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Sub Divo (in revision, as of April 13, 2011)

After 69CE

—The empire no longer the plaything of the Julio-Claudians, his eyes on the future health of the state and its finances, the unpopular Galba adopted Piso Licianus—


And Galba was murdered, hacked to bits.
And Piso was hauled out of sanctuary, finished off.
The empire proceeded on its merry way.
Mayhem presided, the odd moment of decency.
And then men like us, civil, inoffensive sceptics,
Bottom’s up, and to your health, old sport,
Over the course of a few corrosive centuries,
Drank our wine like it was so much sunset
Verse, and one by one, faded from the picture.

Comrades in Arms

Shall we, Eric, rate the chances
  Of the platypus and the cuttlefish?
  What odds, their survival on this earth?

How about your loopy aunts,
  The unconscious cruelties of their dottiness
  Made concrete in moon-bathed cellars, you
           The spiritual heir of Arsenic and Old Lace?

But perhaps you’ve wearied of such pokes at your person,
  The kind that invite farce into the sitting-parlour,
  That parts the working man from his union,
  That elevates the thinking man with his Rilke
  To the Board of Directors and
           Terrible beauties are spewed.

Otherwise, I hardly know where to begin,
  My attempts to write something fine unmanned
  By lack of conviction, as if I, too, were born
  A stand-up comic, laugh-lines my shovel and pick,
  And it’s not so much a ditch that’s dug but ruin.

You, I suppose, see the myriad poisons
As beautiful, as austere in their pristinities
  As those gardens of marble, fig and moon
           In which Caesar’s daughter showed some leg.

(Your spell in purgatory will be long, I fear,
           All that classical baggage to freight—)

In the meantime, your pension’s busted:
  You’re having to work past prime,
  The banks, the power brokers playing
  All ends against the middle, our old alma mater the U.S.A. squeezed,
  Never mind you’re squirrelled away in London town,
  Poet, scholar, bon vivant, and you mutter a lot,
           And life’s fuss and bother, and then you die.

Still, much is permitted, and it’s go, go, go, and go some more,
  So that a suburban muse, right-wing diva-lass,
  Be she empowered or plain old wife,
  Wears a pale peignoir with such flair
  That she’s a priestess, martini tumblers
           Sacred to her, the swimming pool Avernus.

                  —You wouldn’t mind a rumble with this dish.
                  No more liberal babes for whom poetry is just
                  One career option among others, the birds flying over flying dead—

And all those Gatsbys bloated with ironies -
  Those mobsters, senators, go-betweeners
  Of the American way of literary greatness? They just keep rubbing
  Their golden toilets, their golden parachutes
           To sufficient lustres—
        
W here does this leave you and I?
Sometimes in restive sleep I've seen us
  Dodging bullets hard by Antietam Creek,
  Heaven and hell but regional offices for a vast consortium—

But to give you a rest, and God knows you need one,
  Is there anyone else around whom I might mug,
  Someone worth the effort of cheap platitudes,
  Pro forma regrets, some comic put-up job? No?
And all that despair in so many lovely girls,
  All that sweet funk of theirs going to waste—

Whirling Dervishes

I recommend nothing and you recommend less,
Just that we might make of our toes whirling dervishes
If we’re pressed, and honour the serapeum like so,
As did the fathers of our fathers,
As will the children of our children,
Human to be born into human rigmarole.

Still, what indolent souls we are, Eric,
Presidential in our ideals, Caesars otherwise,
Sleek pashas of cushions, of deep, ruby clarets,
Patriots to nothing more than states of mind.
"Faith," you say, even so.

So faith then, and by faith you would maintain
As when Theophilus barked. Man, did he bark, and down crashed
The exotic deities - rats swarmed out of those hollow spaces
As a thick dust was raised, and the sky fell
On a faith superceded, the wretches of which cowered a while
And then snapped to, to a new round of imperatives.
Event-horizon!

(In light of which both God and Newton’s apple have had
Their innings,—and even that science which explains it all,
Our natures, too, even as it drags us by our scruffs
                       to the unsullied promise of the stars,
                                           will know obsolescence
           by the time we’ve booked bed and breakfast
                  on Saturn’s Enceladus, which is a moon.)

Yet, what’s with our noses that still we sniff
Messalina’s musk, and the bones of imposters that have slept
The sleep of martyrs in cold crypts, the incense, the smoke and mirrors of
Byzantine salons, not to mention the stainless steel excellence
Of our modern mentations, as we were enlightened once,
                       and perhaps we recall the signal occasions:
           how we doodled Phyllophaga bugs, beetles to you,
                         in our notebooks, and indulged other acts
Of direct observation? For we know, so much so,
                                      we may believe we know
That every unmade error, every blown superstition of pedigree
May easily enough lead to yet more horrors, more abbatoirs
                                                       for that flesh somewhere
That always inhabits mistaken spirit.

Eric, this thinking precludes
Plucking grapes at lesiure from lustrous bowls,
Is too arduous a business for lying about
On gilded couches, for the breeze-wafted attars
Of the marbled chamber, for glinty and ironic eyes, for all the true sympathies,
And it only bores the darlings who prefer to unassailable truth
                                   diversions that pass the time pleasantly
                                                                   as well they should.

But here I stall out. I leave to you what thoughts
May bulk up behind that capacious brow of yours,
Should I manage to find you ready, willing and able,
Not somnolent and loathe to do more than wave
At a forest of shadows that we ourselves spawned,
Creeping torward us with its commentary.

Brot und Wein

Eric, you rhymester, heavy-lifter of mind,
  As I innocently enough passed by the Azar
  In a hot breeze, as I considered dining there some evening,
  Packing wine to the place, two old biddies on its terrasse,
  Each one of those ephemeral dears a hand-painted photograph
  Of some cruel but delicate era, spun my head with the perfume
           They wore.

They brought me anchorites, brought Theodaras
  And the God-crazed, sex-crazed, horse-crazed crowds
  Of a capital, and I blinked and I trembled:
           As easy as this to walk along unhinged.

Eric, you outsized cherub, and you may as well have been
  The accidental love child
  Of a flapper and a Heideggerian,
  You tipsy before you even slipped your momma’s womb
  On being and time, on Dasein, as it were, on hereness
  And thereness, and God knows what – the Charleston
                                      and petting parties? – for once
  I myself, most worldly creature, had compassion for
  Those men and women who’d trundle off
  To live on bugs and sleep in caves and roam
           The heavens and hells of fevered dreams.

And why not? What dream, though it be bizarre fruit,
  Denies a dreamer his hot-house redeemer?
                     Brot und Wein? Ja oder nein?

You waggler, Eric, of finger and toe, you couch-rider
  And contemplative, what with your inner cave art, your Chauvet cinema –
  Those charcoal horses, the half-woman half-buffalo god -
  Perhaps you, too, harbour a soft-heart
  For the fools who would extricate
  Their madness from a world berserk,
  For no other reason than to spite
  The ruling class, to twit the middle class (what’s left of it)
  For its torpors and hysterias, to snub the underbelly
  For the vulgarities of vulgar time it craves too much,
  Yes, as if religion had anything to do with non-compliance
           Or some values-quest on a spiritual plane.

But then, stage spectacle, and here’s Theodara, legs spread,
  And here are geese pecking at her privates,
  And she’s quite the complicated entity: actress, empress, feminist,
  Woman of God, pornographer, and it’s her persuasion
           That brings extinction to an army of rebels in the hippodrome.

And we’re right there, aren’t we, you love-thief,
  You acolyte of Venus, you foot-soldier of Hypnos –
  We’re there getting our fill of spectacle, rubbing shoulders
           With butcher, baker and candlestick maker.

And because everyone loves parades and carnivals and fancies
  And such, we remark on the scene and we wonder how long
                                              (suspect intellectuals that we are)
  Before we’re rounded up, eyes hot-pokered out,
           And slapped into chains for the rest of our lives?
In other words, we haven’t the stomach for the solitudes
  Of hermits, and yet, we can’t pretend it’s anything other than a peep-show –
           Rule and being ruled, we poets addicted to the world.

Our True Temper

The annunciating angel asleep at the switch,
You pencilled in for another age, some other heist,
I say to you we change and we stand as we are,
  Ever the same, dauntless circus idiots,
  Ever the light on our feet Fred Astaires of
  Creamy, moonlit waltzes the wives adore
           When life goes swimmingly.

So then we crooners of sweet-nothings and sundry goods –
  Pensive products of pensive mind, jagged thrusts of heart
  Such as swell fictions like fermenting fruit
  Will swell a crock – we prepare our coffins, and,
  As we know ourselves as perishable items,
  Or as we resist and hold fast, we cherish
           The battles and hate the wars.

One takes stock, one comprehends
  One has laboured and one has thought
           And who cares? That Carnegie Hall sleight-of-hand?
Better to bellow at frogs in April rain and convince a pond
           Than suffer praise hymns for all the wrong reasons.

Nonetheless, you Golden Child, you mature delinquent
  Waggling gnarled up fingers and toes, you fashion plate
  Of gaudy bow-ties, star-spangled cummerbunds,
  In your dreams you not only go humbly barefoot
  To the White House, you kickback in a trailer park
           Such as bivouacs petty need. Yes, why do more when less is more
           In affairs of randiness and making rhymes? And yet,

  You’ll careen, because bored, at light speed through
  Cause and effect and the ideas that have had us
  By the short hairs—Better to lie about drunk, yes, sheepish and damned,
  Than to chair a department or change human nature.
No need to gainsay this, sir,
Spiritual inanition our true temper.

And The Dead Move On

Comrade, you’re a patriot
  Of a country that no longer exists
  Save at barbecues that pilfery funds
  By way of hijacked tax revenues,
  Of a people who no longer stammer
  As endearingly as Jimmy Stewart,
  You American in Pimlico,
  You snubbed by Pimlicoans,
  You superior to them who are
  Part living dead, part Druid, and we,
           We haven’t even got to the poets, yet.

Let Hawking the cosmologist hawk his wares,
  His soup tin tenor acquainting us
  With tomorrow’s tenure,—
  The only event-horizons that maintain your interest,
  Speaking of singularities and waves and Euclid,
  Are the promise of her thighs, the steady-state smile,
                            the unfathomable eyes of a terrorist
                                  who could have sex on the brain
                                                    but more likely seeks
                                           a leg up in the culture wars.
                                                  But where was I? Ah, yes.

Eric, put yourself back in your child’s mind
           When you were not yet a man-child—
Do you not see how it was,
  How mother-love and father-love availed you little,
  As, of a sudden, the universe gaped,—ravenous maw
  Ate galaxies, ate lilies, gulped salamanders
  And Studebakers, swallowed entire
  West and east Beirut and all of Iowa
           In a waking dream?

There you were, a rubber-kneed miscreant.
(You will have had an accident in your shorts.)

There you were, expecting punishment.
Bewildering then – mom’s tinkling laughter,
  Your distress her comic relief, so much so, that as you looked
  Into the grim eyes of God, you didn’t fade,
  Just that the sky disappeared, even the idea of sky,
  And the trees and flowers and grasses and the family pooch,
  Some hulking, guardian mountain at the limits
           Of human dominion – poof, all gone.

And yet, in the way one played at cowboys and Indians
  And put up with the incongruous laughter of a mother
  And the larking of playmates,
  One has spent the rest of one’s life so far
  Resurrecting presences, even their evils as when
  Rebels are lynched in the shade of oaks
  And Christ, like Shakespeare, is subject
           To seminars, the hunt on
           For the meaning of our mystery smiles.

For yes, new breeds of barfly will swill new concoctions
  And assuage fresh rounds of prejudice.
  And then, that elderly Roman there
  On the via Giancinto Carini, he’ll have occasion to stoop,
  To inspect pavement, and how grand
  The immensity of that dog loaf, one worthy
           Of a triumphal arch.

We’ll have ourselves new rights and wrongs
  Such as draw missiles, shells and bullets,
  Just as weddings bring flowers,
  Just as funerals attract bouquets.
  And yet another horror passes
           And the dead move on.

Doom Past Cure

Lunar, what with the heat and the girls in dresses,
  What with the beer and the salted nuts,
  The terrasse biblical and pagan in the dark of the evening,
  As some ancient towns had been – like Antioch,
  My friend Labrosse was bewildered,—he was glassy-eyed
  Who figured he knew it all and knew his limits,
           And how it’s gone and where it’s headed, he in his 67th year.

But if a mature body had heart for mamselles
  And would frolic with them and fool around
  And drink in a somewhat pedantic manner,
  A mature mind couldn’t overlook
  Panic in the eyes of happy women:
           So many good works in the heart-sack of a man.

For Labrosse the unbeliever was bending back in his mind
  To the old religion he never really relinquished:
  The necking, the petting, the kisses galore,
  René Lévesque and Pierre Trudeau, Firebirds with shiny wheels,
  Camus and lakeside cabins, his deepest thoughts on these subjects
           Charmingly slurred.

Well, the girls who attended to Labrosse last night
  And suffered their favourite man-child without complaint,
  Might save us, yet, their worlds, in any case, offering them
  Pleasant viewing, their worlds wide picture windows
  Through which they have only to step and shiver
  To the thrill of touches exotic and familiar:
  Infatuation, heartbreak and the cold realities of the cold hand
           Of the market place.

Their eyes spoke yes to the give and take
  Of boy-girl affections, bare shoulders sumptuously
  Inviolate, bare toes innocent of killing fields
           And slush funds and who knows what.
           A pretty picture, one almost true.

But enough. You, Lunar, you continue listless.
I, without hope, read Greek tragedies.
And bad goes to worse and love’s a word
  One oughtn’t discount or lavishly praise
  While the atoms dance, while we strap on
  Each our harness of necessity as those atoms lark,
           And doom arrives as deliverance.

Yankee Boy in Baseball Gear

Can you stand to hear it, Eric, how
                                                        the yankee boy in baseball gear,
  His mitt dangling from the handlebar,
  Pedalled the bike through the potato field
           Under the thunder cloud? How he was on the way to the army base
  From Wallstadt where he lived, ancient town that curdled the nose
                                                        with coal and sour milk and beer,
                                                   with pigshit, with sweet confections,
                                                                      and the nitrous odour of
                                                                              war bride bitterness
                                                     not far from Heidelberg, near Mannheim
                                                               that was terror-bombed in ’41?

He was, just then, in unsupervised time,
  An independent agent of the occupation, so much so
  They were seeing a vision – those old women of loamy acreage,
                                                      beasts of burden, friendly hags
                                                      of toothless and cracked smiles.

It had rained, and the precocious boy,
                                                             knowing as he did
                                    (even before he could hardly know)
  That it was a lesson in Roman history, his being there,
  That it was Germania, willed that the sun should shine
  As he loved the game of baseball, was aching to play, that evening,
  Hoping against hope there’d be no rainout,
             the parents quarrelling, father drunk
          who’d love one and all and everybody
                and Mario Lanza, good time tenor.

. And the women, somewhat tickled
  With the boy’s presumption, for all that he was an American
                                                who could boss the sun around,
  Were amused, smiles all the more cracked and pungent.
(Simple agricultural spirits, hey, Eric, and this not so long
  After the horrors of the war?)

In their voluminous skirts,
  Scarfed and aproned, they were
                                                hunkered to the sod,
                                                                           so many sunflowers there,
  As if they themselves were the products of a seed,
  Black earth tangy from rain, the light of the sun
  Straining to gain purchase, the boy in league with the rainbow's
          Glimmer.

Some of the women raised their arms
                                                    to this their hierophany of a lad,
And he, he may as well have been Adonis for
  All those weathered faces, crones whose inner imps
                              were Aphrodites of a river’s plain.

Too much the narrative for you – the words above?
As if Tacitus and The Katzenjammer Kids were of the same
  Mind, not to mention the hangover, the regrets
           In light of history’s most destructive conflict—

Even so, the memory of it now and then
  Rears up from where memories bide their time
  Patiently, in anticipation of doing their worst,
  And what was now simply is: a pastoral, a piece
  Of bucolic legerdemain, as were you and your outback
           And the smell of ozone after a storm.


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