This poem mentions the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk, Thích Quảng Đức, on June 11, 1963, in protest of the escalating war in Vietnam. The images were all over the news and they shocked the world, and of course it was a sign of things to come. It remains one of the iconic images of the horrible tragedy of the war there. “The Secretary of State of War” might be either Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in 1963, or Dean Rusk, Secretary of State. Neither was involved in an actual sex scandal in 1963, but the reference to winking and screwing a “redhaired whore” has to be an oblique allusion to “red” Communism and Vietnam, quickly escalating into the Cold War’s hot outbreak once the dangerous affairs in Cuba had settled a bit. We’re of course supposed to hate war, right, but perhaps not every winking adulterer in power does? It brings them more power, and if you’re also, for example, ex-CEO and still with close ties to a company like Haliburton, which stands to profit mightily from an engagement, then you stand to make a lot of profit as well. An excellent use to which your power may be put! (And by the way, water boarding is merely a form of enhanced interrogation. Some of these people have an infernal poetical streak themselves.) Pope John 23 died that week, and his friend and Papal Secretary, Loris Francesco Capovilla, of course mourned his passing. Abba Pimen, of the Orthodox Church, said: “A man may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others, he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent, that is, he says nothing that is not profitable.”
It all fits. There’s the week, then, second week of June, 1963. I’m sure Walter Cronkite told his viewers, “And that’s the way it is.” What arises in the poem is the discrepancy between the arrival of fame, which is supposed to be a good thing, but in the end might be just as awful as the litany of newsworthy tragedies listed in the first stanza, because of the underlying recognition that deep down, you’re not worthy. This is what sours his fame, turning it into something like the burning monk, a horrifying demonstration, even though you’re also affable and top-shelf, la-dee-dah. There’s a sour vapor curling from your affability; the top shelf is glass and it’s cracking. You go get laid, then, feel bad about it after, keep going.
The quote from Abba Pimen seems to be assuming that silence is a virtue to be cultivated, though he doesn’t mean a mere superficial not-talking; It’s rather a deeper, spiritual stillness, something “profitable.” Does this fit the poet? I think so: The deeply silent holy person may indeed never shut up. Ideally, that’s the poet, speaking, speaking through his work. There is a resonant, complex silence that follows from this Dream Song, like a bronze Tibetan bowl struck once and that shines forth its tone for a full minute. This one interior moment held aloft in all its ambiguity: famous, false, fearful, flaming: tragic and magnificent. “Quelle sad semaine”: What a sad week.