I can’t find a specific reference to a historical incident from the 60s when a murderer and/or terrorist with a submachine gun cleared out the Durga Temple, a Hindu shrine in India. Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, especially given historical tension between Islamic and Hindu groups in that part of the world. I didn’t have to, though. This poem is about a contrast between history and contemporary life, how sometimes the contemporary erodes or even erases history. It’s easy to do: Burn books, destroy a temple, tear down a statue, execute scholars. Happens all the time. A Middle East terrorist group hit the news just a couple week ago, not for its infamous public beheadings, videos of which have circulated over the Internet, but for deliberately destroying shrines and statues in territory it has conquered. “It is very dark here in this groping forth” indeed. The darkness, in our groping forth, thrives on both sides of law and social orthodoxy, too. No one but the most vicious and committed ideologue would support something like a ritual public execution, but the Web on this day today is filled with a video of a black man being shot in the back by a police officer, and it takes only the most committed of ideologues to argue that this hasn’t been happening too often in the US. At least the video prompted immediate action, and this may yet be brought under control. Without the video, it might not have been so easy and could well have been swept under the rug like so many other similar incidents have. The point is that the moving forward through time of the world we’ve constructed is making for a perilous and difficult passage, and our attempt at hanging on to what was valuable about the past can get stomped—by violence, but also by apathy and by rhetoric and lies.
“Look on without pure dismay.” I find that difficult to do. Earlier this week my son chastised me for being negative when I heard a lying politician on the radio telling lies again, and I pointedly, promptly, and with admirable and succinct efficiency deconstructed the lies for my 19-yr-old son, still so young and wide-eyed and eager to absorb all he can about the complexities of this degraded world that I’m able to teach him. Well, actually, he rolled his eyes, turned up the volume on his earbuds, said, “What does ‘weaselspeak’ even mean?” Then his phone announced a text and I lost him.
The mention of the submachine gun “shoots” the poem and the regular Dream Song form, in fact fragments it into a number of disarticulated chunks where we would normally expect to find the second stanza. The poem re-forms around a comic fusion of past and present: “The slave-girl folded her fan & turned on my air-condtioner.” Dreams of sex follow, until Henry’s guardian angel, or whoever he is, rolls his eyes at Henry’s nonsense.
Is it so dopey and inexcusably nostalgic to yearn for the past? I look around at the 19th-century American city I live in, some of which actually remains remarkably intact, and I think—yeah, okay, there was filth, stench and squalor everywhere, and the streets were ankle deep in horseshit (not an exaggeration, either), and you could die from lockjaw if you cut yourself shaving, and woe to you if you got a cavity in a wisdom tooth, or if you were female, of African, Asian, Irish, Native American, Jewish, or Italian descent, which made your life ten times more difficult than a guy like me—but at least there was no such thing yet as plastic. So what I want, like Henry, in my way, is to inhabit a world of modest cities with lots of clean food and hot showers, populated by attractive, articulate and artistic citizens, that smells like soap, that is never too hot or too cold, that has ornate Victorian architecture on every block, and that doesn’t have air pollution, no Interstate traffic jams, no oil spills, no fracking or mountaintop removal, thriving communities of wild animals living out their innocent lives in the vast wilderness, no real estate agents dropping pre-fab arrangements of gray houses on soybean fields. No plastic. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. But right now you need to be dreaming to find your way to that place. Might as well ask that sexy, happy slave-girl to turn up the air conditioner and bring us a sweet lemonade.