Poem For Personnel Managers

Photo by Lance Iversen for the San Francisco Chronicle: Panhandler Roy Gray, age 70, recalls the good old days in and around Howard Street at 3rd that also carried the nickname of Skid row. Today the area mostly consists of the Moscone Center, and upscale hotels and restaurants. Thursday May 7, 2009.

An old man asked me for a cigarette
and I carefully dealt out two.
“Been lookin’ for job. Gonna stand
in the sun and smoke.”

He was close to rags and rage
and he leaned against death.
It was a cold day, indeed, and trucks
loaded and heavy as old whores
banged and tangled on the streets…

We drop like planks from a rotting floor
as the world strives to unlock the bone
that weights its brain.
(God is a lonely place without steak.)

We are dying birds
we are sinking ships –
the world rocks down against us
and we
throw out our arms
and we
throw out our legs
like the death kiss of the centipede:
but they kindly snap our backs
and call our poison “politics.”

Well, we smoked, he and I – little men
nibbling fish-head thoughts…

All the horses do not come in,
and as you watch the lights of the jails
and hospitals wink on and out,
and men handle flags as carefully as babies,
remember this:

you are a great-gutted instrument of
heart and belly, carefully planned –
so if you take a plane for Savannah,
take the best plane;
or if you eat chicken on a rock,
make it a very special animal.
(You call it a bird; I call birds
flowers.)

And if you decide to kill somebody,
make it anybody and not somebody;
some men are made of more special, precious
parts: do not kill
if you will
a president or a King
or a man
behind a desk –
these have heavenly longitudes
enlightened attitudes.

If you decide,
take us
who stand and smoke and glower;
we are rusty with sadness and
feverish
with climbing broken ladders.

Take us:
we were never children
like your children.
We do not understand love songs
like your inamorata.

Our faces are cracked linoleum,
cracked through with the heavy, sure
feet of our masters.

We are shot through with carrot tops
and poppyseed and tilted grammar;
and waste days like mad blackbirds
and pray for alcoholic nights.
Our silk-sick human smiles wrap around
us like somebody else’s confetti:
we do not even belong to the Party.
We are a scene chalked-out with the
sick white brush of age.

We smoke, asleep as a dish of figs.
We smoke, as dead as fog.

Take us.

A bathtub murder
or something quick and bright; our names
in the papers.

Known, at last, for a moment
to millions of careless and grape-dull eyes
that hold themselves private
to only flicker and flame
at the poor cracker-barrel jibes
of their conceited, pampered
correct comedians.

Known, at last, for a moment,
as they will be known
and as you will be known
by an all-gray man on an all-gray horse
who sits and fondles a sword
longer than the night
longer than the mountain’s aching backbone
longer than all the cries
that have a-bombed up out of throats
and exploded in a newer, less-planned
land.

We smoke and the clouds do not notice us.
A cat walks by and shakes Shakespeare off of his back.
Tallow, tallow, candle like wax: our spines
are limp and our consciousness burns
guilelessly away
the remaining wick life has
doled out to us.

An old man asked me for a cigarette
and told me his troubles
and this
is what he said:
that Age was a crime
and that Pity picked up the marbles
and that Hatred picked up the
cash.

He might have been your father
or mine.

He might have been a sex-fiend
or a saint.

But whatever he was,
he was condemned
and we stood in the sun and
smoked
and looked around
in our leisure
to see who was next in
line.

Charles Bukowski
The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills (1969)

Photo by Lance Iversen for the San Francisco Chronicle: Panhandler Roy Gray, age 70, recalls the good old days in and around Howard Street at 3rd that also carried the nickname of Skid Row. Today the area mostly consists of the Moscone Center, and upscale hotels and restaurants. Thursday May 7, 2009.

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On Gun Control

Ad for toy machine gun, Little Folks Magazine, December 1918

Nobody really believes [the right to bear arms is] about maintaining a militia. It’s about having possession of a tool that makes a person feel powerful nearly to the point of exaltation. …I am not saying that people who love guns inordinately are unstable; I am saying that a gun is the most powerful device there is to accessorize the ego.

Alec Wilkinson
The Dark Presence of Guns
The New Yorker, 24 December 2012

Illustration from Little Folks Magazine, December 1918

Related: The Cultural Fight for Guns
.

This Is It

Gore Vidal, 1992

Because there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at galaxy’s edge, all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. Because there is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all.

Gore Vidal
Armageddon? (1987)
Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia

Casinoland

While small investors are left out

The Facebook offering illustrates one of Wall Street’s best-kept secrets: Securities firms are allowed to selectively confer with favored large investing clients about crucial information as they prepare IPOs, while small investors are left out.

Some Big Firms Got Facebook Warning, The Wall Street Journal, 24 May 2012

I mean, what do you think we’re doing out here in the middle of the desert?…It’s all been arranged just for us to get your money. That’s the truth about Las Vegas. We’re the only winners. The players don’t stand a chance.

Ace Rothstein (Robert DeNiro) in Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995)

Atoms and Void and Nothing Else

Road

The Roman historian Titus Livy likened history to a collection of “fine things to take as models” and “base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.” The contemporary American novelist John Crowley carries the thought another two thousand years along the road to who knows where, suggesting that “the past is the new future…its lessons not simple or singular, a big landscape of human possibility, generative, inexhaustible.”

Fortunately so. We have little else with which to build the future except the driftwood of the past, salvaging from the journey across the frontiers of the millennia what mankind has found to be useful or beautiful or true, on scraps of papyrus and bronze coins, in confessions voluntary and coerced, in five-act plays and three-part songs.

America’s Founding Fathers exploited the resource of history as diligently as their descendants exploited the lands and forests of the Ohio River Valley and the trans-Mississippi frontier. They framed their several envisionings of a republic (Hamilton’s and Franklin’s as well as those of Jefferson and Adams) on blueprints found in their readings of Livy, Cicero, Plutarch, and Seneca.

So in its turn the Italian Renaissance derived from the rediscovery of classical antiquity. The latter progression supplies the scholar Stephen Greenblatt with the premise for last year’s best-selling The Swerve, which accounts for the death and resurrection of On the Nature of Things, 7,400 lines of lyric but unrhymed verse composed by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus in the first century B.C. Greenblatt subtitles his book How the World Became Modern, attributing the metamorphosis in large part to the recovery of Lucretius’ poem in a German monastery in 1417 by Possio Bracciolini, Italian humanist, Vatican functionary, and apostolic scribe.

Lucretius had infused his poem with the thought of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher teaching his students in Athens in the fourth century B.C. that the purpose of life was the embrace of beauty and pleasure – that the elementary particles of matter (“the seeds of things”) are eternal. Everything that exists – the sun and the moon, waterflies, ziggurats, Mother and the flag – is made of atoms in motion, constantly colliding and combining with one another in an inexhaustible variety of form and substance. The universe consists of “atoms and void and nothing else.” No afterlife, no divine retribution or reward, nothing other than a vast turmoil of creation and destruction, the ceaseless making and remaking of despots and matinee idols.

To the modern mind atomic theory is old news, as it was to the schools of Stoic and Epicurean thought during the reign of Augustus Caesar. Christianity dispatched it to Hell, reconfiguring the pursuit of pleasure as sin, the meaning of life as pain. By recovering De rerum natura to the land of the living, pooling its resources with those dormant in the works of Ovid, Seneca, and Plato, the Renaissance redrafted the contract between man and nature, its embrace of truth as beauty and beauty as truth made manifest in the glory of its painting, sculpture, music, architecture, and literature. Over the course of the next six centuries Lucretius’ poem finds further development and expression in Machiavelli’s political theory, Montaigne’s essays, Shakespeare’s plays, Newton’s mathematics, and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

The circumstances at hand in the early years of the twenty-first century suggest that time is ripe for another redrafting of the contract between man and nature, with any luck of a magnitude comparable to the one that gave birth to the Renaissance. For the past fifty years it has been apparent to the lookouts on the watchtowers of Western civilization that the finite resources of the planet cannot accommodate either the promise or the theory of infinite growth – a.k.a. the American Dream. The simple arithmetic (too many people coming into the world, not enough water, oil, food, phosphorus) underwrites the vast landscape of trouble listed under the headings of worldwide environmental degradation and financial collapse. I read the relevant policy papers – on health, education, debt, poverty, homeland security, climate change, the extinction of species, the wars of all against all – and I notice that they tend toward a common awareness (dimly grasped but distinctly felt) that a global consumer society, if left to its own devices, must devour the earth. Not with malice aforethought, or as a matter of ideology, but because that is its métier – the scorpion that kills the frog on whose back it is crossing the river because it knows not what else to do.

The intimations of mortality lurking in the depths of the policy papers lead in turn to the recognition of the capitalist economy as an historical construct, and therefore, like a college reunion and the Colossus of Rhodes, a collision of atoms en route to recombination or the void. A story with a beginning (in sixteenth-century Holland), a middle (the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial revolutions in England and America), and an end (foreshadowed by the financial convulsions of the past twenty years at all points on the free-market compass). Sensing the approach of maybe something terrible slouching toward Wall Street to be born, the lookouts look for salvation in technologies as yet undreamed of by man or machine. My guess is that they’re looking in the wrong direction. To acknowledge the truth of the old Arab proverb that says we have less reason to fear what might happen tomorrow than to beware what happened yesterday is also to say that we have more reason to look to the past – history as the phoenix in the attic – for the hope of the future.

Lewis Lapham
Ignorance of Things Past
Harper’s Magazine, May 2012