go off at half-cock?
Why do your flights of fancy plunge to earth
And promising ideas conclude with schlock?
It’s so, so disappointing and deflating
To read verse that is so debilitating.”
“I don’t recall these promises you mention,”
I tell Ms. Maureen. “Isn’t it enough
To title it an opus of dissension,
And not what you’ve desired: a piece of fluff?
It might not be the acme of invention,
But is it justifiable to be rough
On someone who has tried so very hard
To make a decent fist of being a bard?”
“Oh, boo hoo hoo! I’ve no need for such whining,
At least this thing is coming to an end . . .
Should Biden win. The sun will keep on shining
Whether you write or not, though—Heav’n forfend—
You find another source for your opining
And drive your loyal reader round the bend.
Please, promise me you’ll stick to a haiku,
Or, if you must, a clerihew or two.”
Ms. Dowd, the faithless hack, recedes and fades:
I thought, at least, she would admire my graft
(The English kind). However, she upbraids
Me for my lack of talent, skill, and craft.
I’ve had more than enough of these tirades—
No badinage (pshaw!), a sleeping draught
(For shame!). I’ve half a mind to drop my pen
And not lift it until I don’t know when.
“Is that a promise?” asks François-Marie
Arouet, more familiarly Voltaire.
“Pardon, m’sieur, a bit of levity
To break the mood of pity and despair
That seems to have fallen on you. You can be
Assured I won’t be that rude, will take care
To balance lightness with a needed weight
That honors these days’ psychoses and hate.
“I understand your worry for November,
It has ‘an end of days’ texture about it.
The other side feel just the same, remember:
Preparing to resist the norm, or flout it.
If such a stand-off goes into December
Then who can tell where we will head? I doubt it
Will come to this, but, trust me, the solution
Is not to instigate a revolution.
“Hold fast to the belief this too will pass;
That people of good will outnumber those
Who worship at his altar; that the mass
Of ordinary voters will disclose
That they have had enough, and that his crass
And cruel misbehavior they oppose
And will cast him from office. If you keep
Your faith in them, then what he’s sown he’ll reap.
“I don’t say this as some doe-eyed romantic,
I fear the threat and power of the mob
Enflamed by the elites. Nor sycophantic:
For any working stiff or high-toned snob
Can claim the moral high ground. Life is frantic,
Democracy a vexing, messy job:
But mess is better than a shiny lie—
I know for which one I’d prepare to die.
“And if you fail, why—then you organize again.
You work much harder, make more calls, and rally;
Take to the streets, in sun, snow, hail, or rain.
Don’t mope, despair, fret, brood, or shilly-shally:
Gather the forces for the next campaign,
And fortify yourself for the finale.
If you should find the citizens have spoken
Not in your favor: look ahead, unbroken.”
Canto XI:November 2020
Is that the sound of chortling that I hear?
Are shiny happy people in the street?
Are church bells tintinnabulating cheer?
Is that tap-tap the jig of dancing feet?
Are radiant smiles bursting from ear to ear,
Do pumping hearts pump to a joyous beat?
In this dark tunnel can we see the light?
At last, is the end of this work in sight?
Has Bliss returned? Is Merriment in town?
Does Pleasure sit in glory on her seat?
Has Celebration upturned every frown?
Is Misery encountering defeat?
Has Victory slipped on an evening gown
And hurried to the presidential suite
Where Power will indulge every caprice
She has, for she’s concocted his surcease.
Thank you, Detroit; all praise to you, Atlanta.
Pittsburgh and Philly, Pa.: we salute you.
Scottsdale and Tucson, you’re the Secret Santa,
Bestowing new GOP votes to boot. You,
Yes you, Grand Rapids, Flint—to you, I grant a
Big, wet, fat kiss (wherever it may suit you).
We folk of Blue Land owe you a long hug
For helping to defenestrate this thug.
We are not worthy, Reno and Savannah;
Hail, Phoenix—you have raised us from the ashes.
Clap hands, Eau Claire, Wisconsin: sing Hosanna!
And Athens, at you I bat my eyelashes.
From the Red River to the Susquehanna
Let cataracts of praise flow, while he gnashes
His teeth in fury, rants, and has a fit:
It will not help him in the slightest bit!
Brooklyn had fallen into a deep funk,
Oakland was shaken, Austin on its knees.
Cleveland had yearned to purge the little punk,
And Baltimore had been reduced to pleas.
Boston was scared and Manhattan had drunk
The bitter dregs; Portland was ill at ease,
And Sacramento fretted. Would he fall?
Or would the Democrats falter and stall?
Asheville had lost its vigor, zest, and vim;
And Santa Cruz and Buffalo were vexed.
Des Moines had glimpsed the future (it was grim),
And Cedar Rapids feared what might come next.
Topeka sensed the odds were still quite slim
Despite the polls—and panicked: Were they hexed?
As Burlington began to chant “Om Shanti,”
Montgomery prayed—and so did Ypsilanti.
Los Angeles and San Fran had the vapors,
Hartford and Wilmington were feeling sick;
Chicago was preparing final papers,
Denver and Boulder trembled to the quick;
From studio apartments to skyscrapers,
We urbanites were scared this lunatic
Would win another term, and that the offender
Would grind this fragile country in the blender.
Eugene and Richmond held their breath; white-knuckled,
Harvard, P’town, and Wellesley could not look.
Milwaukee and Las Cruces almost buckled;
Fresno and San Diego felt forsook.
Concord, Aspen, and Reno might have chuckled
If they’d crept out of their protective nook
To recognize that Destiny decreed
He wouldn’t win, and Biden would succeed!
For from each burb and borough in this land
The ballots flowed in—early voting rocked!
A hundred million strong: a mighty hand,
Lifted its middle finger and bemocked
His balderdash on winning, took a stand,
And told him firmly: “The vote won’t be docked.”
We stood in line, we mailed them in, we showed up:
And five days later the result was sewed up.
The congregations mobilized: the crowd
Of registrants, the letter-writing throng,
The cold-callers—not one of them was cowed
To urge folks to step up. Each freedom song,
Each Zoom call, pledge: the left and right flanks plowed
A single furrow: to chant a “So long”
To him who’d harrowed everybody’s soul.
Together, focused, we have reached our goal.
The postal workers labored round the clock,
The poll officials counted every vote.
How diligent they were! Though he might block
And slander, they kept on, did not emote
Or freak. Americans are hardy stock
Who love their country, though he will scapegoat
Any who question his outrageous acts:
They will not be deterred; they deal in facts.
Who would have thought that merely doing your job
Would be a revolutionary act?
How being honest would make the First Slob
Call you seditious? Who wants to be attacked
For being honest by the alt-right mob?
Who wants to be responsible, then sacked
By someone lazy and corrupt, who thinks
That Covid is best tackled on the links?
But work they did. Black women—we’re amazed
At what you have accomplished in this fight.
You rolled your sleeves up while white folk were dazed,
And got the job done. You cut through the shite,
Picked Biden (though he’s old and white), weren’t fazed
By all the flagrant nonsense on the right
And left, and stayed at it. You led the way
Toward a brighter dawn and better day.
We’ve held our breath for four long years, we’ve kept
Hoping we’d be avenged and he would go.
We’ve heard the midnight clocks chime, have not slept,
Dreading the news, and not wanting to know
What he has done or said—bad or inept.
But now we have an end date to this: though,
He won’t acknowledge he’s lost the election;
Instead, he fosters lies and misdirection.
However he protests, you hear the hiss
From his balloon—that bag full of hot air;
That fug-inflated sac; that mix of priss,
Self-hate, and hunger pricked beyond repair—
Begin to crumple. It has come to this:
A pimple popped; a walking mal de mer.
It slowly weakens, fading by degrees,
Exuding negligence, meanness, and sleaze.
“How sweet it is!” crow Glee and Merriment,
“I thought this day would never, ever come.
I thought he’d find a way to circumvent
The country’s will, or find some depths to plumb
He hadn’t tried yet. We were almost spent:
And yet we’ve said, ‘Enough to this pond scum!’
Now we can add a title to the abuser,
Beyond perv, liar, fraud, goon, con—that’s loser!
“How richly he deserved to be defeated,”
Laughs Schadenfreude: “Justice will be done.
Judgment, we hope, is swift, and will be meted
Out mercilessly—since he has shown none.
Let ruthlessness confront him, for he’s treated
Us all without compunction from Day One.
He will no longer be this nation’s bruiser,
Instead, he’ll be a friendless, lonely loser.”
“The edifice will soon begin to crumble,”
Speaks Retribution. “Buttresses will fall.
The yes-men and enablers will tumble
Over themselves to sell him out. For all
Transactions will be forfeited, the humble
Executor of wrong will point and call
Him out for what he’s done, and each accuser
Will Christen him with what he hates most: Loser.”
“Who wouldn’t for a second thirst to gloat?”
Smirks Payback: “Watch the wicked wizard melt?”
“Who wouldn’t yearn to squeeze him by the throat
For every pussy that he’s grabbed and felt?
Who wouldn’t itch to ‘show’ him (quote unquote)
Quite what we think, and how revenge is spelt?
This unhinged egotist, this people-user,
This varlet, knave, and mountebank: this LOSER!”
“I should, of course, be generous and meek,”
Intones Compassion, “but I can’t be . . . yet.
“I hope he will atone and mercy seek,
But let him twist a bit. I can’t forget
What he’s done to the helpless or the weak.
So, let him walk in their shoes. Let him sweat
And recognize his faults, as a refuser
Of blame for his misdeeds, the frigging loser!”
“What will she do with him now he is down?”
Snark giggles. “I’d take him for every cent.
Who’d spend a second more with this fat clown,
When you could cash in? Who’d join the descent
Into his crazy Xanadu? The crown
Has slipped and fallen: what would now prevent
Her from a lush divorce? It might amuse her:
To snatch Barron from him, now he’s a loser.”
“How rich to observe Fox News eating its crow,”
Snaps Ire. “Tucker sunk; Ingraham peeved.
They rode their nag as far as he would go,
Mouthed bullshit they themselves never believed.
He will betray each mouthpiece as, aggrieved,
He sets up his own network. Then they’ll know
How fake each one is: autocracy’s schmoozers.
What unifies them all? They’re simply losers.”
“Hold, not so fast,” cries Havoc. “It’s not ended.”
“Don’t count your chickens,” scoff Chaos and Riot.
“You may suppose the future’s looking splendid,”
Warns Crisis, “and that what awaits is quiet.
But your conclusions need to be amended,
For any scent of failure, he’ll deny it:
Sow discord; stir hate; spread misinformation—
In order to foment a usurpation.”
“Don’t fuss, I wouldn’t underestimate,”
Adds Politics, “that when push comes to shove,
The institutions of the nation state
Can pointedly remove the velvet glove,
And let a malefactor—small or great—
Sense intimately what force from above
Can do to someone underneath. He’ll find
That fantasy and truth are not aligned.”
“He’s not conceding,” whimpers Decency,
“He’s stating he was robbed, the election stolen.”
“He’s acting very irresponsibly,”
Sniffs Pedantry. “Who did you envisage: Solon?”
Scorn chortles. “It’s just him! Defeat will be
Much more delicious when his rancid, swollen,
And bruised ego’s deflated, and he goes:
For go he will—despite his bluff and pose.”
“I almost want him to remain,” grins Malice.
“Inauguration Day—he will not shift.
The Secret Service grab him by the phallus,
Take each two flabby arms and legs, and lift
Him up. He screams, ‘I will not leave the palace!’
They stuff his mouth with cotton; in short shrift
They ‘escort him from the building,’ while he brays,
Threatening to set the entire world ablaze.”
“He’ll sue,” announces Justice, “to confuse
And hold up confirmation of his losses.
“He’ll claim that Biden’s win is mere fake news
Promoted by the Deep State’s secret bosses.
“He’ll go for broke; he’s nothing left to lose;
He wants to be a martyr—and his cross is
Held up by scores of millions in this land
Who worship him, and lend him a free hand.”
“There are no limits to which he’ll not go,”
The Cynic shrugs. “Once he’s a citizen
The law will pounce, but it will be for show.
He’ll threaten insurrection, and the men
With guns will take the streets. The threats will grow,
The State will back away—as it did when
The Bundys waved their weapons: demonstrating
That with armed white men there is no debating.”
“What happened to the Democratic Senate?”
Asks Policy, “No hope of a majority.
It was the pundit class’s well-worn tenet,
And Dems took it as a divine authority
That turnout would be in their favor, when it
Proved false. Instead, the G.O.P.’s priority
To stick with him proved wise. He turned out votes
No matter (or because) he gets our goats.”
“What will you do now that he is no more?”
Responds Compunction. “You’ll have to adjust.
Or recognize at last how blind and poor
Your comprehension of those who could trust
Him twice was. You cannot skirt or ignore
Such verities forever. Your disgust
Has turned you into a drunk bore, a boozer.
I’d say that it’s a toss-up who’s the loser.”
Canto XII: December 2020
It’s said, “For everything, there is a season,”
A time to plant, a time to reap, and so on.
Ecclesiastes’ words provide the reason
Why that man and the GOP still throw on
The peoples’ vote the cold water of treason
To overturn the election; and they blow on
The embers of secession and defection,
Because they don’t like Joe Biden’s election.
They want to help the Loser let off steam—
A padded room where he can rant and rail:At how the RINOs let him down; Supreme
Court picks lacked courage; how deceit, betrayal,
Conspiracy, and fraud from the “lamestream”
Media and pols ran rampant. He will wail
And pass through stages of denial—then leave,
Giving himself the space and time to grieve.
I say, Let him to Florida to brood
Forever with his flacks and devotees.
Let them fill out his days and soothe his mood;
Bolster, placate, massage, and strive to please
Their brittle C-in-C. Let them collude
In keeping up the fantasy, and tease
The final threads until he wakes one day
To tell them that his fury’s gone away.
Let them say he was never understood;
That he was, and remains, too maverick;
His enemies were bad. Him? Far too good
(Let them remind him). Wasn’t some dumb hick.
He shook the Deep State to its knees; he should
(Preach it!) have torn it up. One final kick
Would have destroyed it and made him the chief.
Let this be matter for his daily brief.
Let him sit scowling on his gilded throne,
Urging some jester forward to amuse him.
Or pace about his room at night, alone,
Enraged that Destiny should so abuse him.
Or spend his hours hanging on the phone
With the unfortunate few who can’t refuse him,
Because they’re caught so deep in his disgrace
They’re not welcome in any other place.
I hope not one playmate will think he’s awesome;
May contractors pull projects from his list;
May erstwhile partners on the links play possum;
And when he phones, let messages be missed.
May folks be less and less afraid to cross him,
His force each day much easier to resist;
His Twitter feed collapse when he is banned;
A solitary citizen—unmanned.
Let him receive no invite to their fest,
Leaving him stuck with NASCAR and gun shows.
May he lose the willpower to get dressed;
Flounder in bed, surrounded by Fritos
And soda. Let him lounge in sweats, depressed,
And shout at the TV. Should he impose
A party and the A-listers decline,
Let him compel Ivanka watch him dine.
Who’ll have him on TV to spout his lies?
Who’ll watch the sad man spout conspiracies?
What speeches could he give that would disguise
The threadbare understanding, expertise,
And blanket prejudices? Who’d devise
A gala or an honor that would please
Recipients or donors with him present,
When he’s so boring, vulgar, and unpleasant.
Let him consider (Gollum in his cave)
On how they tricked and “stole” his precious ring?
That it was his; he won it. Thus, a slave
To his desire to prove himself, he’ll cling
To what cannot be his. It will deprave
Him more each passing day, and it will wring
Him till he’s but a wraith to the belief
That Joe Biden is a dishonest thief.
Melania will flee to the damp attic
That sits atop the long and winding stair,
Her time to flee approaching. Half-ecstatic,
She dreams of when he wakes and she’s not there.
Now she has no need to be diplomatic,
It’s no surprise at how she doesn’t care:
She has the keys to where the stash is hid.
She’ll get what she wants: income and the kid.
Javanka will discover they’re cold-shouldered,
By “good friends” as transactional as them.
The ripe-for-picking Big Apple has moldered:
Their only home now SiriusXM.
Where once their brands were hot, now they’ll be soldered
To cut-price, Chinese knock-offs; every gem
Be hocked to keep MacDaddy out of jail:
So much for Twenty-Sixteen’s fairytale.
What will remain? Just sycophants, bootlickers,
And opportunists clinging to the wrack
That he has run aground. Oh, how their knickers
Were twisted when bad tweets he and his claque
Were sent their way! These infantile nose-pickers
Received his snot and ate it as a snack.
I hope that throttling noose they’ll never sever.
And won’t be able to escape him. Ever.
Four years of venom coming to a head,
Four years of nihilistic self-regard;
Four years of doing what he could to shred
Every compact and law; four years of charred
Landscapes, eroded norms. And in their stead,
A gunky dump of lies, mistrust, and scarred
Relationships. How can it be repaired
While he remains, and so many are scared?
Too scared to face the past or meet the future,
Too into nuts and nonsense to withstand;
Too busy opening wounds to sew a suture,
Too eager to slap down than lend a hand;
Too comfortable with this conman and moocher
To honor truth and save the motherland.
If they can’t have it all, confront their fears:
They’ll bring the whole thing down around our ears.
Too deep in hate, too lost to boogaloo,
In hock to mongerers of paranoia.
Enthusiastic sponsors of a coup:
These anarchists in suits sought to destroy a
Flawed but functioning state so they could screw
The liberal order and instead employ a
Corrupt and anti-democratic spammer;
A Trojan horse, malware, a bot, and scammer.
Collective madness! Neurotic delusion!
Perpetual belief invasion’s coming.
Reds under every bed! Chaos, confusion!
Blacks in the suburbs (no doubt bongo drumming)!
Implanted microchips and home intrusion!
Aliens among us! Cubans in the plumbing!
Hofstadter’s ghost still haunts this nation state:
Each era changes which beast’s at which gate.
Perhaps I might be accused of the same thing,
In shouting that our polity’s at stake.
For each of us can cry, “Let them all swing,”
And in so doing call the other’s fake.
And when we take the pledge, or stand and sing:
We hymn an anthem out of which we make
Our own beliefs superior, and our memes
The dominant expressors of its dreams.
Maybe the lesson of this sordid story
Is not the hucksters, peddlers, or the crooks.
It’s not the seekers of the flash of glory,
The penny pundits, cookers of the books.
It’s not the outraged, drunk on the furore:
The lunatics who, flushed out of their nooks,
Spin fantasies of globalized collusion,
In order to make sense of their confusion.
It’s not even three hundred thousand dead
That’s turned us into frenzied partisans.
Or those who thought that Liberty had fled
When asked to don a mask. Or that man’s stans,
Who thought it magic he could super-spread
And not get sick himself: those die-hard fans
Who nonetheless found dying wasn’t hard
Once they saw Covid wasn’t a canard.
It’s not the anti-vaxxers or the birthers,
Conspiracists, dark webbers, and incels;
It’s not the lizard people or flat-earthers;
The QAnon crowd, those who find Roswells
On every map; or the dastardly murthers
People accuse the Clintons of. The spells
And barcode numbers, frenzied hocus-pocus:
These should not be the subjects of our focus.
Instead, let’s celebrate those, in their work,
Who kept us living—cleaned and scrubbed and toiled:
The motorman, the nurse, the shipping clerk.
As this year’s rolling tragedy uncoiled,
The ordinary people didn’t shirk
From rolling up their sleeves. They were not roiled
By pieties, faux fury, or vulgarians:
Bugs don’t have time or patience for sectarians.
And what about the secretaries of state
Who were not fazed, bludgeoned, bullied, or cowed
By Proud Boys or the would-be potentate,
No matter what he tweeted or avowed?
They didn’t bluster or pontificate.
They honored democratic norms, endowed
This sorry time with dignity and honor.
As a result, this president’s a goner.
The electors, too, were stirred but were not shaken:
They did their duty, voted for their slate.
They didn’t Sidney Powell’s Kraken waken,
Grandstand, or otherwise ingratiate
Themselves to Forty-Five. They had a stake in
The process being fair, free, and sedate.
Faithless they weren’t: and I say good be on them!
The weight of this sad time was much upon them!
These bulwarks still sustain the USA,
Thrashed by three tempests he’s cooked or set free.
One is the Russian hack that’s underway,
Which has infected many an agency.
Yet he denies it’s Russia—will not say
What everyone but him apparently
Distinguishes as truth. He simply can’t
Evade suspicion that he is a plant.
The second is that every day the deaths
Outnumber Pearl Harbor and Nine-Eleven.
When so many are drawing final breaths,
You’d think he’d say or do something to leaven
The soul. Instead, besieged, he apes Macbeth’s
Final sad maundering. And, thus, weeps heaven:
That people die, and all this president
Can offer is a self-involved lament.
The third is that he still will not concede;
Still yammers on about conspiracies,
Considers martial law, sends out a screed
Each day on Twitter. Of course, hell will freeze
Over before he’ll say he lost. We’ll bleed
Because this virulent, man-made disease
Is so sick of self-love that he’ll infect
The Constitution he’s sworn to protect.
The crazy thing is there are two vaccines!
He could have mourned, and then have simply stated
That, though he lost, he set in train the means
For their arrival; could have celebrated,
And wept it was too late—but that the scenes
Of mass death would fade, and that we weren’t fated
To be this way forever. In such fashion,
He’d show some grace, humility, compassion.
But he won’t change. He’s always been completely
The man he is: no secrets, no disguises,
No subtleties, no brilliant plan discreetly
In operation. No major surprises
Except the folly that we think he’ll fleetly
Depart the stage. Each utterance chastises
Our naïve hopes that he will be a leader
Instead of a crass, peevish bottom-feeder.
And so we end the bad year: Twenty-Twenty.
A man without a character has bled us.
We thought we had it good, but there was plenty
To warn us that it mattered where he led us.
The institutions buckled; To the extent he
Lost, he so nearly won, and almost sped us
Into a brick wall. But we hit the break,
And pulled up inches short. We’re now awake!
Awake (I hope) to demagogic charmers,
To anarchists within the GOP.
To those who want to obfuscate or harm us,
Under the guise of white posterity.
The retrogressives who’d like to embalm us,
Not recognizing that we now can see
That when they say they only want to MAGA.
They’ll kidnap Lady Liberty and gag her.
Just three weeks left until he’s gone (we pray),
And Marine One lifts off the White House lawn.
Three weeks before he starts to fade away,
The stain departs, the poison’s slowly drawn
Out of the body. No need to, each day,
Open your eyes to him and his foul spawn.
Instead, we’ll face a country torn apart,
Half-dead, and with a barely beating heart.
Canto XIII: January 2021
Somehow, it’s obvious we’re in this place:
Mob violence and death and insurrection.
Of course, he’d violate, mug, and deface
The Constitution and question the election.
We knew his followers lived in the space
Between a myth and fraud, the intersection
Where whiteness mates with fascism, and festers;
And “terrorists” are equal to “protestors.”
He’d signaled an uprising in the weeks
Before it reached its dreadful apogee.
This president foments each time he speaks,
And now was only special by degree.
The FBI announced the fiends and freaks
Declared war, and had focused on DC
As their Fort Sumter. He was but the fuse
(Along with Hawley, Hyde-Smith, Scott, and Cruz).
And (duh!) it had to be foul and chaotic:
Part riot and part wacky cavalcade
Of misfit mischief-makers—a neurotic
Mélange of hate, an insane masquerade
Of clownish horror tied to a despotic
Incompetent; a ghastly promenade
Of every doltish meme of right-wing pap;
A putsch half Visigoth, half Spinal Tap.
In many ways, it was the culmination
Of all that I have charted in this book:
The farce, the animus, the mad fixation
Upon this quitter, conman, fraud, and crook;
Debasement of our public goods, prostration
Of weak and callow yes-men; those who took
Him as a god or king, urged on the mob
Who would not brook another in the job.
Thus, white supremacism was laid bare;
The Master Race unmasked and undeterred.
The alt-right hipster, dweeb in underwear;
The would-be tribune helmeted and furred;
The camo guy; the thick-neck with no hair;
The skinny gamer; incel and the nerd:
The curdled cream of this Aryan Nation:
All gathered to protect civilization.
They brought their phones and streamed themselves online,
Determined to display their great virtue.
Result? These part-time hoodlums will consign
Themselves to prison when the Feds are through
Combing the videos. Oh, they will whine
And plead they were just watching. Let them stew!
Let them experience what they most hate
The force and majesty of the “Deep State.”
And, yes, we knew the president would cave
When he said he would join them in the fight.
Instead, he watched TV (How strong! How brave!
How much he loves them! Oh, what a white knight!)
He’s now shucking them off, and with a wave
He’s kissing them goodbye. And he’ll rewrite
What happened to disown each fervent fan
(What principles! What strength! Oh, what a man!)
This was not hidden; it was always there:
The cultivated outrage, vitriol,
And enmity he stoked; threat in the air,
Mixed with a toxic scorn and cortisol;
The stupid giddiness and love affair
With ideology as aerosol:
The costumed posturing, guns on display,
The camp of strut and fist for Judgment Day.
These hordes weren’t dispossessed, forlorn, downtrodden,
Or disadvantaged. No! These bleary-eyed,
Deep-webbed, entitled, barefaced, grievance-sodden
And traitorous insurgents were allied
With anti-Semites, QAnon: each odd ’un
Floating in make-believe and amplified
By that one man: the master of delusion,
Prince of perversion, caliph of confusion.
In his last days, this shah of shit has crapped
On everything this country has held dear.
His nauseating egotism, wrapped
In cowardice, venality, and fear,
Has strangled any decency, knee-capped
Officials who supported him. His mere
Jowled visage is enough to leave one sick;
His patter: joyless, rambling, reckless shtick.
He’s never cared about the USA,
Or anyone but him. He has betrayed
Those closest to him, and he’s let decay
The best of what we are. He has displayed
No honesty or scruple, found a way
To ruin all he touches, and degrade
Us in the eyes of good friends and of foes:
He’s taken us to the profoundest lows.
Were we bamboozled? Were we fooled? Misled?
Were we blindsided, ambushed, or surprised?
Did this wolf suddenly his sheepskin shed?
Was he a sinner as a saint disguised?
Was it a sleight of hand or trick instead?
Did he expurgate what he advertised?
Of course not! From the outset he was frank,
And yet we took it as a kind of prank.
His crass dissimulation was explicit;
His cruelty and meanness unconcealed.
His many misdeeds may have been illicit,
But he refused to hide them. He free-wheeled
Dishonesty and then he would dismiss it
As “fake” when it was called out. He appealed
To what is basest, and he never hid it.
If he denied it, then it’s sure he did it.
Some of us saw him quite for what he was,
Yet did not do enough to stop his rise.
Too many of us justified the cause
As nobler than the man, and that the prize
Was worth a lack of soul, his breaking laws,
And isolation. I do hope our eyes
Are open now: and that in this unveiling
We see how monumental was our failing.
Some of us dreamed he was the Second Coming
Anointed him our darling in devotion.
Did they not notice he was always thumbing
His nose at them? His endless self-promotion?
It was so clear he felt that he was slumming
When at his rallies. Try this simple notion:
Do you believe he’ll hang with MAGA folk
When he is out of office? What a joke!
The RNC hoped voters would reject him;
The rubes imagined he was on their side.
The Dems assumed the Volk would not elect him;
The media loved his ratings and let slide
His awfulness. Pundits did not respect him
Enough to recognize when he’d deride
The organs of a free state that he meant it,
And, therefore, they did nothing to prevent it.
So, like the proverbial frog, we blithely squatted
As water heated up, and seethed around us.
We assumed that norms would hold and hadn’t rotted
Under his toxic rule. Subversion found us
Complacently conceiving that we’d swatted
Away the militants. And so they bound us
That day upon a wheel that we had made:
And we discovered we were sore afraid.
Each time we’ve reached the point of no return,
We think that we’ve pulled back, found higher ground.
In fact, we have retreated, salved the burn,
But still the inferno rages; and we’ve wound
The rope more tightly. Will we ever learn
That those who try to sink us must be drowned
Lest they try more? He has contaminated
Us all; his power should be eradicated.
Impeached again! The only president
Who’s managed to achieve that dubious goal.
He’ll brush it off, cry foul, try to present
It as a partisan witch hunt. The toll
Was greater than last year, for in dissent
Ten GOP reps voted “Yes.” A soul
Of any man so charged would quail and shriek.
Oh wait! I now recall of whom I speak.
De Sade said I should welcome disarray;
That satirists need mayhem, amorality,
To prove the human being come the day
Will rapidly assume feral brutality
As our natural state. The mind holds sway
Only so far, he says: sin and venality
Will out: the rich and powerful can play with it;
The poor and weak will never get away with it.
I’ve argued with him for four years, still hoping
That he’s not right: that truth and justice win.
And that his clan, who’ve thrived by rope-a-doping,
Will at last meet their match; that they’ll begin
To see what they have done, and, far from moping,
Will seek amends for every wretched sin
They have committed. Or they’ll face the fury
Of jury after jury after jury.
After this month, aren’t smooth Ivanka’s branding
And silent Jared’s parsing up in smoke?
Aren’t Don Jr., Eric, and wives now standing
Among the ruins? Soon, they’ll be a joke—
A squabbling posse as they are disbanding.
Recriminations lurk. In one swift stroke
Their father slices off each pretty head:
As far they’re concerned, the future’s dead.
Who’ll greet them now in Aspen or in Vale?
Who’ll join them shopping on Rodeo Drive,
Or Paris, London, Dubai, or Israel?
Who’d want a room or handbag they contrive
To thrust upon consumers? Who’d bewail
Their fate if they went bankrupt or spent five
Good years in Yankton, sewing postal sacks?
Who’d weep if they paid billions in back tax?
Not me, for one: Let them get the cold shoulder,
Lament unto their audience of clods;
Let them grow poorer, sadder, weaker, older,
Shaking their fists at the unfaithful gods.
Let them become obscure, or slowly molder
Into fat gamblers playing with the odds
On tables in casinos: easy marks
Desperate for cash; impoverished by sharks.
Perhaps they’ll slip their anchors and set sail
For foreign shores, say China or Kuwait,
Where scruples aren’t so rigid; or avail
Themselves of Rio or the River Plate;
Or somewhere far beyond the moral pale
Where mobsters go to die. Let them berate
Each other for their failures and their graft.
I hope their homes are badly understaffed.
But I’m not optimistic. He may run again,
Unless he is impeached and then convicted.
I can’t believe that he would find it fun again,
I’d hope his family would be conflicted.
God, he might even win, be Number One again,
And what revenge he’d wreak! How unrestricted
He’d think he was against the status quo.
What little that remains would quickly go.
I hope before then some palsy will grab him,
The courts will send him rapidly to jail.
Perhaps some lunatic will shoot or stab him
Or mug him or subject him to blackmail.
Maybe, like Al Capone, the Feds will nab him
On some weak, minor charge—but that the bail
Will ruin him. I wish for him to sit
In prison until he is sick of it.
And yet, I worry that this putsch will be
The Munich Beer Hall, and in a decade
He’ll rise again and this time we will see
The Reichstag fire. This living hand grenade
Will overturn the state, democracy,
And liberty; the elites and mob persuade
That he’s the savior; and thereby create
A Nazi state to Make America Great.
Or if not him, then someone younger, smarter:
A fascist plausible and smooth of tongue.
Someone who doesn’t have to play the martyr;
Who’s thicker-skinned and not so easily stung.
More disciplined and ruthless than a Tatar;
Who speaks the language of the lowest rung,
But satisfies the oligarchs he needs
To keep him safe and ensure he succeeds.
Is this decade the Weimar interstice:
A fractured flowering of art and pleasure?
Of governmental weakness, freedom, vice,
Boundaries broken, laxity, and leisure?
Will we one day distinguish the precise
Moment that we arrived at the last measure
When jazz morphed into Triumph of the Will,
And we were forced to pay the total bill?
Does that await? Until then, bruised and battered,
We start a new administration, mourn
Five hundred thousand dead, a country shattered.
So much was lost, so many are forlorn:
Did all of this occur because he flattered
Himself he could play president, and scorn
Those who did not believe him? If so, how
High was the price! And where do we go now?