April 18, 2020
Our James has on his secret service suit,
Black with black tie, and little dangly ear piece;
He strolls around the house, as if at ease,
Then suddenly, unprompted, pulls his gun
And sends a Nerf dart shooting through the air.
He’s got good aim. He’s tagged me in the throat
Before, and more than once has stung my ear lobe
While my back’s turned, and set me crying out,
“What did I do?” as if there were an answer.
We catch the footage coming out of Lansing;
The honking train of cars that fill the streets
And spread out—sort of—people with their signs,
Protesting quarantine. But what exactly?
Notices posted in the stores declare
A ban on sales of garden tools and seed,
Which seems a bleak and ominous restraint.
The ghost of Roscoe Filburn stirs the darkness
Of his Ohio boneyard, and heads north
To seek revenge at last, his spirit planting
Itself in all those souls with flags and Trump signs.
How vile indeed it seems to tell a people
It may not grow its food and feed itself.
Perhaps, however, they are just afraid
That liquor will be banned and breweries fail,
Or looking for excuse to go outside.
The president chimes in on cue, of course,
Endorsing all the clamor. Then the press,
Hearing the bell he wears around his neck,
Summoning them to dinner, pass their day
Debating and attacking all his words.
My Lord, it’s like they cannot stop themselves.
And he, up at the rostrum every day,
Reciting unrehearsed but scripted comments
In such a soporific drone, we think
His mind is elsewhere: limbering for the spat
Set to ensue the moment he extends
A finger, tilts his head, to take a question.
Why is it that he says the things he does?
The theories range from rank malevolence
To just a wicked, prankish sense of humor.
Whatever else, it’s certain he takes pleasure
In sparring with that den of those who hate him,
And every thought that passes through his mind
Will do the trick as well as any other,
To hold out, wriggling, for their eyes, like meat.
The other night, I took a call from students.
They’d read The Waste Land as a group and wanted
To learn exactly what it meant. It seemed
A pile of foreign lines and gibberish
To them, though here and there, as with the stones
Handsel and Gretel scattered in the woods,
They sensed a pale white gleaming in the moonlight
As if some inner brilliance were drawn out
And almost made a path for them to follow.
How strange, that father in the fairy tale;
That he should leave his children in the forest,
And then return home, sulking in his tears.
Why is it that we do the things we do?
Why write a poem whose lines are blasted trenches?
They find it as disordered as the market,
In Wuhan, where the fish are stacked on ice
And stare with lidless eyes at dangling meat hooks
Where chops hang, brushing shoulders in midair;
Or on red plastic tubs of chicken livers,
On grey bins where the small crabs stretch their claws.
Desires, Thomas Hobbes writes, are but motions,
Secreted, writhing rhythms in the heart
That work their way out from our inner meat,
As does a splinter, till it shows itself.
The misery of humankind is rooted
In this. Our appetites are all obscured,
Don’t tell themselves behind our poker faces
Until we act—and then, it is too late.
The boy has ripped the dolly from his sister;
The mugger’s got a knife against your throat;
The army has already laid its siege
About the city, with its canons aimed
Upon the store house, where, they cannot know,
The sacks of wheat and corn are running low.
A person’s not a mystery, just opaque.
To see into our hearts is little different
Than breaking rock. We open up the darkness
And find inside the belly of the stone,
More stone, identical, and dull, and cold.
That’s what Hobbes tells us, anyway. And seeing
Our public spectacles, one may incline
To grant the point, to boil all things down
To stimuli and reflexes, as if
Psychology and billiard balls both ran
On the same mechanistic principles.
Just like the virus then, and we begin
To wonder where it started. Did it hatch
In some bright Wuhan lab, where all was clean
And clear and rational, and not the least
Bit interesting to us, until it sprang
Its foul parasite upon the world?
Some fellow pedals on his bicycle,
A sack of groceries dangling from the bars;
Some woman shakes the carpet from her stoop,
And stays to watch the dust descend on puddles
Left over from a night of sickly rain.
Some boy, a clutch of marbles in his fist,
And looking for the sun through morning mist,
Between half-finished buildings on his street,
Sees how the idle crane still bears its load,
A slanted girder drifting in the air;
He pauses, shuts both tearing eyes, and coughs.
-James Matthew Wilson