(Written toward the end of the Vietnam War.)
No longer troubling to charm, curt,
without cadence, they bark their lies,
impatient of our credulity,
like teachers who repeat the lesson
for idiots stuck on the first page.
They pity themselves, complain
our stupidity forces them to lie,
and say, Why can’t we do as we please?
Their guile, complaints, their greediness.
Capable of nurture only, we
are like mothers, we nourish them,
believe what they say and repeat it
for one another, knowing the while
credulity isn’t enough
and something not easy is required,
a pretense of intelligence,
a sacrifice, a faith they could believe
worthy of their treachery, worth
betraying. It is adversaries they crave,
and what lies we think we hear are
higher truths we have overheard.
the children sitting in a ring, we take up
the papers, speak aloud the pathos
and mystery of our leaders’ lives.
Alone, in dark chambers, in ordinary-
seeming chairs, at the innermost recession
of a thousand thoughts, they reach decisions,
while wives bring warmth and grace and wit
(we venerate their warmth and grace and wit)
when they are tired or under the weather,
servants trot softly in the hallways
with urgent whispers, vehement faces,
and only with the utmost diffidence
their dogs roll over — lips in rictus,
eyes alert, little paws held up like sticks
— begging to have their bellies scratched.
To know this is a constant pleasure!
Then, to move our coarse fingers along the lines,
over the inscrutable words, to murmur their names,
to feel ourselves becoming more human,
to draw close about the fire!
At such moments,
overcome by shame for our clamorous natures,
we look down, our eyes seek out the children,
we see their small heads, unimaginably
like ours, bent above the pages, the furious
concentration that grips their innocent,
unblemished faces, their minds that leap ahead
to seize the ending before the tale is done.
This generation, we say to ourselves,
They will be different, They will be better!
Powerfully, they bend our eyebeams to themselves
— we see, we feel them bending within
our unbreakable domestic circle.
This is awesome, this is more than sweet.
And what would life be without affection!
— it is our solace, our achievement,
it is the language we speak.
It says that everything is true.
And truly, as we disbelieve less, the world
becomes miraculous beyond believing,
though less a place requiring us, less, at last,
The thought of our nonentity,
the world without us, this large bare ball
flying empty into the empty day,
is stunning, takes our breath, like something
intimate and alien, like a knife
in the lungs.
Our leaders chide us,
for sentimental, for living in others,
but can they guess our helplessness?
We break another stick from the ramparts
and thrust it on the fire set blazing
by all the power of our affection
— and another necessary lie comes
quiet from the matterless night, settles
panting beside us, warms a bloody muzzle
between paws, snuggles down toward sleep.
So everything ends, like this, near a fire
in silence and wonder, our fingers idly
soothing a murderer’s nape, and somewhere
out there, a last bitter scream doesn’t stop.
They don’t bother stifling it,
even with a lie.
My family tree is mist and darkness.
Century after century,
one lay upon the other begetting me.
Then my millennium in marshes
and wandering obscurity
revealed my heritage:
monster, I lack immortality,
my race is superfluous on earth.
The last, the final generation
–after me no other, or someone else —
I lay down on top of death.
We keep our appointments with fate,
even if fate does not;
though no one came to kill me, I died.
I the ghost that begot.
My tree is night and fog.
Strange to be remembering how
—was it twenty-odd years ago?—
you drew back from one of our kisses,
your head turning half away so that
I saw in our bedroom’s half light
your lovely profile and eye staring
out toward and into a passing thought.
Then all of half your mouth to mine again
with overwhelmed gentleness.
We both were overwhelmed and pulled under.
Strange suddenly to remember this
after so many, many kisses,
after such years of rupturing.
Caught in our archaic caresses
(you know, that same old, old thing):
a space of five seconds of fresh time,
when nothing was happening
and nothing was happening yet.
And I now its voluptuary.
Not the god, though it might have been,
savoring some notion of me
and exciting the cloud where he was hidden
with impetuous thunder
strokes of summoning
it was merely you who recognized me,
speaking my name in such a tone
I knew you had been thinking it
a long, long time, and now revealed yourself
in this way. Because of this, suddenly
who I was was precious to me.
To move forward with the world, to be
in time with time … is innocence.
For a thousand miles the wave keeps pace,
strokes smoothly on in phase with force,
at one with the festive crowd
and one of its joyous more and more;
it buoys itself and drives ahead,
renews in the trough the power it
expends at the crest, shape it then
surpasses and leaves to lapse behind.
I love my innocence, it chants,
see my transparence, I have nothing to hide,
therefore, I cannot ever die;
my existence is benign, the air
I breathe is borrowed from no one;
the drowning see my breath, and smile
— except the evil, whose badness starves them,
monsters, they merit their bulging eyes.
I bask and sing, am smooth and shine.
The figure in the wave, kneeling, half dazed,
half drowned, battering its head on the ground,
lifted and pushed forward inches, chokes
and blusters into the water running down…
Out of time, sea-sick, sucking
the slack scum between wave and wave, here
is when you discover in the reflux
the theme of age: the falsity of innocence
— your every breath an act of power,
you live to injure, survive by murder;
while you were lethal, you were innocent;
floundering in the raging slop,
powerless now, you grasp the fact of power.
Your lung half bitter broth, you blurt:
Existence is my enemy, my life
attacks me; my past, maimed and vengeful,
returns in a wave, is heaving inside me;
my retching rises to possess me — the dead,
large with my past power, overpower me.
Grievance is death usurping my throat,
is death already speaking out as me.
— And you struggle to spit it all out,
you struggle not to go under, struggle
to assent to indeed go under as
an equal who negotiates with death.