A MATTER OF JUSTICE

Candace Tellamore—and nobody had dared to call her “Candy” since the third grade—woke at 5:00 a. m., like always. By six, she’d made and eaten breakfast, showered, dressed in her uniform, and was checking out the results in her mirror.
Which was, incidentally, one of those full-length four-foot swiveling ovals of maple and glass pivoting at the middle on two lathe-turned columns from a framed base. What can I say? Candace likes antiques.
She didn’t much like what she saw, but she didn’t much care either. There have to be round people. 5′ 4” and 193 pounds. 192 would have been nice, but never 192. Up to 203, but never lower than 193, no matter what she did, no matter how much handball and free weights and yoga. Yes, yoga.
You should see her doing yoga. It was funny, was what. But she did it.
192 was divisible by 96, 64, 48, 32, 24, 16, 12, 8, 6, 4, 3, and 2. It was an elegant number. But no. She was stuck on 193.
It was a good thing she was a four-star general. The first female member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, actually. The uniform looked pretty good on her, especially those four gold stars. She looked like a general and it was because she was a general. She knew they called her “cannonball” and “tank.” That was fine. That was the way soldiers ought to talk about their general. They also called her “chopper,” and she knew that was all that really mattered to them.
She had been one of the first female chopper pilots in the first Gulf War. She was famous for around the Pentagon—she made them nervous, actually—for referring to it as “The First Mistake.” She worshipped Bush the first, though, unlike his shit-for-brains namesake and the others, those tubby undistinguished losers. There was a man with brains, she thought. Brains and guts and principles.
Well, W wasn’t so much stupid as he was a playboy who had never developed the habit of thinking and now it was too late.
She had been a 25-year-old corporal, who became famous for never losing a man. A lot of it was pure luck, of course, it had to be. But when you were lying there with your leg shot off below the knee you could see luck.
She would go in anywhere. Once her door gunner took a hit just as she set down, and she bossed that big mothering fifty till they got all the wounded in and one of them wasn’t too bad to take over and she could lift off.
So the stories were there, and her soldiers knew the stories, and yeah, she looked pretty good to them. They did to her, too. They had guts and they knew right from wrong. That was important, that last part. Nobody talked about it, but it was the most important of all. If you didn’t know that, you knew shit.
But what the hell had her parents been thinking? Her daddy was 5′ 6” and had played fullback in his senior year for his state quarterfinalist division one high school. He’d put on a few since then. Her mother was 5′ 2” and hovered around 175.
They were delighted with each other. They pitied all those skinny people, always worrying about their weight. They liked each other just fine. But two cannonballs had a cannonball daughter. A cannonball four-star Joint Chiefs of Staff general daughter. A republican at that. You had to laugh, considering what ACLU liberal democrats her cannonball high-school-principal dad and her cannonball school librarian mother were.
But they were proud of her. You bet they were proud.
She shrugged. She was fine. This was the day. Time to get on with it.
She called the office before heading in, told her aide to line up the second lieutenants heading the platoons. One last call, just to bestow that last bit of confidence. Operation Pumpkin Down was a go. They would begin to execute at eight sharp, just as planned, just when the staff was getting in, before they could settle down.
Well, the platoon handling the Secret Service shift was an exception. It kicked off at 7:00 a.m., not 8:00. Necessity/
All in all, it was a risk she was taking, a big risk. Maybe if it worked she would get that legendary fifth star, be right up there with Eisenhower and McArthur. McArthur the idiot. God save us from generals playing politics.
Not that that wasn’t what she was doing.
She had wanted to call it Operation Turkey Buzzard Down, because she thought that was a more accurate description, but she had lost that battle.
Lose the small ones, win the big ones. Maybe.
We would see when it was all over. It had to go like clockwork. Not one casualty, not one shot fired. If anybody fired a shot, they had lost.
The other members of the JCS were on board. They had had to be. They all knew just how desperate the situation was. But none of them were willing to make the move. They let her take the risk. Because she was a woman, she knew that. It would go down better, if it went down, with a woman taking the lead.
So they would let her go. They had all agreed not to interfere. Not to say a word, not to do anything, for 24 hours. That was all she had. Then all bets were off. Everybody would do what they had to, and if she got caught in the gears and shredded, well, that was the risk she was taking.
Mattis, over at DOD, was, at long last, on vacation. That was their window. Everybody knew how he felt about North and South Korea, about Russia, about all of it. But he was a straight-up guy. So straight-up he might feel compelled to resist her. And he would be obeyed if he did. So they were cutting him out, temporarily.
Vacation was no real obstacle for his team, really. Somebody would be calling him within minutes. It was just enough time to let them launch, that was all. Everything depended on what happened next. But something had to be done.
Let’s get it all out in the open, and if it came to civil war, well, she was going to be a guerilla. That much was obvious.
What kind of creep would sell his country out for personal gain? She just couldn’t understand people like that. More importantly, she couldn’t respect them, and if there was one thing she had learned it was that obedience had to be based on respect.
It couldn’t be based on fear, or lies, or personal advantage. You might gain a temporary alliance that way. It wouldn’t last. It would break down, sooner or later. It would all come crashing down around your ears.

-0-

7:03
There were ten soldiers in the secret service locker room when the new shift hit. The new guys watched the soldiers, who were all carrying rifles, who didn’t move, who didn’t say anything. “What are you guys up to?” one of the incoming Secret Service shift said, but got no answer. “I don’t like this.”
He was one of the two on that shift who had been noted as having extreme right-wing views, a Trumpian all the way. He was from Alabama. The first shift had all gotten dressed, and had left.
Three of the soldiers surrounded him. One was a corporal. “That’s ok,” the corporal said. “You’re sitting this one out.”
There was another known Trump supporter. He was from Kansas. He liked to write threatening comments on Alex Jones’s web site, but nobody had found out yet. He didn’t look up, and he didn’t say anything, but three soldiers surrounded him too. Again, one was a corporal. “You too,” the corporal said.
None of the other Secret Service operatives would have taken a bullet for the big windbag. They had talked it over between themselves, off-duty. The soldiers knew it. The shift commander knew it, too, and he knew why the soldiers were there.

8:02
“You can’t do this,” said the woman sitting at the main desk in front of the door to the oval office. “You don’t have an appointment.”
The second lieutenant paused at the closed door, which he had been about to enter. “Matuszak,” he said to one of the three armed members of his squadron stand at ease along the near wall squadron, “take care of that.” (The other members of the squadron had distributed themselves to the various desks and offices of the permanent daily staff. In each case, one of the troopers carried a rifle. The other was the replacement, except for cases in which the staff member was glad to see them and agreed to obey orders. In that case, both soldiers remained, to observe and enforce if necessary, if the staff member was trying to be deceptive.
Matuszak grabbed the presidential secretary by the shoulders, and practically lifted her out of her seat. The secretary might have complained about the sexist treatment, except for the fact that Matuszak was female.
One of the other soldiers sat behind the desk, and immediately answered the phone. “The White House,” he said. Then, after listening. “I’m sorry. We’re busy at the moment. A few essential matters have come up. There will be a public briefing on these matters in the White House pressroom at 9 sharp.”

8:04
“You can’t do this,” said Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions. “I’m the Attorney General of the United States, and I can throw you in jail.”
“Shut the fuck up and sit down,” said the second lieutenant. He was black. So were most of the members of the squadron. Two were Latino. Eight were white.
Sessions sat down.

8:05
“What’s going on?” said Betsy DeVos.
“Your education begins now,” said one of the two soldiers standing guard beside her, keeping her from interfering. It was a good thing her lieutenant was out of the room at the moment, because he wouldn’t have approved of her wise-crack.
Another soldier, an unarmed one, sat at DeVos’s desk. She’d already done a better job that DeVos ever had, and she hadn’t even done anything yet.

8:07
When the kitchen workers threw open the doors to the supply entrance, they found twenty armed infantrymen waiting. The infantrymen brushed by the puzzled workers, all but four of them vanishing into the White House proper. Two of them stood on either side of the kitchen door to the White House dining room, and two on either side of the White House door to the dining room.
The guards in the kitchen smiled. “Just go on with what you’re doing,” one of the men said. “Nothing you need to be worried about. But you may be doing a bit more actual cooking in the near future.”

8:35
There had been a moment when the guards at the weapon-scanning station of the House of Representatives had looked the double squad over. Then, understanding, they nodded, lifted their hands, and stepped away from their stations. Two soldiers took the guard’s places, and the rest proceeded to Chambers, fifty men with rifles in quick-step.
Not a single Republican resisted, though many of them wore desperate looks, knowing the game was up. Paul Ryan attempted to be stern, warning the soldiers on either side of him, who had taken his arms and now were about to lead him away: “This is treason, you know.”
The soldiers looked at him. They looked at each other. They burst out laughing.

The Democrats were just as dangerous, though, as far as word getting out. But the squadron had drilled for a month on just this operation. It went like silk. All cell phones were collected, nobody even tried to phone out. All the members of the House were detained in chambers. When one or the other of the congress-people went to the restroom, troopers of the appropriate sex went with them.
Others from the squadron had been dispatched to all the representatives’ offices. Throughout the morning, as the representatives arrived, they were taken in hand and acquainted with the situation.
A similar scene occurred in the Senate at roughly the same time. The main difference was that it didn’t take so many soldiers. Mitch McConnell put up no resistance. He wasn’t smiling, though. He would never smile again.

8:47

Mike Pence said “What do you think you’re doing? Has something happened to the President? If something happened to the President, I’m the President now.”
“You’re wrong about that,” the lieutenant leading the squad said. Trump is illegitimate, and that means everybody he brought with him is illegitimate. Besides, we have the goods on you. You didn’t really think the F.B.I. and the C. I. A. would be just sitting there on their asses ignoring you, did you?”
“What are you talking about?” Pence said.
“Never mind. You’re in custody now. Just sit over there and shut up.”

-0-

And so it went, all over the place. A squadron had been dispatched to every single Cabinet office, larger ones to the ones that seemed more likely to be problematic, like the office of the Attorney General. They got there just as the offices opened for business, and in moments, in every case, they had either supplanted the cabinet officer and that officer’s staff, or had allowedstaff members sympathetic to their take-over to remain in place, though under constant watch.

A squadron each to the House and the Senate. A squadron to the Secret Service, whose head had been alerted an hour in advance. McConnell was taken into custody and not allowed contact with anyone else. So was Ryan. He was heard to expostulate to those arresting him. A corporal said to him, “You know, buddy, I’m a republican. I would normally be on your side. But you know what? I’m also a maraton runner. And I have known what a lying creep you were since you lied about your best marathon time. You’ve told some whoppers since, but that was the one that told me what kind of person you are. Who lies about something like that? Something that’s so easy to check? A born liar, that’s who. Now shut up and get in the vehicle.”
The essential thing was controlling the story, and that meant controlling the phones. There were no more cell phones circulating in the buildings. There was almost no resistance. In many cases, there was a huge sigh of relief, as if the workers were glad that someone, finally, had ended this charade.

And by 9:00 a.m., just in time for the presser, the apparatus of government had fallen, like so many dominoes, into Candace Tellamore’s hands. Trump himself was led out in handcuffs, taken into military custody. He was talking to the soldiers beside him. “So I’ve always been a big fan of the military,” he said. “Nothing I have more admiration for than our marms in en. Men in arms. Tell you what, you look like a really good guy. I’ve got an opening on my staff. I need a guy like you. What do say?”

The soldiers escorting him didn’t say anything. Trump kept on talking. Working the room, he would have called it.

There were others being led out in handcuffs. Miller, for example, and such others of the Trump brigade as seemed necessary. It would have been smart to assume that Mattis had heard the news by now, but whatever the reason was, nobody had heard from him. He was on vacation. Probably out in the woods for a walk and forgot to take his phone.

And finally, 9:00

They all were all quiet, all the journalists. Quiet except for a low murmur of people comparing notes. Nobody knew what was going on, but something was definitely going on. Nobody was answering their phones in the White House. Nobody’s contacts were answering their phones. There was nobody up front, not Trump, and not Huckabee-
Sanders. (Thank goodness: They were used to being lied to by politicians, but SHS managed to do it in a particularly insulting way, as if they were the liars and not she.)
Finally a trio of men in uniform walked out and took their places on the stage, one to the podium, and one to either side of him.

“I’m Second Lieutenant Raymond Torres,” said the man at the microphone. “The man at my right is Corporal Arthur C. Douglas, and the woman on my left is Corporal Amy Shandy. We will answer your questions as well as we are able to. Corporal Douglas is an expert on staffing and assignment of expertise. Corporal Shandy can address any questions about funding, salaries, taxes, and other such matters. I ask that you withhold all questions until I’ve made my preliminary announcements.

The United States government, as of this moment, is under martial law.” A forest of hands shot into the air. “I said please hold your questions until I am through.” Whether it was because the man was clearly military or because the journalists had suddenly discovered the value of patience, I will not attempt to say.

“This has been considered a last resort. It has been obvious for months to all except the most credulous that the man in the office of the President of the United States is a criminal. No member of the armed forces is obliged to obey the orders of a criminal, especially a dangerously insane one. Neither is anyone on the criminal’s staff, and none of the criminal’s appointments are legal. This is simple fact.

We have waited and waited for someone simply to take the initiative, to step up and say, you know what, this fellow is a beast and a fool and I refuse to accept his legitimacy, and I refuse to accept that any of his orders are legitimate.

No one did so. We waited, but nothing happened. Nobody seemed to have the nerve. An entire arm of Congress obfuscated and obstructed any investigation into the criminal, as if it were legitimate for a criminal to disband the investigation into his own activities. At long last, it was decided that this step was necessary. This entire administration has been taken into custody, and will not be allowed any further contact with the machinery of government. Now: With any luck at all, this will be the shortest episode of martial law in the history of the planet. Those who are capable of their positions and who are not resisting martial law are allowed to remain in their positions. In cases where rank incompetents or outright crooks are occupying staff or cabinet positions, we have replaced them with trained officers.

Otherwise, most things will proceed as usual. You are free to report of this, and will be not be hindered or prevented from leaving, no matter what your party or political preferences may be. We are not infringing on the rights of any citizen as guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and its amendments.

Speech remains free. The press remains free. We simply do not accept that it is proper to allow a traitor and those who have given the traitor aid and encouragement to continue to pervert the course of justice by taking over the reins of power.
It is not the military’s aim to remain in power. In fact, my superiors urge me to tell you, we are extremely uncomfortable doing so. It was the lesser of two evils: When it became apparent that Trump was willing to using the machinery of justice to pervert justice itself, taking it upon himself to interfere with classified information and with the operations of the FBI and indeed the Justice Department itself, it became impossible to stand idly by and watch the travesty unfold.

One more point, and then we will answer your questions as well as we can.

Even now, a committee is being put together to repair and restore the proper offices of government. Obviously, this committee must be composed of the most honest, capable, and intelligent people available. Obviously, there is a short supply of such people available in the world of politics, but we have done what we can. In some cases, committee members have been chose from the ranks of those who are not professional politicians. To the degree possible, the committee will contain equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, although no Republican who has lied or has been convicted of breaking the law, or is known to have fully supported the illegitimate administration of Donald Trump, will be on the committee. As soon as that committee announces its readiness to proceed, a legal civilian government will be sworn in, martial law will be suspended, and control ceded back to the civilian government.

Now we will take your questions.”

The press room exploded into a familiar turmoil. Lieutenant Torres officiated the question-and-answer session, either taking the question himself or delegating it to one of his colleagues for an answer. Answers were short, clear, and to the point. There were no evasions.

Lieutenant Torres wore a smile all through the rest of the proceedings. He knew that, whatever theoretical resistances this or that journalist might have, he or she had, by joining in the process, implicity accepted the military’s authority.

And although she didn’t know about Lieutenant Torres and his smile, General Candace Tellamore was wearing a similar one. It was working. She realized, in retrospect, there were three main reasons: 1) It was a fait accompli. Most people preferred not to get all tangled up in the hassle. Present them with a fait accompli, and the odds were, unless it was vastly unfair or cruel, they would, at least for a while, go along with it. 2) It was clearly right. Yes, there was a large portion of the electorate who had been swindled, or else who were so much like Trump they rejoiced in his election. But it was only a fraction, and not a big one, either. Most people recognized bullshit when they heard it and knew cruelty when they saw it. Most people have a conscience. When you did something so clearly right, deep inside themselves, they knew it, and would not fight it. 3) They did not have to give up any of their rights or privileges. Things would go on pretty much as they had. This was a robust civilization.

It was ironic, she knew, that Trump’s initial appearance of success was based on the same principle, the fait accompli. But he had neither honesty nor peacefulness on his side, and that was why his fait accompli was not going to last.

The only thing she had to worry about was the Nazi true-believers, the white supremacists. Some of them were crazy enough to start shooting. And there simply had to be no shooting. This “coup” would not work if there was any shooting.

It wasn’t really a coup, of course. It was actually just party magic, just misdirection. You look here instead of there, and when you look back you have a real government in place again. No way that Candace wanted the real power. She just wanted the real power back in the hands of honest and principled people.

She was just going to have to ride that out. Most of them were probably asleep when it happened, anyway. And they were bullies. They liked to talk big, but they came up short on true courage. True courage was defending the weak, not attacking them.

9:00, 24 hours later

And so it went. There was a lot of yapping and yelling, there were newspapers and websites and television channels raising a continual ruckus, there was the usual barrage of crazy from the right-wing deep-staters—this would probably convince them they were right, which was too bad—and the usual harangue over the violation of “civilized” behavior, as if anything the Trump flim-flam constituted civilized behavior. She wasn’t worried about that—when you saw a bully using a whip on a starving man, the civilized thing to do was knock the bully on his ass and take away his whip, not form a committee to protest his behavior.

But here it was, twenty-four hours later, and it was holding. She was meeting, even now, with the head of the hastily-form Committee for Genuine Democracy, ready, as she had promised, to cede power back to the civilian branch.

“Listen,” she said to the Committee’s head and representative, “I don’t know what you’re thinking, but all I want is to be a general. You guys can have the power and welcome to it. I just want to go back to doing what I was doing. There’s two kinds of people. One kind doesn’t trust anybody, thinks everybody is just as nasty as they are, and so wants to tell all those other people what to do. The other knows there are people out there who can’t be trusted, but believes most people can be and has no interest in running things. That second one is me. I’m a boss, but I have bosses under me and over me, and that’s the way I like it. I know how to handle my job. Government is not my job. I just want my Commander-in-Chief to be a Commander-in-Chief, not an ignorant and traitorous fraud. Government is the job of you people. And if you have any sense at all, you will realize, actually realize, that the people are your boss. It may seem idealistic and foolish in this day and age. We all seem to think we’re too sophisticated to have ideals now, that real-politik is all there is. (Damned Kissinger is your friend, and I’ll never understand that. ) But, me, I’m idealistic, and I’m willing to bet that most Americans are if you scratch them.

“Nobody has ever proved there was anything to the crazy charges against you, and it’s impossible for that to be the case if you really were guilty—unless of course, all the right-wingers and Republicans are totally incompetent. But the thing that actually persuades me is the foundation the two of you created. Neither of you has ever used it for political benefit. Which means you mean it.”

“Thank you, General,” said the head of the Committee. “All we need now is for you to sign here.” She indicated the top of a sheaf of papers (a thin sheaf, and one Candace had read through several times, carefully). “And here, and here, and here. And initial that.

Chopper sighed. She looked the other in the eyes. “Silly, isn’t it? Me signing away power I never really had to you, who won’t really have it either, not without the will of the people. It was all an illusion. A necessary one, maybe. But I believe in the words, so here goes.”

She wrote her name four times, her initials once, and dated the signatures. She looked through the brief document quickly, one last time. She shuffled it and struck it against the desk-top until it settled into a neat stack. She handed it over.

“This is all I have ever wanted,” she said, “a legitimately-elected chief executive. Legitimate elections in the country I love. It’s all yours. I’ll be watching you, of course, but it’s all yours now. Yours and the people’s.

Take it away, Madame President.”

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The Eleventh Commandment

 

THE ELEVENTH COMMANDMENT

I ‘d had the idea of this essay before the Aurora, Colorado, shooting. But that shooting makes it seem even more immediately necessary for someone to float the idea, regardless of his or her personal moral stature. I imagine that a lot of people act on the principle intuitively, but perhaps it should be stated as clearly and plainly and absolutely as possible.

The effort is to enunciate a principle that all can agree on in good faith, whether they are followers of a distinct creed or complete nonbelievers.

The principle is this: No matter what your spiritual convictions—whether you associate yourself with an organized religious group, whether you are individually religious but not keen on institutionalized creeds, whether you are agnostic, or whether you are atheist—you agree that no belief, none whatsoever, justifies killing or even injuring another human, or destroying anything beautiful (as a man, thinking he was Jesus, once took a sledgehammer to Michelangelo’s Pieta). If you think God or the nature of existence is commanding you to kill or destroy, you are wrong. Just flat wrong.

That’s it. No matter what you fear or feel, your convictions do not justify damage to another human or to the beautiful.

There are a number of facile arguments people use to get around the principle, and those arguments should be addressed.

By “beautiful” I do not mean merely what you yourself argue is beautiful. I mean what a great many people consider beautiful. I am not much moved by Bach, though many lovers of music are (and many physicists and mathematicians especially. Whether this is a flaw in my own appreciation or not, I have no right to attack his music. (Actually, I never would attack it, since I mildly enjoy it, am just not transported by it, except to memories of Vacation Bible School in Southern Baptist Churches. But even if I were to develop a conviction that I was a fated actor and that Bach was the devil, I would have no right to attack it. That’s my point.) With regard to the concept of “the beautiful,” some might argue that the blown-apart body of a perceived enemy is “beautiful,” but that’s pretty obviously self-serving, and is not what I’m talking about at all.

And by damage, I do not mean putative or theoretical or syntactical damage. Argue as meanly as you wish to, and live with how you are seen as a result. Words don’t count, no matter how vicious they are. (I’m speaking of strictly of physical damage. Of course words can do terrible damage, and I’m not excusing abusive or dangerous or misleading speech. I’m just saying that it’s impossible to devise an absolute code of conduct for argument which will not eventually prove to be as harmful as the damage done by the nasty words themselves. This is why, in my opinion, the writers of the Constitution of the United States described free speech as a right, and did not try to circumscribe that right with law. We must each, on our own responsibility, decide what sort of language we will allow ourselves.)

There are also plenty of situations in which it might be argued that this principle does not hold. I will not discuss war, in which the whole point is the slaughtering of other humans and the destruction of what they hold dear. I will not discuss it, in spite of my own horror at war, because I don’t want the issue to be muddied with sophistical debate., the pretense that the existence of war implies that how we treat our fellows does not matter. I will not discuss the eating of meat, although I feel strongly that those humans who are capable of empathy for other humans are much more likely to feel empathy for other creatures, and that to damage any living creature or the Earth itself is wrong. I eat meat myself. I’m not saying I ought to. I’m just describing my own actual behavior.

It’s my sense that if we could agree, perhaps just in civilian life, and just with regard to humans, that violent and damaging behavior is never permissible, we would do ourselves a great deal of good.

We could also help soothe the fury-ravaged minds among us if we would simply adopt this practice, adopt it on the level of truth and commandment.

No exceptions.

It is not permissible to argue that other humans are trying to infringe on your rights or destroy your government and that therefore you must take pre-emptive action, that you must defend yourself by killing others.

No. We must agree that such arguments are not sane.

If you are under direct and lethal physical threat from another, you may of course defend yourself as necessary, and keep your honor.  I’m not talking about a law.  I’m talking about a species-wide way of looking at things.  Only by accepting such refusal to cause harm as a norm of behavior will we survive.

That’s the key. I call it a commandment, by the way, only by analogy with the Ten Commandments. Actually the idea has no force unless we accept it as individuals. It isn’t really a commandment, then, but in the word I have already been using, a principle.

We must refuse to engage in supersophistical theoretical dilemmas, from pretending that the imagined dilemmas of philosophy can excuse the actual behavior of individuals. The Joker is not acceptable. The fact that he thinks he is exemplifying philosophy with his murders is not proof that our moral underpinnings are false, but proof that he is wrong.

For a long time, in our culture, some of our artists and writers and philosophers have allowed themselves to imagine the horrible as defensible, under the illusion that they are exploring the profound paradox of morality.

It is true that artists and writers and philosophers (and preachers) cannot and should not be barred from an open look at horrible facts.

But really that excuse applies to very few works. Are we really arguing that our best-selling fiction, every single book of it, is conducting a profound investigation into the depths of human nature? Isn’t it obvious that the violence in our movies and stories and television is there almost entirely for entertainment value, that it vaunts itself as serious stuff merely as an excuse?

Dexter is not just like us. He’s wrong.

So the high school chemistry teacher on Breaking Bad shows what terrible deeds any of us are capable of. So? Is that the whole of the effect we receive? Are we not actually identifying with him, enjoying the frisson?

Our “detective stories” have become bloodier and bloodier. The detective stories I read, the Reacher novels and the Prey novels among them (I like the Letter from the Roman Alphabet Is X books a lot, too) have become hardly more than flimsily justified explosions of gunplay, the reader enjoying a momentary release of apparently justified blood-lust: These hard men are only being so murderous because we need them to, because there are terrible people out there, and those terrible people deserve killing. That excuse is endemic.

I love the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe novels, a sort of fiction it’s no longer possible to find. I need to read what I used to call “mysteries.” (They’ve all turned into gunfests now.) It may be a poor excuse, but I would not read the bloodier stuff if there were any sufficiently intelligent writing of another sort.

Surely it’s obvious that in a story an author can arrange cause and effect any way he or she wishes to, and thereby appear to “prove” his or her case? Oh the hero is so violent because he or she is “haunted.” Doesn’t matter by what. Drink or the murder of someone beloved or war. Oh, well, then, that’s okay.

The question is not how things go in stories, but how we want them to go in life.

“Red Mist” has become such a joke that the villain’s son in Kick-Ass adopts it for a name when he pretends to be a super-hero. It seems to me many think to prove how much sturdier their perceptions of reality are, how tough they are, by laughing about the corrupt and the horrible. I keep coming back to our artists and writers and philosophers, who seem to be outdoing each other in how far they will go, how much more and how much nastier slaughter they can portray.

Sort of like an aesthetic arms race, and with the same inevitable spiral to unbearable excess and destruction as its ultimate result.

Who do you think you’re proving things to? Do you not know who you are and what you stand for? Do you really think, somewhere, on some level, that by creating such violent characters and giving them excuses, you are partaking of the “toughness” you portray? Do you think we readers imagine you as the hero?

Really?

There is a famous Batman story in which a “good” guy does one totally evil thing, assassinates Batman with a long-distance rifle, and then goes back to live his “good” life. The point, I think, is that our labels, “good” and “bad,” are arbitrary. (And that the author is a deep thinker?)

In actual life, however, there are no such characters. The kind of being who can commit such murder is not the kind who can otherwise live an entirely blameless life. It will not happen. The assumption is specious, and can occur only within the bounds of a narrative.

It has become common to put on philosophical airs, to imply that you are a serious and unconventional thinker by embracing wholesale brutality. It has become fashionable. As with happens with most philosophy, the attitude has percolated gradually through the awarenesses of even those among us who are least capable of or least fit for philosophy.

Yes, morality is provisional. Nothing in nature demands it. That does not make it a less useful way of looking at things. It is a provision we make in order to have civilization, in order to benefit each other.

Since morality is provisional, we must be very careful what we represent to ourselves as acceptable behavior. We say what goes into it and what does not.

My suggestion is that as many of us as are capable adopt what I am referring to (though I am unlikely to be its initiator, am merely attempting to be one of its conduits) as the eleventh commandment.

It isn’t covered by the already existing commandment not to kill. That has gotten tangled in our concepts of war, and everyone makes far too many exceptions to it in their personal behavior. It’s also identified very strongly with a single type of religious behavior, which makes it very difficult for agnostics or atheists to accept. They may not reject the idea, but they do reject the source, and so the idea comes across as truism, preachiness, cliche. It’s implied that you must accept the system that created the commandment if you accept the tenet.

What I’m proposing is a way to limit the damage done by murderous beliefs, whether philosophical or the result of self-absorbtion (not that philosophers are immune to self-absorption). We must say, Such behaviors are not acceptable. Not for ourselves, not for others. For individuals, the “commandment” is a way for a mind to test the quality of its belief and thought. If the belief and thought urge to killing or damage, they are wrong. It’s that simple. No conviction, no matter how intense, is justified if it urges damage to another human or to the beautiful.

The “eleventh commandment” doesn’t address thorny questions like what level of force the police may use in what situations. In such matters, we are dependent on our laws, on the justice of our system. But most of us are not police officers, and do not want to be. Why pretend that our moral behavior depends on an impossible general answer to such specialized questions?

No one is trying to regulate thought or art. I’m just suggesting an individual standard that we may each use to judge our own notions. A standard that’s absolute, but absolutely voluntary.

No matter how angry you are, how frustrated, how passionate, or how convinced you are that you are in the right, If you kill or injure other humans, or attack the beautiful, you are, quite simply, wrong.

 

A Letter to the Rulers of the World

(This essay appears in my book, Practicing Zen without a License, but I decided it needed exposure here.

A meme is an idea, but an idea with a difference.

We normally think of ideas as creations of individual minds. Some modern thinkers have engaged in a viewpoint shift (ok, paradigm shift, if you insist on the word) in order to see if there are productive results. They see ideas as independently-existing entities, and our minds as the cultures in which these ideas grow. They call such ideas memes, by which they mean to imply a genetic quality to the propagation of ideas. That is, there are ideas which can reproduce. These ideas have built-in structures to ensure their survival and propagation, much like viruses or other invading organisms.

It is not necessary to demonstrate whether or not memes “actually” exist. It is sufficiently informative to assume their existence, and see whether this method of analysis yields good results.

It develops that the meme approach is very fruitful. Nothing about it tells us whether a given meme is beneficial or harmful, but once you begin to look at an idea in this fashion, you remove all its emotional coloration, and you begin to be able to see the functional structure of the idea.

Any idea may be viewed as a meme.

How do you stop a bad meme? This question occurred to me while I was imagining myself the ruler of the world. My ministers came to me and described the intolerable situation with a certain bloody religious sect. This sect had instituted cruel punishments for trivial things, including widespread capital punishment. This sect felt itself persecuted, though the leaders of the sect were among the richest people on the earth, and though their internal politics swayed all the world. This religious sect fostered a murderous fervor on behalf its believers and directed against all those who did not believe. Clearly this sect was a cancerous meme.

(Note: the foregoing was written before 9/11, and is intended to describe what I perceive as a universal human condition, not any one group.)

As ruler of the world, you understand, I had responsibility not primarily to individuals, but primarily to the health and well-being of the species, and only secondarily to individuals and groups of individuals. It is plausible to imagine but not possible to demonstrate that the greatest possible health for the species entails the greatest possible health for each contributing member in most conditions. (Questions of absolute survival may overrule this attitude in moments of crisis, as when the mountaineer sawed off his own arm.)

As ruler of the world I imagined saying, Kill all the males who will not renounce. I was not being Old Testament, I was minimizing the damage. This particular meme was much more virulent in males because it appeared at first to reward their systems preferentially. I thought I could let the women live, and those males who would renounce. That way I would not be obliterating a race. I would be like the surgeon removing no more of the organ than I had to in order to be reasonably sure of having gotten all the cancer.

But we all know that if I had really been ruler of the world, I would have said no such thing, I could have said no such thing.

Why? Because I’m a nice guy.

No, seriously folks, because we can’t be sure it works that way. We can’t prove that the health of the species entails the health of its individuals, but we can’t disprove it either. It might actually work that way.

And since it might, we can’t take any chances.

We can’t find a moral justification for genocide, even partial genocide such as I in my benevolence would have imposed.

You got that?

We can’t find a moral justification for genocide.

Which is to say war.

There isn’t one.

The only conceivable moral justification for imposing harm on individuals is to foster the well-being of the species, or of something greater than the species but which includes the species, such as the many-branched and highly-contradictory Will of God. Most meme-gone-cancerous beliefs however include just such a moral justification. It would have been ironic. As ruler of the world, I would have been engaging in the same behavior as the religion I sought to stamp out. The meme would have conquered me.

That’s a hell of a strategy for survival–to make death and propagation identical. Burst the cell wall of the bad-meme belief in order to kill it and you spray genetic copies all over the place.

It’s a good thing there are no rulers of the world. For our species, that would be like having a one-celled brain.

So how do you stop a bad-meme belief (a BMB if you will)?

Friends and neighbors, you laugh it out of court. You just refuse to take it seriously. And why not? Nobody says you have to take it seriously. Do you take nuclear physics seriously? Ok, I saw the hand over there in the third row, but the rest of you, you see what I mean. Nuclear physics can turn you to vapor in a millisecond, but you don’t take it seriously. So who says you have to take a BMB seriously? Oh it can make you roast in hell forever. Oh really?

You let the professors of the bad meme prattle on, but you don’t listen long. You excuse yourself politely because you have some interesting things to think about. You invite them to the parties, but you know they won’t feel easy, they’ll be self-conscious and defensive and mean if they get drunk.

In other words, you don’t shut them out, quarantine them. They do that to themselves. They have special products only the faithful can use, special observances that “prove” their faith, usually by means of spectacular oddity or uselessness or actual difficulty. Why else would somebody do this?

You may feel pity and you may try to help, but in essence you’re letting the disease run its course, knowing that in the long run it weakens those who have it and that eventually the species will develop resistance and throw it off.

You can do all this because you’ve got a resistance to the bad meme. A natural resistance. Perhaps we are beginning to develop workable inoculations as well.  Education appears to help, at least when it contains some information on how to think for yourself.  Cleansing the individual in a bath of love has shown some good results.   Encouraging the physical well-being of the individual, ditto.  None of these methods are sufficient in themselves, and the difficulty of application has so far interfered with treatment for a good many people.

We all know that as a matter of practical fact, we do, each of us, all the time, make decisions that balance the well-being of the species against the well-being of the individual. Each of us as rulers of the world.

We continue to save lives with antibiotics even though we know that we are breeding stronger disease organisms and, by failing to let natural selection take its course, weakening the resistance of our gene pool to those diseases.

We continue to take dangerous people out of circulation by means of prison or execution. It isn’t a very good solution, and our methods of evaluating danger are all screwed up, but we haven’t figured out anything better yet.

And so on.

Fine, as a matter of practical fact. What else can we do? But not fine as a religion, gussied up with orthodoxies and threats. That’s like letting the knife decide what to cut. BMBs exist, and we need to quell them.

I suppose there’s one other question we ought to deal with.

How do you tell a bad-meme-belief? Aren’t all beliefs equally valid in the scheme of things? Oh come on, folks.

Use your brains.

Addendum: On further reflection, I would say that all BMBs contain hooks–structures that attempt to damage the host if that person attempts to remove the bad idea. Usually the hook is in the form of a prohibition–you cannot question the the idea itself, usually on pain of being sentenced to hell, frequently on pain of being ostracized by other holders, and not infrequently on pain of mental trouble, since the idea has invaded your self-esteem and restructured it as cancer cells organize a blood delivery system within your body.

The simple rule, then: All bad memes have hooks.

GENIUSES, HEROES, WARRIORS, AND SARAH PALIN

 

 

This was written some time ago, in the election of 2008.  I’m trying to get back to this blog, which I have been neglecting.

No doubt because I’m a writer, I first noticed the trend on book jackets.  Suddenly every flyweight scribbler who showed the least flash of talent was being hailed as a “genius.”  Well, no.

Geniuses are rare. The very root of the word implies someone of extraordinary and inexplicable abilities, someone who can do what no one else is capable of. Geniuses are people like Buddha, Jesus, Shakespeare, Renoir, Einstein, maybe Alan Moore. They seldom occur as often once a century. Quick wit and a modest flair are estimable, but do not a genius make.

Maybe it began as a marketing ploy. Reassure the customer that the item in question is not merely a flashy expo of the latest fashions, but a work of enduring genius, and maybe you have the next summer blockbuster on hand.

However it began, the style percolated rapidly through all literary strata. Contemporary poetry has become the most solipsistic and monumentally boring enterprise possible to a wordsmith, read by none and practiced by thousands, but if you believe the blurbs (akin to believing Goldman/Sachs on finance or HCA on health care), these poets are, each and every one, geniuses.

The next inflated term I noticed was “hero.” Suddenly all you had to do to be a hero was enlist in the military. Of course there are heroes in the military, as there are in almost every human endeavor, but surely even the most hawkish of generals will concede that not every enlistee is heroic?

My standards for heroism are perhaps less stringent than my standards for genius. Heroism is attainable for almost all of us, whereas genius shows up capriciously. It is, in a sense, unfair. It cannot be acquired by means of any amount of earnest effort or any degree of sacrifice. (Though it may certainly be developed to highest effect or shamefully wasted.)

But my standards are nevertheless stringent. The hero, according to Joseph Campbell, ventures into unexplored territory and brings back something of value to the tribe, an idea or freedom from the dragon’s depredations, usually at great personal cost, always by means of enduring forbidding difficulties. Often the tribe initially disdains the hero’s achievement, only later realizing how magnificent the gift has proven to be. Martin Luther King, for example, was a hero.

At first I thought this degraded usage was confined to home-town newspapers, boosterish forums eager to foster local pride in the way the pep squad pumps up the high school for the big game. Every returning enlistee, no matter whether he or she had spent his or her enlistment stateside in the motor pool or as a mess hall cook, was hailed automatically as a “hero.”

(I do not look down on enlisted service of any sort, incidentally. But isn’t this a bit much? No action required, much less courage under fire.)

Later I began to see it everywhere, in wide-circulation papers, on television, on the internet. “The troops” were “heroes,” simply by virtue of wearing the uniform. No doubt there have been many brave soldiers in our (necessary and unnecessary) wars but surely there have been as many thieves, cowards, bullies, and butt-lazy jerkwads as well. Are they all “heroes?”

Do you see the common thread? Achievement has been replaced by the label, in the way that “organic” foods may contain corn syrup, in the way that no one posts a personal romantic ad who is not “sexy,” “creative,” and a lover of long thoughtful walks by the ocean.

The next inflated term I noticed was “warrior.” Perhaps because I read too many graphic novels, I attribute the term’s current popularity to Frank Miller. The Nietszche of the comics, he is to them as Harlan Ellison was to science fiction. (I’m strongly against cockfighting but might pay money to watch Miller and Ellison in a pit together.) His Dark Knight shrugs off heart attacks and various broken or dislocated limbs by means of sheer willpower, is more muscle-bound than Arnold but capable of incredible acrobatic feats even at the age of fifty, and crashes his speedster in flames but wins the race anyhow.

My son-in-law and I tried to watch 300 on video the other day. We were prepared for death and mayhem and a ceaseless display of sixpacks (apparently no male in Sparta ever wore a shirt) but the constant flatulent oratory defeated us. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Athens, that city of boy-lovers, as Leonidas snidely refers to them, whip the Spartans’ butts a few times? Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t Sparta more about Conquest than Freedom?)

Whoever originated the usage, it’s everywhere now. I don’t know whether the burgeoning of the martial arts in the U. S. is cause or symptom, but I do know that samurai have become the contemporary models of perfect warriors. The myth-making may be seen at its most preposterous extreme in the two Kill Bill movies (which could have been one if the dialogue hadn’t been so comically portentous and slow). I enjoy Ken Chi as much as the next fellow, but surely the disaffected samurai are our latter-day equivalents to the lone horseman, incredibly quick on the draw, who rides into a lawless Western town, and, though he despises gunplay, shoots all the bad guys dead?

Let’s take a look at those samurai. Warriors they were indeed, superbly trained in swordplay, taught to eliminate fear from their reactions. But as models of human behavior? The very same virtues that made them fearsome made them morally neutral. They fought for whichever noble they served. If we are to believe the romance of the samurai (which I’m no more inclined to do than I am to see Billy the Kid as the embodiment of the noble gunslinger), their code was the code of honor. Self-described warriors are always keen on “honor.”

The samurai, in essence, transformed themselves into weapons. The weapon may be beautiful, the weapon is certainly deadly, but the weapon has no conscience. The “honor” of the warrior is like the curving gleam on a samurai sword. Everything depends on the character of the person swinging it.

The romance of the warrior is that the true warrior is invulnerable. Even a brief glance at history shows this to be total fallacy at best and more probably total lunacy. In a video game you may trounce all the bad guys (unless you have chosen to play the bad guy). If you get “killed” while you’re learning, you can resurrect the character and try again.

It ah, you know, it doesn’t work that way in real life. I would guess that at a minimum a hundred wannabes must die for every surviving true warrior. Somehow I don’t really like those odds.

Okay, fantasy is fantasy and reality is reality, and most people can tell the difference. It wouldn’t matter except for the rhetoric. Far too many personal and policy decisions treat this “warrior” nonsense as genuine thought. We have the spectacle of self-described “warriors” who instigate wars though they themselves fled from any possibility of exposing themselves to battle.

Again, perhaps because I am a writer, I locate the common flaw in the inflation and degradation of the language. Quite a few good people have referred to Orwell’s warnings in this matter, and rightly so. The basic principle is less seldom mentioned: The proper function of language is communication. We use it to convey information from mind to mind.

The fine and underappreciated poet James Whitehead had a character in one of his poems declare, “The end of style for honest men is clarity.” (By way of full disclosure, Whitehead would caution that the man on whom the character was based wound up in a mental institution.)

Dissimulation is a perversion, not a function. In the same way that an invading micro-organism will destroy the health of its host, evasion and deceit destroy language. Dishonesty has a characteric and unmistakable sound, and doesn’t take much training to recognize. Hemingway, himself quite a purveyor of bovine ordure, famously stated the necessity for having a good bullshit detector. Anyone who listened to one of Nixon’s campaign speeches knew without a doubt, long before he swore to the contrary, and regardless of whatever arguable virtues he may have possessed, that he was a crook.

When a dissembling politician (I will entertain the notion there are other kinds) emits clouds of obfuscation and double-speak, phrases lose syntactical connection, grammars go haywire, and words lose their meaning.

How could it be otherwise? The speaker does not respect the language, but views it as merely a tool to further his or her own devices. If you do not respect the instrument, you are unlikely to master it.

There has been a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in this country, as if the choice were between education and honor. I remember an equally misleading choice being offered in previous elections. The candidate, we were told, was the kind of fellow you would like to have a beer with. Are there no intelligent and principled people to have a beer with, I wondered?

More often than not, this rampant anti-intellectualism (someone more cynical than I might suspect the existence of wide-spread inferiority complexes) has taken the form of disdain for true eloquence.

 

 

 

 

 

THE STORY I CANNOT NAME WITHOUT GIVING AWAY THE PUNCHLINE

This is the best version of the story I’ve ever done, I think. I took it from a letter to a friend, though I usually try not to mine my letters. Makes one too cloyingly self-conscious. Hope you’ll forgive me this time. I’m including a few poems that relate.

Once, when my daughter Lynnika was about three, I was a brokish lowly poet in the small town of Arkadelphia, Arkansas, serving as poet-in-residence at the two colleges in the town and as Clark County’s on-call poetry-in-the-schools guy.

What the poet-in-residence bit meant was that $2500 of my $10K annual grant was billed by the colleges as providing me office space.  Which meant a desk and a chair in a room without windows, that I never spent any time in at all.  We were living down in the Ouachita River bottoms outside Arkadelphia.  Then my grant went belly-up.  We had been paying a mortgage on ten acres out in the Oauchita Mountains west of Arkadelphia,(and Hollywood, Arkansas).  I’d decided to build a cabin on it for us to live in.

Getting back to nature’s hard.  I did build the cabin, and we did live in it.  Briefly.

But back before all that, before the grant folded, we used to go camp on the land overnight–Lynnice, whose husband I was, and our daughters.  Lynnice was pregnant with our second daughter, Sarah.  So we were more or less going out and dreaming.  Very enjoyable.  There was no structure except a falling in old corn-crib, and there was a lot of punk pine on the hillside we thought of as ours.  Dead and fallen trees, grown soft with decay.  The gravel road looped around our ten-acre tilty but with a relatively flat top piece of rocky topology carpeted with pine and oak and gum and plum and so on.

Anyway, so we one morning we drove out to our place and camped that night.  This was a day in early spring.  Buds were coming out.  That wonderfully luminous but just a bit icy light when we arrived, then afternoon, evening, night.  When night came I constructed a huge fire that threw big flapping shadows on the corncrib and the trees, and underlit the trees, and threw off a rising tornado of sparks (because of the punk pine I’d used).

That morning, Lynnika had wanted the word for “minnows.”  It was one of the more wonderful periods of my life, witnessing my first daughter come into language.  It was entirely magical, how it started so simply with the names of things, and then, supposing things, supposing relationships between things, and then relationships of relationship, but all as beautifully ordered, as greenly exfoliated as any growing tree.

We say people learn their language.  Not exactly.  Language grows in people, is a living being.  I’m talking about something I actually saw happen.

I was Lynnika’s dictionary.  She would come to me for the names of things. That’s what “To a Young Man Working His Way through College” is about. This kid on my doorstep trying to sell me a “dictionary” for children—another one of those condescending constructions in which children are treated as stupid and requiring that the subject be dumbed down–when already, in her, language had attained such power and spendor that such a trivial little collection was laughable. This happened after the events on the land I’m telling you about. In mere weeks she would be constructing elementary sentences and then all of sudden it happened so fast we couldn’t keep up with it.

But this day I was still primal word-giver.  So at her question I gave her minnows for the little silvery flashing swimmers in the sheer thin shallows and swells of our WPA pond (its translucent green dusted and discriminated with a fine powder of yellow pine-pollen) and fish for the category.

As I say, then the night and the big fire flapping.  Over us in perfect clarity if we stepped away, the lucid stars.

And the fire throwing off its torrent of sparks.

And Lynnika had never seen sparks before.  But this time she couldn’t wait to get the word from me.  This time she needed a word right now.

She said, laughing happily, “Look at the fire-fish, Daddy.”

I think most people think language makes poetry, that it’s a refinement, an artifice, a purification.  I saw as clearly as I could possibly see that it went at least exactly the opposite way.  It’s poetry that has made language.

That moment, that creation, that spark of naming.  I became convinced that it is born in every one of us (not to say there are not varying degrees of innate ability), which if it were true would be at least astonishing and maybe miraculous, and that most of us, even the poets–and by poetry I mean to include all writing, possibly all language (Lynnika has found a different way to love language–she’s a linguist, a scientist of language, ABD from U of AZ)–become from frequency and habit inured to the astonishing innate human behavior I see as a sort of goddess in the species.  I became convinced that what genuine poetry does is restore the potency, the freshness that language had when we were first learning it.

The poems (the first one is there to set the time-frame roughly. It happened after Lynnika was born but a year before we moved to Arkadelphia).

 JANUARY 27, 1973

Dear Lord, as if by plan it happened:

All day long, the soul-dulling rain,

but by sunset the cloud-cover opened

here and there gaps, and let a stain

of lemon dawn on building walls,

and trees were crooked light again,

and the gaps widened, and fiery halls

opened in sunward clouds, and umber

glowed on the underbelly shoals

of clouds running eastward to slumber,

and just at six the porch-lights lit

all over town and starlings past number

flocked overhead, and watching that,

I heard the sirens announcing peace,

and people honking in the street.

All the last clouds blew off like fleece

and all the western branches flamed,

leaving the sky a polished piece

of onyx-blue. Let blame be blamed,

let who wants credit take the credit,

let it be as it has been claimed,

a bitter debt till we have paid it—

I say all the sober should get drunk,

and the celebrators celebrate it

in drive-in church and honky-tonk,

and all the car-horns honk honk honk.

 

 

No Title

 

My daughter sits jabbering.

I lean around the corner to look at her.

There she is tilted to the wall

in the mirror I have not yet made time to put up,

pretending to read.

She pulls the pages anyhow apart.

The main thing is to get them separated and make some noise.

Time enough for fine distinctions later.

Come on, typewriter keys,

she’s

catching up.

BLUES FOR LYNNIKA AT TWO

You gone blue write?

Darn right I gone blue write, blue girl

at such a sleepy loss

at my armchair’s arm.

I gone take this yellow pencil (why

did you say blue?),

I gone write you,

I gone blue write all right,

blue like stars

come out in deepening blue

over the bare black

over the sharp black

ideograms of trees,

untranslatable—raw oak sorrow, perhaps,

dotted gaities of gum?

Oh but blue, blue,

like blue going down

undone in puddles, thinning in water, dissolute, gone,

no least tinct like taint of salt, no ghostly hint, none,

but gone, blue,

You gone blue write?

I gone blue write,

like sleep is blue, pure blue, and you, you,

where do you go,

let go, to?

And what, oh blue, are blue fathers to do,

to think, helping you

let be, let go, let blue

be blue be blue be blue. You do

it so well, so simply,

let die your day, lay down all color, color

by color, singing:

Up-up-up a worse a high,

ha I wunner whatcher are—

you do it.  Ah blue, it

is so blue, you, how you are

not afraid, so love will lie by you

in the blue dark,

not afraid, blue, not afraid

to be blue, less, bluely, bluelessly

dispersed, timelessly blue

past blue past all blue blues blued

till yellow Jesus day bang open.

 

HOW MY DAUGHTER GAVE ME THE WORD

I find it impossible to speak

without music any more—

as if all language had finally

become poetry. And why not? Why not?

What is a word but a spark

somewhere in the brain, in the flesh therefore, a white-hot

leaping, a plasma so faint, so tinily

schooling with fellows,

and how they swerve in a manifold flashing,

the whirl of a mood, a thought, a hushing . . .

Like minnows spinning in shallows,

one silvery host in reversal,

flaring with sunfire, diffracting the scales of color,

moment beyond rehearsal.

Say in 1974, the spring,

early, when we stood on a cold hillside,

you and I and your mother,

you in my arms and prompt as the sunlight

spilling its differentials. You never denied

surprise but wanted always to know

the name of the never-before-met,

why rain was rain and water was water,

and water was always wet,

but water wasn’t always rain, but rain was always water,

and why the pond below

was not water, but a pond with water in it,

and those minnows, those fish flashing and schooling,

What do you call them? Quick as a minute,

I called you, and gave your mother a glance—

that archaic woman, so supple, so clean in her bones—

Oh things had names which were songs which were

a springing of item and light. This was before

I raised us a roof with my own hands, and named your sister

for the treetop blossoms of running yellow

jessamine, open for solstice.

This was before the sound of my restless

hammer, the singing of driven nails in a gridwork, a halo

of hopeful space.

This was before I began to build, but it was ours,

the land, the pond, the place—

the late afternoon in shallow,

in jade-lucid water . . .

All of it ours. And later

we made our night camp

beside the old corncrib falling in and useless,

but an architecture nevertheless,

the shadowy starpunctured frame and stamp

of the human, of the desire

for form, for mastery, for kinship, for the warmth

of a fire. And you knew fire,

its leonine pounce, its agile blue tongue—

but this kindling went whoomph!

like the big bang.

I had dragged punk pine from the undergrowth,

the jackstraw halfrotten aftermath

of starved-out seedlings, so that against a thick black smoke

a vortex rose, a host that went

almost to the starfixed sky, and broke

to meteors, the children of the arc.

And you were too excited this once to wait

for the father-word,

the old slow story of the spark.

Grace jumps before we’re ready,

before we can plan or fail. And so occurred

the ionic, the shellstripped fresh,

the radical made flesh:

Look Daddy, look Daddy–

firefish.

BLACKBERRIES

for my father, Jack Butler, Sr.

1.

The formal ocean has its watery hooks,

and here, far inland,

the water has gotten its hooks in me again.

Oh primocane and floricane and dead old sticks, oh thirst

for tantalant polyhedrals,

leaf-hidden, glimmering–packed purple beads

my eye can cull from wrangle of shadow

somehow halfway across a road!

For here, in the thrumming of a summer morning,

I’m making like a country boy,

picking blackberries,

thinking of fatherhood and childhood

and lost time like form–

My father, I provide, provide (my fathers)

with a rolling of wrist, a trained mumble

of palps to fat clusters, a dropping

of plumpness to palm till palm brims,

must dump in a bucket: Enough moral here

(for a preacher’s boy with a child of his own

twenty years later) in how

the one-too-many, greedily plucked-at,

will tumble a dozen out of the hand,

or how the outventured arm, drawn suddenly back,

will make the barbs clamp, close inward together—

Oh I am one to praise the very

thorns of the blackberry,

rose-cousin and edible tart fruit.

My mind drifts like a child’s, in visions of floating order,

my body attentive, sweat-beaded, mosquito-haunted . . .

These green canes, lashes,

sprung up limply on the wild rolled bramble,

the stiff, persistent stuff

of its own past history—I hardly need

to say like a wave, processions of vanishing structure,

there and not-there,

there at the corner of the eye,

to be gathered . . .

2.

I aint said nothing about chiggers of course, horseflies

in relentless whizzing precession,

the possibility of copperheads or moxicans

somewhere under the interthreaded

honeysuckle and greenbriar: Those forms that threaten invasion,

that are not merely there to be taken

but do their own taking.

Almost mathematically

one may mutter and permutate: sumac,

blackberry brambles to bind it,

sumac and greenbriar, greenbriar and blackberry,

honeysuckle (its flowering spent) and sumac,

honeysuckle and sweetgum, whose stars,

immediate and thick as weeds,

appear in the ditches just now, greenbriar

arresting the flowering elderberry–

And what of the triplets or the white dragonflies

with electric black wings

or blue slender naiads and the dark blue blur

of their whizzing wings, the orders of lizards, rabbits,

all of blue fulminant itchy summer

in one groined prehistoric non-tree,

sumac groaning with bees, heavy-blossomed, in heat,

and me under it with ringing ears looking up

at the branch-vaulted blue,

glad of the sweat-sodden weight of my denim,

at loose in the wild, uncomfortable, happy

to have made my escape,

for once, from breakfast.

3.

Vine, bee, bramble, shrub, tree, and flower

in their tangled communion and trade create

a world, whose verity

is not a function of pain exactly,

though I have come back

with hooks in my face, a sunburnt nose, and later,

ankles nubbled with redbug bites

a man will scratch bloody to make quit itching: Not a world

whose harsh truth poetry cannot enter,

but a world poetry must follow a man into—

let the barbs snag me, let me shit seed,

bite down on a stinkbug

hidden in a handful of winedark fruit.

4.

Lynnika loiters at the pick-up,

the game gone dead for her

after the first few roadside fruit. What are we for,

growing older,

but to learn persistence in the right directions,

the useful stubbornness

no child can manage, the pains to take

for the sake of the story.

I think now of my father’s sermons

in all those backwoods churches, hard seats and dragged-out hymns,

two-week revivals he had to get it up for

after a hundred

two-week revivals, scratching a living and knowing himself

a sinner as bad as any he scolded,

his children troubled. And I was the fat

unpleasant eldest, lazy and book-ridden,

swearing by dreams and wrong-headed,

itching with sleazy and sexual ignorance.

The hardcore faithful to prayermeeting came

on Wednesday nights, the rich midweek,

the church close-grained with pews,

spilling a yellow radiance to dust and sparse grass

as the deacons smoked on the porch and talked

and crops and spiders and kingdoms

rose in the talk and crumbled away, and, as I wrote

in a fragment that has long since crumbled, mosquitoes rose

like angels in the darkening wood, and sang.

Those roads, my daughter, we lived down,

those gravel trails with a church

or store with gas-pumps,

or a little town

at a drowsy focus, way back, the back way,

haunted with wooden bridges and tree-shadows—

I thought we brewed the New Jerusalem,

the world’s own change

and new meaning. I didn’t know.

It has been hard to lose those meanings

and keep my own, but the rest of the world

does exist. I am not much

of a country boy. Except. The fat fruit

seems always to shelter under cool leaves.

Bend over, twist your head, look up.

I’m sorry about the mosquitoes, the dust,

the blazing sun, the hard sharp rocks of the gravel,

the stink of dead animals.

Your father’s a poet and not a preacher.

Not much difference. You roll your own, that’s all.

Like cobwebs

a man walking through trees

breaks with his face,

those lost roads

are broken and gone

on the face of the round world’s present. But

what poetry has had for me

more beauty or order or mystery

than that we thought of in wooden churches

late at night

under the stars, our odd harmonic cries

troubling the owls?

The other night, out at the place,

the new place,

the one we own in two years, our first,

alone,

preparing to sleep

in the moon-barred corncrib (its logs unchinked),

exhausted and solitary,

spooky,

putting in time

to make it our home, this scrap of land,

the chuck-will’s-widow

whipping its call.

the cat snoring,

I thought of my crimes: Imagined monsters

were loose in the woods,

and I could feel the Methodist cemetery

across the road,

its bodies gathered and packed and crumbling,

and thought somehow

of that whole chambered boneyard,

from which I had conjured moldering skeletons,

vengeful and grinning with their own lost crimes,

to come at my scalp

through the moonlit door,

as a fruit like a blackberry, rich with form,

composite. And slept.

 

THE LOST ANIMALS

Barbara from Truchas came into the room radiant

with cold air, to say how

the horse at the fence, suspicious, had taken at last

a slice of sweetness from her naked fingers.

Once a hummingbird

stirred in my palm, uttered a single high note,

and took the winter air.

In Jayme’s hand, its stunned mate woke, sang, went.

Why is it we want to talk to animals?

None of the animals want to talk to us—

except, of course, those we have kept beside us

all these years: Miaow,

they say, or Wunf. Wunf. Wunf. And mean, See me.

All of our animals

are strays—the wounded, forgotten, misplaced, cast out:

A scrap of kitten with a rotted haunch

howling at ditch-edge, now a fat and happy

three-legged tom. Or our latest, Lawsted,

a mewling in the dark

arroyo last Christmas eve. We spent an hour

scrambling through sand, chamisa, juniper,

persuading her to our help,

persuading her not to become coyote-meat.

But she had called out to us. Lost as they are,

they have developed the syndrome,

self-awareness, have thought to themselves, I exist,

and then, inevitably,

but I will vanish unless they see me, see me.

This is our blessing, the fruit

of the tree of knowledge—of what? Of anything.

Ah, we are the species with questions which we disguise

as answers, we are the true lost animals.

My brilliant friend, the saint of smoking genius,

Big Al Varo on the twelve-string says

it is essential loneliness: We would

cry out to stones, Oh speak, because we are

alone. Perhaps. And perhaps also, of all

creatures most generous, we wish to transmit

the gift that stars our genes and makes us dream God,

we wish to touch as we have been touched,

to say that loneliness

may not be forever or at the last:

Our oldest, Abigail,

in morning, shut out, cries Mama at the door,

the only time—I swear it—

she makes that sound. And Jayme

rises from a warm dream to let her in.

THE MOTHER TONGUE

On the occasion of the Faulkner Conference, New Orleans, September 1999, with deep gratitude to Rosemary James and Joe DiSalvo, and particular appreciation for Richard Katrovas, Mark DeFoe, Peter Cooley, and Janet Turner Hospital, fellows on the “Meter and Musicality of Literature” panel—

I don’t know what my father is—

my mother is this tongue.

I see a many-branching tree,

forever young,

forever aging. Or else a river,

or else a fractal of light,

blooming for an instant in

hallways of night.

I have become that tree, that water,

exploded with that fire.

I’ve spent myself on poetry,

not on desire,

so honor all those vanished singers

who shaped the words I say:

I host their breath, and with it sing

all poets today.

We ask for heritage, for spirit,

we ask for sacred flame,

and the burning past spills from our lips

name after name

unnoticed. She moves unseen, the goddess,

she makes us kin, and ken.

What are we but monkeys, for all

our science and zen?

What are we but tricky bastards, upright

by means of continual will,

teetering from balance to balance,

so seldom still,

so busy with continual talk

we hear what isn’t there,

the footstep of the imaginary

on the living stair.

No longer animal entirely,

a tribe of voluble clowns,

we are what the mother has made us: Let lions,

let leopards pounce—

we will die pronouncing incredible arias,

we will die singing our fathers,

our mothers, the sun, the moon, the stars,

and all of those others.

And what are poets of any tribe,

however we differ and quarrel,

but wilding fools, enchanted to music?

—Ghostly, amoral

but holy stuff, almost familiar,

strange music that isn’t

quite music, but is, surprisingly, not

at all unpleasant—

no, no, in fact quite lovely,

in fact the fact of existence

hissing so sweetly across our beings

into blue distance.

What are poets but spirit-talkers

who make the dream-world visible,

as lightning wakens the night river

with an impossible

chaos of pathways, a branching of fire?

Talk dirty, talk mathematics,

talk trash, talk hip, talk tall, talk cardboard

boxes in attics

full of old photos. Talk turkey, talk sense,

talk straight, talk terms, talk to my lawyer,

now you’re talking, you talk the talk

but how do I know ya

can walk the walk? What are humans

but poetry-spouting apes,

changed animals who do strange things

to woids and grapes?

So lift a glass, Popeye and Olive,

hoist up your long-stemmed flute:

With a high and a ho and a hey-derry-do,

down the old chute!

—Here’s one for the language, not as a goddess,

but as a goddess might be.

—And here’s one for beauty, and here’s another

for just you and me.

 

REWRITE

This renewed bout of posting has helped me with one thing at least.  And that’s what was wrong with that math material I just posted.  None it was in English.  Most of it was in Mathics.  There’s a lot of the problem most people have with math.  It’s often presented with such elaborate pretension. Hmm.   Maybe that’s the problem with poetry too.

It’s true that a notation and a jargon save space and time eventually, however off-putting and incomprehensible they may be to the would-be initiate.  The notation eliminates redundancy, the need to explain all over again what you’re talking about every time you talk about it.  For that reason, I plan to segue (slowly, slowly) to the notation.

I’ve always been dubious about supposed knowledge that’s supposedly too hard to explain.  There is some, and it doesn’t pay to think there isn’t.  Real mathematicians plow through tremendously complex stuff, and I don’t expect them to stop and explain.  There’s wisdom too hard for me.

But I’m sure there are a lot people out there like me.  They actually kind of enjoy math but never tried to go professional.  They like odd little mathematical facts.  They like to play around with numbers.  Algebra made sense to them and they wanted more of that kind of information but at calculus they started to lose touch because nobody was talking their language any more.

So I promise to replace those essays with some English on the same subject.  They’ll run longer but easier to follow.  (For you and me.  Sometimes I go back and re-read an essay and can’t figure out what the hell I was talking about, though it made sense at the time.)

It’ll probably take me a while.  Making sense is the hardest work there is.

I’m assuming most of the people who would read these math posts already have some algebra and plane geometry and trig.  They might not know all the concepts and terms, but they won’t be thrown by seeing an equation written out in the notation.

Oh, and I’m changing the poem in the last post, replacing “latticework” with “rusty screen,” which is the particular image I had in mind.

SCRATCH SHEET

I’ve decided to publish here some of the many essays I’ve written on mathematical and philosophical subjects.  I realize that kind of stuff bores a lot of people (or, possibly, intimidates them–it often seems to me that so many people are afraid of math because they were taught to fear it–I think most people have a lot more ability at math than they give themselves credit for).  But, what the hey, this sort of thing occupies a large part of my thinking, and you might as well know about it.  You can always just skip them.

In fact, for a lot of them, that may be a good idea.  These essays are more or less the finished products.  The real fun has been on the scratch sheets, the rough and tumble of chasing down an idea and working it out, and the finished product is way more dense than the fun stuff.

And saying that gives me an excuse to copy in an old poem (written in a house backed by woods in Jasper, Texas).  I like to think the poem could apply equally well to mathematics or poetry itself.

THE EDGES, THE FRACTIONS, THE PIECES

When I used to work deferential equations

I had a neat sheet I kept track of it on

inking in ordered chains of tuneful logic

like dew collecting on a rusty screen

or sugar crumbling grain by grain to nectar

but when the next change stumped me as it did

more times than I’ll mention, out came Stubby

the friendly yellow # 2 chewed pencil

with round blunt lead and sweat-stained foreskin wood

long unwhittled in the sharpener’s whirling knives

and Eraser’s thin brass jacket bitten flat

to raise just one more day’s meniscus of correction

and out came Oscar, the mangy scratch-sheet

and all his haypile fat comedian friends

glad to see me as always and so we romp

we tussle in the briar-patch scratchy grass-fields

until a girl without an ounce fat on her

strides by in a pure white muscular gown

and I am dressed in wedding-white for church again

with an ink string tie the height of fashion

over the starchy ruffle of my beating chest

when I used to work D for any ol’ equations