Revisionary

- 1940-

The globe on a tilted axis means The News.
As the icon spins the angle seems to shift.

Science has found ancestral Neanderthals.
We have a bit of their blood. They painted caves
Better than sapiens, as we named ourselves.

History has found the Jews who fought for Hitler.
Thousands of Part and what were called Full Jews.
A few were generals.

                                      As the globe revolves

Different mixes keep passing into the light
Or into the dark, and then back out again:
The unexpected, over and over again.

Jefferson’s July 2 draft blamed George III
For violating the liberty of “a People
Who never offended him” shipped off to be
“Slaves in another hemisphere.” For many
“Miserable death in transportation thither.”
On the Fourth of July, that passage was left out. Thither.

In draft after draft of Puddn’head Wilson Twain
Linked and tore apart stories: The conjoined twins
From Italy come to town. In that same town, two
Blue-eyed babies. The nursemaid fair-skinned Roxy
Secretly swops the babies cradle to cradle,
Different nightie to nightie and fate to fate.
The one is her son. He sells her down the river.

The Refinery

". . . our language, forged in the dark by  centuries of violent
pressure, underground,  out of the stuff of dead life."

Thirsty and languorous after their long black sleep
The old gods crooned and shuffled and shook their heads.
Dry, dry. By railroad they set out
Across the desert of stars to drink the world
Our mouths had soaked
In the strange sentences we made
While they were asleep: a pollen-tinted
Slurry of passion and lapsed
Intention, whose imagined
Taste made the savage deities hiss and snort.

In the lightless carriages, a smell of snake
And coarse fur, glands of lymphless breath
And ichor, the avid stenches of 
Immortal bodies.

Their long train clicked and sighed
Through the gulfs of night between the planets
And came down through the evening fog
Of redwood canyons. From the train
At sunset, fiery warehouse windows
Along a wharf. Then dusk, a gash of neon:
Bar. Black pinewoods, a junction crossing, glimpses
Of sluggish surf among the rocks, a moan
Of dreamy forgotten divinity calling and fading
Against the windows of a town. Inside
The train, a flash
Of dragonfly wings, an antlered brow.

Black night again, and then
After the bridge, a palace on the water:

The great Refinery--impossible city of lights,
A million bulbs tracing its turreted
Boulevards and mazes. The castle of a person
Pronounced alive, the Corporation: a fictional
Lord real in law.

Barbicans and torches
Along the siding where the engine slows
At the central tanks, a ward
Of steel palisades, valved and chandeliered.

The muttering gods
Greedily penetrate those bright pavilions--
Libation of Benzene, Naphthalene, Asphalt,
Gasoline, Tar: syllables
Fractioned and cracked from unarticulated

Crude, the smeared keep of life that fed
On itself in pitchy darkness when the gods
Were new--inedible, volatile
And sublimated afresh to sting
Our tongues who use it, refined from oil of stone.

The gods batten on the vats, and drink up
Lovecries and memorized Chaucer, lines from movies
And songs hoarded in mortmain: exiles' charms,
The basal or desperate distillates of breath
Steeped, brewed and spent
As though we were their aphids, or their bees,
That monstered up sweetness for them while they dozed.

First Things to Hand

In the skull kept on the desk.
In the spider-pod in the dust.

Or nowhere. In milkmaids, in loaves,
Or nowhere. And if Socrates leaves

His house in the morning,
When he returns in the evening

He will find Socrates waiting
On the doorstep. Buddha the stick

You use to clear the path,
And Buddha the dog-doo you flick

Away with it, nowhere or in each
Several thing you touch:

The dollar bill, the button
That works the television.

Even in the joke, the three
Words American men say

After making love. Where's
The remote? In the tears

In things, proximate, intimate.
In the wired stem with root

And leaf nowhere of this lamp:
Brass base, aura of illumination,

Enlightenment, shade of grief.
Odor of the lamp, brazen.

The mind waiting in the mind
As in the first thing to hand.

Related Poems

In the Next Galaxy

Things will be different.
No one will lose their sight,
their hearing, their gallbladder.
It will be all Catskills with brand
new wrap-around verandas.
The idea of Hitler will not
have vibrated yet.
While back here,
they are still cleaning out
pockets of wrinkled
Nazis hiding in Argentina.
But in the next galaxy,
certain planets will have true
blue skies and drinking water.

Stratigraphy

Take what’s unearthed—copper, bone
needle, silver coins—as evidence of continuous
human presence. Such puzzling
detritus and handiwork: this bronze 
ear pick etched with fine cross-hatch or that 
female figurine of painted clay, “meaning 
unknown,” striped and small enough 
a child’s hand could enclose it. They look as if
laid aside yesterday, tokens of commerce
or devotion. Bronze stem of a mirror, 
pottery shards which conceal a partial 
story: the hands of Paris presenting the apple 
to Aphrodite. Another unknown woman 
flanks the goddess, but only her feet 
and robes remain. How much is unrecoverable,
how much surmised. Dig until you find 
a comb, further down an amphora’s handle, 
a seal. Here’s sign of fire, here 
erosion, here time
piling its jewels and ash, spreading
its quilts over the dead.
 

Last Century

Last century we took a lot of shots
Of what we did, framing things for Look and Life
So we could see us and our lot Riveting the lattice of a skyline
Or walking the I beams of infinite rooms
Over Manhattan, Cleveland, Washington—
          Oh elevated light.
 
We were amassing works—bridges and dams,
Ike’s interstates, highrises; raising tons
Out of a continent unfolding by
Mountain and pit, plain and gradient river,
The convex sky bottling cirrus highs
And the steep cumuli of moody weather,
          Oh century of light.
 
Back then we were stout realists working out
All manner of the world as one-to-one,
The aerials that Margaret Bourke-White got
Of factories and bombed-out towns,
Also the gaunt subtractive stares by Evans,
Whose dust bowl poor became our luminous 
          Internal weather. 
 
And then at Buchenwald there were those faces
Of ourselves—fed guards, starved Poles and Jews,
The citizens of Weimar just trucked in
Bearing the stares of deformed children,
As now our lenses focused on the krill
And undertow of the swallowing real
          Weather of enlightenment.
 
Add in atomic white, the napalm blind . . .
An overbright disequilibrium
Had settled in, a kind of countermind,
Blind as those guards at Buchenwald, darkroom
And looking up, gashed faces wide with fear,
All interrogatives frozen where
          Someone holds a light
 
For focusing Margaret Bourke-White;
While the two guards, deserving or not, stripped
To bloody underwear, still looking up
In horror at what’s coming next, hear "Pop!"
Thanks to the flash, so everyone will see
Us taking our turn at victory,
          Oh century.