April 22, 2020
The dome of clouds above us rests in silence,
And silent rest the roads and parking lots,
The surging rush of motors gone, surrendering
The emptiness to one low, constant growl
Of wind that roves about like dogs turned feral.
You join them, those who linger in the dim
Gray atmosphere and stand in tape-marked squares,
With coats and gloves, and masks upon the face.
You wait to be admitted to the store.
The eyes, retired and blank, look toward the clerk
Whose handset crackles with the next directive.
The skin grows moist with breath beneath its wrappings.
And, once inside, you fill your cart with milk
And bread, and follow arrows on the floor,
To trudge the narrow aisles, back and forth.
A gray-haired woman and her escort brush
Against you and it’s instinct to recoil,
To stare at one another half a moment,
Uncomprehending, not sure what to do,
Your voices muffled and expressions masked.
You think, what are they carrying within?
You think, contamination’s on my sleeve.
And then think, how ridiculous we are,
And turn off, down the aisle with the tea cakes.
Years ago, we already felt this loss
Of trust that leaves one staring at one’s neighbor
As either an indifference or a threat.
And that was when we still could see their faces;
Now, we’re like Cheshire cats, but in reverse,
Our thoughts concealed by disappearing mouths.
Each night, a janitor from Chester rides
Two buses and a train on his commute.
Within the crush of fellow passengers,
He keeps a tube of sanitizer propped
Upon his lap, as if a talisman,
And runs an antiseptic wipe across
The seat, each time the person next to him
Descends into the blind of city lights.
And then, at dawn, he does it all again,
On edge and waiting to get home and shower.
I’ve heard some people speak of empathy
As if it were the sterling of all virtues,
And talk of reading novels as a way
To build compassion, make the brutal kind,
Forgiving what we cannot understand,
As if the act of dramatizing pain
Were one with our desire to lessen it.
A taste for literature can soften hearts,
Such persons sometimes say, before they cast
Their eyes with cold disgust on anyone
Who does not share their generous convictions.
I thought of this the other night, while reading
Some pages from a book by Matthew Arnold.
He claims indeed that culture raises up
The soul above its petty class and interests,
Refines it of cliché and prejudice,
Enlightens it to see the truth of things,
And draws it from the mire toward perfection.
He argues this with such exasperation
At those buffoons who will not hear his meaning,
Those philistines who snarl from crabbed kirk pulpits;
Barbarians who sit with drowsy eyelids
In mannered silence through his speech, and offer
A brief, indifferent, “Quite,” before they turn
To tap a spoon against their hardboiled egg.
He must have felt his lambchop whiskered jaw
Wear out, at last, sweet eloquence with rage,
To see his reason’s light leave all unmoved.
Barbarians will remain barbarians still,
And philistines still fumble with their hymn book,
While counting out their profits from the mill.
Perhaps, a gospel of mere empathy
Is not the panacea for divisions
That fester in the street or voting booth,
But run right through the shivered heart of man.
Perhaps, it’s not the only sort we need.
While sitting just this morning over eggs
And bacon, with the kids, I read aloud
The eight beatitudes. In fact, I read
Them twice, because they’re hard to understand;
Because as well, being middle aged, I know
Among my failings is a failing memory.
So, “Blessed are the clean of heart,” I said,
“For they shall see their God.” I was so moved.
“Compare our hearts as to the bathroom mirror,
Smudged up with fingerprints and splattered toothpaste.
The clean heart is the mirror that is wiped,
A mirror that reflects the face of God.”
And Ceci looked at me and tugged my hand.
“Do you remember what the Queen of Hearts,
In Alice, says?” she asked. And I had not
Yet seen within her heart how she’d misheard,
Before she rose with pomp upon her chair,
Her plastic fork an all-commanding scepter
To summon shuffling soldiers to her deck.
“Off with her head!” she cried, and cried again,
“Off with her head!” And we looked up at her,
Her eyes as bright as mirrors in the sun.
-James Matthew Wilson