This is the fourth volume of The Trumpiad. The third volume (Book the Third) is complete, and is available as a printed book, an ebook, and (shortly) an audiobook. If you need a refresher course to what happened in 2017, Book the First is available as a printed book, an ebook, and an audiobook, and Book the Second (for the year 2018) is likewise available as a printed book, an ebook, and audiobook. All proceeds for all three books after costs are split between Vine, a farmed animal sanctuary in Vermont, and New Alternatives NYC, an organization that helps transgendered homeless youth in New York City. If you don’t wish to purchase either volumes one, two, or three, you can read the twelve cantos for Book the Third on this page, Book the Second on this page, and Book the First on this page. There now follow the cantos of Book the Fourth.
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 I: January 2019
In epics, you will find a verse or two—
Amid the fight-scenes and the cavalcade
Of soldiers from both sides, whose derring-do
Is equaled by 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 battle’s done and dusted,
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 overmatched but ragged band
Who lived, 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 scars 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 dwell 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,
What he had 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 and be 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 clouds awaiting 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 moment 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 two-faced, 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. And 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’s he’s called: the silent, deadly 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 every vestment 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 eyes: 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 U.S. 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-time 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 likeable 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 plough 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 power
That people understandably confer
Respect upon the Office. “Come the hour,”
We comfort themselves, “come the man.” We blur
Our love of country with the fools who cower
And plot their own survival, each poseur
Who’s sat within the Oval Office, and 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 U.S., and that the funeral bell
Had been only 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. 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 2020,
Much as we comprehend 1913?
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 million 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, includes 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 fade away: 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?
When chills and sweating mean we cannot scoff
That somehow we were different or immune?
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 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 permission.
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 powers. 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 germaphobe 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 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, the 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 will 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, sitting room, or bunker
We scan the stats and hope that they decrease.
Meanwhile, the C-in-C, the Arch Debunker
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 2020.
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 omniprevalence 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 U.S. 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 U.S.’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 N.H.S. Their care,
He said at last, ensured he had a prayer.
Only Jacinda Arden 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 smoothe 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 and 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 I.C.U.
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 inhale—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 quiet 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’s that bled;
No pillow stained with tears; no bootless cries;
No halting voice, and surely no tears shed;
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 have 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 ’17, 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 U.S.A.’
Or pack their guns and point. Simply to shoot
Is the mere coup de grace 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 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 E.M.T—
Ensuring that you’ve adequate supplies
Of respirators, swabs, and P.P.E.
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 will 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 think N.Y.C.
A place of hope, or the N.Y.P.D.?
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
Canto VIII: August 2020
Canto IX: September 2020
Canto X: October 2020
Canto XI: November 2020
Canto XII: December 2020