Photo of Kwame Dawes (left): Andre Lambertson. Photo of John Kinsella (right): Tracy Ryan.
We arrive too early at the soiree. The still sober
guests loiter around. The light is amber,
true, but the glow on skins is alabaster, this before
the rouging of wine and gin—and then the crickets
begin their cacophony of the pundits.
The hosts offer a brimming cup, I sip and feel
the warmth of giddiness—Lorna does not notice,
so I whisper, “Remember, you are driving” as if
we are ever boozers, we the Christian pair.
By nine o’clock I feel to shuck and jive,
while boyish R-, the Zoologist, with his perfected
shame, apologizes nineteen times
for the sins of his ancestors—the Birmingham
grandfather with his chirping of nigger,
the slaveholding Dutch and the Kansas
tribe. “Be thankful for John Brown he was
one of us.  Took a white man to bring on
the Civil War; a Midwestern soul, one of us.”
He palms my scalp: “How smooth, he says,”
for luck, I suppose. And mine is the art of the papal
edict: Go and sin no more.  These days
I meditate on the poetry of Christ on the cross,
quoting old poets as clues to a universe.
That “forsake” line was not the end of it all,
but the throwback to a psalm of calamitous
                    The sky is clean for days, so
the geese barking over the neighborhood
is a comfort—see them in tiny squads,
uneven lines slipping over the blue.
this is for you, friend. “Our sins give us shape—
teach us the art of character—how we can
learn righteousness.  Of course, most sins
seem trivial in the face of bloodshed,
and soon the word sin smacks of a surety
we will never truly have.” We are blind men
tapping our way by inches, at least
that is what old Stevens said, and in fragments
he manages this kind of genius, and in this
small snippet, we can find some comfort.
“No more, soirees,” I tell Lorna, as we
cross Highway 2. “Cyaan tek dis burden
no more. Eli eli lama sabachthani?
You will note, I trust, the irony of my lament.
But of course, but of course, but of course, bien sûr
A Figurative Essay
      for Marjorie Perloff
What we say is where we say.
What we say is how we say,
What we say is why we say.
What is said fluctuates.
I am wondering why the Bogardus
Social Distance Scale can’t work
but why it can operate as metaphor.
I am thinking over the failure
of the three unities: all place
as disruption, all time as collapsing,
and all action as a set of consequences,
some of which will contradict
intention. Bogardus offered this
cumulative score card, this set
of questions to discern, to map:
As close relatives by marriage
As my close personal friends
As neighbours on the same street
As co-workers in the same occupation
As citizens in my country
As non-citizen visitors in my country
Would exclude from entry into my country.
Blood and soil and rights to spill.
I changed the spelling of ‘neighbors’
to ‘neighbours’ because of familiarity,
though I lived on & off in Ohio
for many years. The ‘u’ is not part
of Ohioan English. I look for a Roman
poet to work away from, as I have
done with Ovid in Exile, Virgil
in the Underworld, Horace in his
embroilment with praising the emperor.
Patronage. All of us eternally outside
and unable to belong, wonder
if it’s worth throwing our lots in,
trying to join up. I wonder
about that inversion designed
for ‘white’ appeasement and comfort
in Eastwood’s Grand Torino where
Walt Kowalski (Polish American)
tells the pretty fly for a white guy
guy that he wouldn’t expect the black guy
gangbanger stereotypes to want him
either. This, Marjorie, is where
words out of context are deployed
by audiences doing the survey.
We say things when we’re tired
and caught off-guard and have been
the victims of concepts, but they
become indelible. The weight
of words. It’s why I won’t deploy
‘denigrate’ in this poem,
and why ‘avant-garde’ can be
taken down — shock troops so many
want to be part of without knowing.
I read of Juvenal and the dumping
of the muses — do we look further
than his ‘Jews’, his blame game?
All that cloud worship? Victim,
victimised, victimisation.
The inevitable: where I come from.
Bumping shoulders. Calling out.
On whose land I dwell — damaged,
repairing, calling oneself a custodian
as if waiting will rectify? The fact
of red-capped robins intensifying
a season, my absence when the mistletoe-
bird picks the gelatinous orbit
around a seed, or the wattle-seed
itself — the fruit of the host — ground to flour
in the season of burning. Absence.
And so context shifts. I watch
home via photo essays, I read snippets.
My brother the shearer visits.
The Guru watches over. My mother
photographs. Dzu phones her daughters
in Malaysia. I ask for manuscripts
stored on a shelf to be typed up
for my book with Charmaine —
against mining, against COLONIALISM.
I am against what I come out of.
There is no comparison. Is there
juxtaposition? The killing by colour.
Deaths in custody. There is.
Marjorie, you tell me of those last
trains out of Austria and the family
member who went back for wrong
reasons. She doesn’t deserve.
She didn’t deserve. Deserve. Deserve
to serve death. She didn’t. Murderers!
Killing fields its slippages into the montage
of history to dilute down from being
there. As in our cultural allotments
we can’t reach across, mis-say but mean
well. To absolve themselves some
will come with righteous agendas
to cover their own pain. This is
part of it. It — trigger word
of modernity. It. Not you or me
or us, but it. Remember the film?
Conversation transcribed
is a reinvention of tonality,
and even the playing back
of a recording removes
atmospheric context. Clouds.
One has to have been there,
move towards resolution,
rather than use it as a weapon.
A cultural space you are not
part of and cannot be part of?
How to undo, restate. The
repetition of kangaroos in my
Jam Tree Gully work — they are there,
and then shooters come, and they are not.
They and it. The it is deleted. They
covers — myriad of sins. Conflation.
You are too inside America
and have now become polarised
in the debate, and thus whatever
you say is going to be played
back against you. Too much
of the debate is centred on making
America great for all, rather
than deconstructing the concept
into parts that show that any
projection of power is going
to bring internal prejudice
and bigotry whilst holding
the carrot of ‘you can be part of this’.
I have seen so many clouds
of late. So many. Whereas (I hear)
Jam Tree Gully suffers from cloudlessness.
What we say is where we say.
What we say is how we say,
What we say is why we say.
What is said fluctuates.
I know what you are saying.
I am away from the original
conversations. I am glad Tarantino
marches against police
violence, the selectivity
of killing. But I know that
his films exploit. I know that
violence as entertainment
is not resistance to violence.
I know that Chuck D is right
regarding Elvis. And that he
is wrong, too. Break binaries,
it is a peaceful act to step
away. I have survived on stop,
think, act. When out of control,
I regret speech, writing, metaphor.
Snippets reinvented to suit occasions —
acts disrespectful to a victim’s integrity —
the words we have made: body, carcass,
flesh, identity, love-hate (a tattoo), prayer.
It makes it no less a crime
to kill someone who is not ‘perfect’
(or even far from perfect), and
creating false ‘saints’ diminishes
a cause. Perfect etymology. Real person
and real corpse and real consequences
nothing to with ‘saints’ or ‘sinners’,
with theories or art. Brutal fucking reality.
Always peripheral, belonging
to no community, having no centre
of debate, I noted many non-African-American
Americans seem to want Africa out
of the African-American equation. ‘Black
American’ is tolerated — ‘American’ is the totality
of national identity. Reality deployed.
Here, rivalries over DNA. Patents. Words. Tolerated.
            Fear as bunting.
Anita Heiss wrote a poem that goes,
‘I am not racist, but…’ She has stood
by her identity. What it has cost.
It is not economics. It’s presence.
Where you are, I have been— It gets down
to brass tacks, thumbscrews, a generic
love of guns, love of uniforms, a desperate
desire to hold the Union together
while confederate romanticism
lingers like fumes out of rotting vegetation.
For some. Summa cum laude. Tolerance levels.
I am inside and out. Inside out.
Now, I write from the Cambridge fens.
UP NORTH, floods have wiped away,
or sandbagged — belonging. Some locals
will stay resolute, others leave for higher ground.
They will have different backgrounds.
Different origins. Difference. Différance.
I won’t edit that out. That’s what I mean.
Place is altered — we are all part
of the immensity of the event.
All culpable. And not. Water is blood.
The body politic, the body earth.
‘French revolution.’ ‘American revolution.’
Pat sayings — what we take to suit ourselves.
Or the fire ravaging remnant southern forests.
Or displaced, finding the mass graves
of ancestors in Ireland. And yet
part is English too. And even
American. Segments. I who have no nation
but have ‘country’, and not even
that concept is mine. I live on borrowings.
From my exile I see your goodwill,
I despair when people hunt others down.
Outing has killed. Let people speak
in their own terms. Let people speak.
            Silence no one.
What we say is where we say.
What we say is how we say,
What we say is why we say.
What is said changes.
I have been searching the sky these last few days
as if looking for an ending.  Today, there was barking,
yet the sky was empty.  It was a single creature
barking, and I searched the sky hoping to find
just one last goose, a kind of rear guard, the one
who straggles in case anyone is hurt or has lost
its way.  But the sky was empty.  Still, I blame my sight,
for the dog kept looking up, yanking on the leash
as if she, too, wanted to follow.  In my head these days
I am constructing plots—sometimes I am infested
with the art of fiction. I grow fatigued by poetry.
And while I find little solace in fiction, I still find
it healthy for my brain to pile plot upon plot, to hear
voices quarreling in my head, and I pretend to myself
to take notes.  Here is one: there is a character
in a series I have been watching for a week—a kind
of orgy of betrayals.  For days my body carries
that strange sickness of someone who has been hurt
relentlessly, mercilessly; and my body is waiting
for the retribution all stories need, but it never comes,
and each day, I list her betrayals—they are legion.
Then in the final scene of the final episode, she falls
into a coma, while the world festers with resentment.
This is a curious cruelty.  I believe that people who make
such art are the geniuses who advise politicians—
they know how to make plots filled with desire
and longing, but the healing never comes, and this
is a kind of art.  Your man Flannagan from Tasmania
tried to say something like that, something about
how poets, too, can be brutal, something about how
we are not one thing, we are many, and we can make
beauty, and we can make the ugliness of life.  I am
supposed to agree, but I know that for all my
self-deprecation about the poet—“Oh we are not special,
we are just the ones who learned the craft,”—I know
there is more—a kind of capacity for regret, for lamentation,
for human feeling. History is the history of humans.
The poet who murders is a failed poet,
and maybe it is true that all poets are failed oracles,
but some failures are more abject than others, surely.
I will deny this if asked, but will say it here: “This.
That which we do, it is sacred.” We are not arrowing ahead.
We are, instead, the rearguard, rounding up the jetsam
and the dizzy stragglers.  And when we get there
(which we will, make no mistake), we will have stitched
such lovely elegies to correct and comfort the tribe
in whatever stick-less land we light upon.