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POETRYETC  2002

POETRYETC 2002

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Subject:

"Eleusis"

From:

Frederick Pollack <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Poetryetc provides a venue for a dialogue relating to poetry and poetics <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 25 Jul 2002 14:38:23 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

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Eleusis


1

The city is built of speech-acts.
The part of a moment the mind admits, 
the automatic choice of a role to play
within it, and the words it makes one say: 
one brick.  There was a gambit
I don't often hear now - repeating
whatever the mark says as if
uncomprehendingly, or asking
fake-Socratic questions about his assumptions,
making him feel an idiot …
it was more British than American,
but I've encountered it.
More characteristic
is our gentle, even heartbroken "I don't agree" -
spoken as if you'll break your heart or pee
your pants because he doesn't
and the community, implicitly, won't.  It is a tactic 
of soft males.  The truly aggressive
Don't Take No for an Answer, Get to Yes,
use "power" as an adjective, derive
from some salesman a century ago:
Henry Adams' dynamo.  Are copied by
the scripts read by telemarketers
in their desperate monotone, hurrying over words
they don't get - grey rooms full
of underclass, or recent immigrants,
fighting the clock, condemned by computers,
aping the heroic autonomous self.
Which is better imitated,
though to no greater effect (I slam the phone
on one, edge away from the other),
by libertarians, whose praise of the market
honors their own
inexorable rightness, sleepwalker alertness.
Forever victorious losers -
in which they resemble their allies,
the fundamentalists, whose cleverness is that 
of Jesus.  Real power-holders 
(I'm not referring 
to politicians) don't need to argue 
(especially not with me) or even talk;
their simulacrum of speech,
reluctant, defensive as squid's ink,
creates a calming hum, like that of death. -
Forgive my harping on voices and contexts
whose overlapping echoes drown
me out, except on paper where 
I ask myself whether
I too am echo.  They are my equivalent 
of meadows and wildflowers,
the ahistorical themes of lesser poets.


2

O fascist song, you thump through my heart
despite and beyond shame.
*Face to the sun, raise the banners*,
my own blood spurts from my knife!
As our column, in dusty black, crosses
the black mud of fields
towards a village whose women 
from earliest girlhood wear
a black as black as their eyes
and lightless windows, I wonder: 
why *this uniform?  This stupidity, 
when there are others more congenial?
If the old saw is true
that a sufficiently advanced technology
is indistinguishable from magic, perhaps the obverse
is that spirituality
is obsolescence.  
Bone needles, stone tools the most profound …
These telegraph poles black against the sky,
cut wires, meager lamps: what I deserve.
The only radio 
is in the house of the cruel 
landlord, where we are billeted.
We listen to the vivid threats and dreams,
weird humor, sudden arcless flights
of our leader,
adoring every miserable word.  
In the morning I arrest
the town's intellectual.
I know him by his tweeds and terror
and again think: why this side
of a stinking cell?  Why am I armed
with something more than noble
whining for right and justice,
or reason spitting out its teeth?
It isn't until evening
when the priest makes his blessing
and we march from a pyre
of books, still smouldering with
a corpse at its center,
that I realize: *metaphor -
the grownup form of "It's all a dream."
*You are doomed to carve your meaning
in the flesh of others.*


3

Poets who write about poetry (theirs, 
someone else's, the abstraction) seem 
to want to subsume themselves
to something of worth, but at a deeper level
they're in denial -
denying the unimportance of their art.  
Paradoxically, the same is true of rivals
who only write about their traumas.  For who 
will blame them?  It would be too cruel
to say that this father, cancer, rape
or adventure with God is boring.  
And so what either type achieves -
the first with pseudo-tradition,
the second with mumbled horror or longing,
amidst late capitalism's structural detestation
of anything unfrangible - is consolation,
which they pretend to whisper to the world
while arranging matters
so that the world whispers it to them.
That's why nobody reads poetry.  
Because one thing you can say about the masses
is that they don't want to console anyone.

In any event, the last book of poems
I bought was *The World's Wife* 
by Carol Ann Duffy.  Brit - and 
unlikely therefore to equate
syntax with patriarchy
or criticism with poetry (except in the crude
way I am, here),
or think there's any diction beyond wit.
A set of dramatic monologues
by Mrs. Freud, Mrs. Satan, Mrs. King Kong, etc.
And every one resentful -
resentful-vengeful, resentful-triumphant,
etc.  The one that struck me
is by Eurydice.
She doesn't want to leave
hell.  It's decided without
her input.  On the climb, she does everything
she can to make him turn around.
Finally, in her sweetest voice she says
how excellent was the poem he read
back there.  "Did you think so?": he,
smiling, wheeling.  She waves and is gone. -
Feminists have told me
I take things like this too seriously.
(Of course, if you don't take them seriously … )

My own take on the myth
is that Orpheus never turns.
They reach the surface
through a cave in barren mountains,
which they find gushing and blooming.
And spring lasts, dispelling 
winter, absorbing summer, 
so that the point of the myth 
(in fact, of every myth)
and hell itself are lost. 
He never turns, although he wants to - wants
to check on her because he loves her, fears
the treachery of hell will take her, and,
absurdly, that she somehow prefers death.
Also, he doesn't like walking ahead
like some fool traditionalist.
Yet in the steep, apparently endless caverns,
he is happy, he wants only
to return her to life -
even if he can't see her,
even if they can't touch
and must bear their unshared thoughts into the sunlight.


4

In Lyon, the passages
between and under
sixteenth-century buildings -
Huguenots, smugglers, Blanquists, *résistance.
I didn't see them.  Was changing trains,
reading the guidebook.  *Ville mystérieuse*.
Watching the sun gild the beaux-arts municipal dumplings 
beside the Rhone.  
Yet in stories since, having established 
my listener was never there, I crawl through them,
the only foreigner in that tour
(and, I notice, the only single).
Abraded motley walls,
grit underfoot, shadows.
They recall the wormholes I court in poems,
tunnels that opened
in third grade
in the air after school as I fled.
There shrouded figures handed me a sword
and swore me to lifelong hatred (which was easy),
but also to some maturer-sounding purpose;
then raised a cheer for me from spectral comrades.
I was flattered less by the attention
than the absence of bullshit -
about enemies and solitude, of course,
but also about secrets.
How some remain when told.


5

In the history of television,
the program nearest my sensibility
was an absurd documentary
about the Eleusinian Mysteries:
Michael Wood trying to trace the Sacred Way
from Athens to Eleusis
through bus stops, tenements, tumbledown chapels, garages,
thistles.  Wheels of column amidst crap.
He looked frayed
by the time he got to the site, with its labeled fragments,
and somewhat despairing but game -
as if two thousand years
had proved unexpectedly obstinate, but 
perhaps a way could still be found around them.
I can understand that.
It works, or doesn't, the other way 
also.  To the year 4000, fraternal greetings.

One morning, we gather at a lot,
carpooling, riding in on buses.  People
who walked have been sitting here for days,
protest a porta-potty shortage.  It's still
before dawn; in the scrubby trees, crows scold.  
We start off raggedly
towards sunrise.  Helicopters circle;
cops try to herd us to
the shoulder.  Nice-smelling reporters
get in our faces during breaks.
They see every embarrassingly antiquated 
stereotype of "rebellion":
matrons who suddenly worship anything;
sage-bearded, passive-aggressive ecstatics;
earnestly, shrilly explaining youths.
Only the placards are gone, which alone 
gave us meaning.  By now, what could they say?

The day is already hot, the spring weather
like deadliest summer, as winter resembled 
sinister spring.  But the crowd
refuses to drag, remains hydrated
and vocal.  Issues: the validity, 
even the coherence
of worrying about the "self" or "soul," as opposed 
to "larger" discourses.  What is to
be done. - Jews and lapsed Catholics  
find each other, that pillar-dyad.  
Gays monotonize to talk with straights.  
There are numinous, brief interracial exchanges
and multicultural contacts; remarks so brilliant
I'm unsure if I've overheard or wishfully
projected them; and as always, nothing pertinent or whole.

My wife, who endures heat and
"spirituality" better than I 
(her skepticism is deeper 
though unadmitted), takes
a long suck from our bottle, 
smears sunblock on my nose and brow and says
(in that way no one awkward can hear) 
that she's glad to be on this march with me, but amazed
I'd lend myself to something so …
What?  Communal? frantic? gestural? 
"So religious," she says. -
It isn't.  I try to explain 
and find I can't, but she's satisfied.

And we end, not at a cave-mouth
that leads below ground 
to a sacred sheaf of wheat,
some sort of ergot derivative,
and oil-light, but at another parking lot
(they're convenient staging areas),
wider than where we started,
ringed with larger dumpsters.  
Some join their sweaty hands and sing, 
painfully.  Some sway like Orthodox, 
alone, but without the rhythm, 
reciting only their lives.  
I'm one of those.  I may stop joking here.
I think that's the point of the poem
conceived this burnt and wounded solstice.
More than the year turns.  More than earth revives.

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