Charlotte is late this month and it’s no surprise to me. Things haven’t been good for me lately but I can’t bring myself to write about them. It’s possible that I will one day because that’s what writers do. But for now it’s all too raw. Poetry seems the apposite form of expression but it’s too soon for that as well. Instead I will be posting some older poems, some published, some not. I have been writing poetry for many years but have been lax in trying to place them. The one today was published in Southerly a few years ago, and was written soon after Barack Obama was elected America’s president. The hope that remarkable event brought had me putting the political and personal together in a kind of verse autobiography. The disillusion that has followed Obama’s election has only deepened my conviction that change to the political economy that has dominated us, creating massive destruction to lives and threatening future ones, must eventually come.
On the Election of Barack Hussein Obama
This Chicago child
born some seventy years ago
with few great expectations.
There were red poppies
sold on blustery streets
but an ocean away
yellow stars on the horizon.
No, no great expectations.
The city was rebuilding
and that was good, and might
have been enough, but who could know?
Feet first – that was the way
to come. The only way to emerge
into that uncertain future.
Mother. Father. He might
have been from Kenya.
Under the Louis Sullivan towers
under the silos
the stench of the abattoirs
the yachts on the lake
and in the south of the city
the dives, the jazz.
A friend has a father
who lives there, a white
man selling milk.
And then there was the war in
the Pacific, California.
Japanese in camps,
sailors in seaside bars
and an ocean and a continent
away, the yellow stars.
There was a president
disabled, but no one saw
it that way, it was shy
with the cameras.
That, truth to say, might
have been the first time,
the first of our handicapped
presidents who prevailed.
Always something, always someone
to beam our hopes on
but some of them don’t fail.
Hands on our breasts, we repeated
the lines we inherited.
whoever spoke them gave them meaning
the sense away.
We hold these truths,
created equal. Happiness.
Not assured but promised,
a gunpoint, a flashpoint away.
On the giant screens before us
war was won and flags were raised.
Marines on Iwo Jima,
a giant cloud,
dust of fungus, spores of death,
arrested us in fear.
What would be the reprisal?
Now that the sun had fallen
could we have chased a bear?
Land of free, home of brave.
What images would free us?
Lone cowboys, the sheriff, Shane.
But who in Chicago could carry
a pistol in the open, snug
on a hip for all to see?
No, the strengths in Chicago
were elsewhere, in the hearts
of its poets: Sandburg, Algren.
And Terkel, long-lived Terkel,
and Bellow, Bellow too.
But there was that Pacific
and the spores of the cloud.
A long, loping stride on the ocean,
water-walking, and money
clanking in your pockets, and
those images on the screen,
and what to do with those poor boys,
the lines we repeated, chanting,
hands on breast.
And what about those breasts?
Breasts aplenty, harnessed,
torpedoed, but never bared.
Until, one night on Mulholland
or was it the ocean?
The night the grunion were running,
a beach of rubbers
some sights that were making their journey
up on the screen, and just to
confuse us, water coiling
round our ankles, then our necks.
A ship ploughs through the ocean
to the south side, the time when
a bald man puts on a golf cap
and a man with thick eyebrows
tests a tiny bomb.
Only a small one, and that in the desert,
the bald ferrous centre
of the land.
And then the water-walkers with
the cloaks light on their shoulders
yawn and stretch their fingers and
pointing again to the Pacific
take their leisure on the south side.
A penchant for that part
of the city but only for the jazz,
weakened in the water but they
have a nose for it and it’s there.
Frenzy then. A hardened resistance
from the soft-hearted, the woolly-headed.
A time for hirsuteness, and there on the screen
the zipped-up plastic, the loaves
of corpses. Long before in
Chicago’s aquarium, the fishes
drifted upwards and glassy eyes
stared back through the bubbles
and now blue-lit they fell on the carpet
swimming out of the picture,
and back in Chicago they stormed
the convention, paving the way
for Cambodia’s dead.
What memories of the cloud, the burning chemicals?
The rouged face, the carboned eyes washed clean.
Never again and now it was a grey world,
grunge world, dark and mean.
There are children, what children!
to shepherd through it, feet first,
careful footholds, houses, cheeky dogs.
And machines that eat plastic
and spit out money, and our vision
contracted to accommodate the screens.
A careful time when we gave away our money
to thieves in philosophers’ clothing
and our freedoms too. When before
the towers fell, before the hurricanes,
the scourge was underway.
And in Chicago a woman died
lonely on the lake where purple sharks
had drifted on the shores
smelling the blood that was there.
And even the body’s death was not enough
the mind and the soul, heart’s twins
died too. The angels, did they hover
wondering when to descend?
Facing death, joints stiffening,
a certain élan waning. Talents scattered,
the ferry her friend. So this is it,
the best of it, the quiet time,
and for the rest, perhaps a slow awakening.
A tiny apocalypse, no more
than a yearning,
but she’d almost forgotten Chicago.