Monday, October 20, 2014

The Deal

The modern world, that devil’s bargain …
                                    —E.M. Cioran

The devil came to a man one day
and told him: “I will grant to you
undreamed of wealth, knowledge, power;
every hope mankind has known
will real become, or seem to be
on the verge of reality
tomorrow or, at the very most,
the next day, marvelously.
You will dominate the earth,
take your first steps toward the stars,
walk on the mountains of the moon,
touch the sands on the plains of Mars,
weigh the ice on Saturn’s moons,
on your fingers wear her rings,
weigh the universe itself
in the scales of your great mind,
measure its length, its breadth, its age,
its time to come, death and old age,
you will be so sage.

You’ll count the smallest elements
that make it up – the quarks, the strings,
the genes, the chromosomes of all things –
and play with them
to make new worlds, new life, new minds –
you’ll learn
the origin of space and time,
the source of life, the cause of thought,
everything that can be known
you, and you alone, will know.

With your opposable thumb and brain
that Nature in her infinite
munificence gave unto you,
with your gift at math and word,
with your cunning skill of hand,
you will rule the mighty earth –
throw your chains across its seas,
dominate all air and space,
spin the world into a thread
to bind in one great continents,
throw your voice and images
in a mesh of thoughts and cries
until you fill the seas and skies
with nothing but humanity.

You will need no god but you.
You will be the bright, new god.
You will control reality.
And this will be because of me:
the prince of matter, energy,
reason, cunning, power, will –
le prince de ce monde, in a word;
the world of reason that’s perfectly absurd.

Of course, I ask a little price,
almost nothing compared to what
you’ll get in return. You might even say
that what I ask for hardly exists.
I’m almost embarrassed to name it – it
sounds so old fashioned, pre-internet,
so last century, lame, unhip,
for sexless weaklings, ungrown-up,
boring, slow, Neanderthal
as a Republican and as dull
as a Midwestern prayer breakfast:
let’s face it: only losers have a soul.
‘He’ll be talking about God next!’
sneers, in disgust,
those noble virtues of our time,
Selfishness, Arrogance, Gluttony, Greed and Lust.

Perhaps. But that is what I ask
in return for a world controlled by you,
a world that shows your … interesting face
where’er you look:
a world of pure reflection,
a world pure mirror, a palace that is
half lunatic asylum, half private prison.
Yet all of the things you long for most –
life, youth, love sans end,
a meaning in the swirl of chaos
of energy and matter – you’ll
discover are the only things
you’re not allowed to have: alone,
mortal, with all your cash and guns,
the ingenious devices that every week
tickle you with novelty,
flattering your infinite vanity –
iPod, iPhone, iPad, iLife –
games of virtual reality
and chemicals beyond ecstasy,
that cut across your existence like a knife –
are nothing but a substitute 
for what you cannot have:
something real.

                          There will be
no meaning, importance, central
role in the universe
for you,
you’ll just be
what you’ve always been:
an ant, anxious, angry,
with an odd
wish there might be
a hell, heaven, eternity,
and a dusty, musty old ghost in the machine called God.

I will make more billionaires
than the world has ever seen before:
a billion bubbles of hot air
that burst till there is nothing there.
And you will see the world you made
is worthless, empty, gaudy, dead:
a corpse dressed in Polo,
Chanel, Versace, svelte brocade
in Italy designed, in Vietnam made,
shipped to San Francisco’s malls,
to mobs of cool Young Adults sold,
looking forward to a long cruel death, sick, old.

But I have more: the final end
of my great gift is what your power
will do to the world you’ve taken over,
wrecking, pillaging, plundering it
under oceans of waste and air
most foul, deserts of famine, unbounded
drought, dead waters rising in
oceanic vomitaria,
with a holocaust of species
that do not serve or entertain you,
then even those you will wipe out,
the net that held you up you’ll cut
beneath you, till you’ve made the globe
a fetid stinking tropic, pole to pole.
The earth you will have eaten like an apple.

That is what I offer you:
oblivion and a ransacked world
drifting in space forever
after a few centuries of wealth and power
unimaginably sublime,
based on understanding of the truth,
the terrible truth of reality.

That’s my bargain.”

The devil fell silent, his hands on the table
next to a paper ready to be signed.
And the man smiled and shook his head
and leaned toward the woman next to him.

“There’s no devil and God is dead,”
he whispered to her.
“We are the cleverest things alive
We’ll outwit him whatever he says
And anyway, it’s only a piece of paper.
What do you say?” The woman, concerned,
frowned and asked, “You’re sure about this?
It sounds terribly dangerous.”
“I’m positive. Whenever did the devil
speak the truth? We already know
most, if not all, of his secrets.
He’s trying to scare us. He wants to keep us
weak, ignorant, under his thumb.
He’s full of hot air, most of it
noxious enough. Whatever happens,
we’ll be all right.” “Hm. Well! But, before we
sign our lives away, I have
one little question to ask Mr. Devil.”

She turned to Him. “Mr. Devil,
what will happen if we don’t sign?”

The devil shrugged. “Nothing at all.
You’ll live as you have for millennia:
most of you will be illiterate
peasants, a few will serve your lords,
that tiny number
who walk the earth in exalted splendor –
in badly heated palaces, damp
castles warding barbarians off
in pathless forests among impassable mountains
and living in fear of every person
near them, with nightmares of dagger and poison.
Most of your children will die before six,
your food will be wretched, cost most of your income,
you’ll die of illness before you’re forty,
and smell most seasons – especially in summer.
You’ll be ruled by idiot kings, gangster nobles
and lecherous priests. Crime will kill
those among you who survive the diseases.
Your mind will be
a mire of superstitions, crass
stupidity and prejudice, madness, and fear.
You’ll be living in the Middle Ages pretty much forever.”

“It sounds awful.” “But that’s how people
have lived since the dawn of time. It does have
one clear advantage, though.” “And that is?”
“Surviving indefinitely, more or less.
It’s what one calls a ‘sustainable
way of life.’ It still kills off
too many other living things
just to keep itself fed and amused.
But it could actually last. And there’s
one more thing, I almost forgot,
the most important of all of this:
human life – your brief, dim flight
a few feet over the soil of earth
between the sun and the moon’s light,
for all its misery, stupidity, shame,
brutality with and without a name,
will be the most important thing
in the entire universe:

God or gods and angels and even
devils like me will center our minds
on how you live and act and die
and everything we think or do
will try to lead you to heaven or hell:
however you’re dunked or drowned or twirled,
your fate will be the meaning of the world.”
  
The woman thought for a moment, and looked
at the man, who looked back, thoroughly appalled.
“Don’t listen to him,” he whispered hastily
to his skeptical mate. “We can have
everything – immortality, bliss,
meaning, importance, significance –
we’ll even have angels and God, because
we’ll be god, if we play our cards right –
we just have to be smart about this.”
Then remembering the devil’s promises,
she held her breath, then said, “All right,
go ahead. Do it. I love you.” “It’s
a deal,” the man said aloud and signed.
His lady added her name too, nicely aligned.

The man grinned, the lady laughed, the devil smiled.
The ink they signed with filled the air
with darkness. “They call me the prince of lies,”
the devil said. “It’s not so. I am
the prince of truth. Unhappily for you,
the truth will not set you free –
it will only reveal more perfectly
the length and strength of the chains that bind you
and the hopelessness of any escape.”

The man looked grimly up at him.
“We’ll see about that. You’ve got your bargain.
But don’t underestimate us, or me.
Full of surprise is humanity.
Here’s my bet: we’ll make the world
a garden stronger than paradise,
a kingdom of love and hope, a home
where happiness and peace will reign
between man and man, and man and beast,
and man and woman, his love, his friend.
We won’t conquer the earth, we will
marry it, wed it, husband it
with care and tenderness. Love will win
because it must or we all die:
we will conquer the heart of man
and share the earth with all that lives,
life will be a glorious dance,
infinite music will fill all space.
Love shall prevail …”

                                      The devil laughed.
“Hopeless idealist! Blind romantic!
You haven’t read much history
or looked at Facebook recently.
Good luck with that!” “Good luck indeed,”
the man said coolly. “We all need that.”
“You certainly will.” “Yes, we will.”

They stared at each other over the table.
The ink had not yet dried on the paper.
Suddenly a thought crossed the woman’s mind:
“What if I grab it and tear it up
right now?” Her heart beat hard and fast ...
But the moment passed.

“And so it begins?” the devil asked.
“And so it begins,” the man returned.
“We’ll see which one’s the cleverest,”
the devil smiled as he pocketed the paper.
“It would be a shame to be outwitted
by something that does not even exist!”
And he vanished away in a cloud of smoke and laughter.

The man and the woman turned to each other.
“What have we done?” the woman said.
“Whatever we’ve done,” the man replied,
“we’ll beat him, because we must.” The woman
shook her head doubtfully. Then they kissed.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Clouds and Roses

I do not mourn the passing of a cloud;
I enjoy watching it disintegrate into azure.
A blossom falls. I shrug, then I move on
after brief study of the wounded rose.
I weigh the light descending from a supernova,
blasted across ten million miles of space;
I light my page with its vanishing pinpoint of rays.
A friend dies. I sing a soft drunken song for him,
then let him sleep forever in my memory’s secret hotel.

Don’t call me heartless. A thousand galaxies
have died between my lover’s gasp and sigh.

Roses, clouds, galaxies, lovers, friends – when they’re gone,
there is always more where they came from.
Sad but true—not sad, and yet still true.
It is the iron law:
there is no beginning and no ending for all.

The quantum vacuum is pregnant
eternally, like the high school you-know-what.
She’s pretty and sweet, and definitely loony,
and far too generous with her tender, over-eager thighs.
I always liked her. Everybody does.
Everyone lets her get away with murder,
She is rose, cloud, supernova, galaxy, lover.

My own passage is nothing but an already forgotten breath.
When I was born, I had already died.
So, cheer up, friends. They say life is an illusion,
but the greatest illusion of all is death.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Meaning of Life, in 20 Stanzas



To admire the simple lines and serene elegance – in a word, the beauty –
of this unassuming, little, purple plum

to analyze it into its smallest constituents, its bound quanta of energy,
of organic molecule, atom, electron, proton, quark, meson, gluon, Higg’s boson,
string

to mark its modest place in the multifactorial hologram of spacetime
between the quantum vacuum and the arguably infinite multiverse

to notice how it is shaped
a little like a heart,
a little like a scrotum
before it wrinkles

to pop up from a blossom
on a black, slim bough
and hang there, thoughtless,
under the sun and the bees,
until an overworked field hand
plucks it down and puts it into his basket
before sending it off to market

to sit bored on a produce shelf at Whole Foods,
spritzed every few minutes by a mist to keep it
Looking Fresh,
for weeks at the height of summer,
its price going down half a dollar a pound
each week,
until a price-conscious shopper
snaps it up, in a ridiculous little bag,
from the throw-away bin,
for a truly insulting $.19 a pound

to decay with slow dignity in a fruit bowl,
where it was forgotten when the family
left for vacation

to set it on a table
and paint it
in the 10,000,000 ways,
from Shubun to Chardin to Picasso to Damien Hirst

to stick it on the nose of a clown
followed by an amorous butterfly
trailed by a delirious frog
and eyed by a suspicious acrobat
left behind by a bankrupt traveling circus

to exchange it for credit in the commodities market
against a future shipment of papayas,
kumquats, huckleberries and passion fruit

to combine it in a clever scientist’s laboratory
with an orange and an apricot
and come up with the ingenious
pluocot

to weigh it in a grocer’s scale,
take it home at Christmas
and cook it in a pudding
and serve it with brandy
in flames

to dry it until it becomes a prune
and distribute it to elderly folk who suffer from irregularity

to wait until the little plum
is perfectly ripe
(testing it every day
until it feels soft
and tender)

then,
giving it one last, admiring glance,
open your mouth
and eat it
                       
                        then take its pit,
drop it
into a hole
in the garden
and grow it
into a plum tree
where its delicate, pink flowers,
will always be the first blossoms in spring
and young girls and boys in Chinatown
will carry them through the New Year’s streets

to write a hymn praising the plum
as it sails across the heavens,
like a fat, purple moon,
rising to play its part
in a feast of the gods

then disappear,
like a magic act
in a hushed theater,
the lights streaking through the darkness
looking for it,
though it is never
to be found
again

visions of Plums
dancing in children’s dreams
in the night

to see it with the eye
of God.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

War Poem

He takes the clock in his fist.
Sirens cover the laughter
on the other side of the river.
The air limps over the field.
Squadrons loom through the marsh fog
and search beams strip the sky
of long remnants of light.
His other hand  cuts out the springs,
and time scatters, like pennies
from a child's piggy bank,
the coins dark as scabs.
The grunts rush across the meadows.
If only it were a question of burying
the numb memory of the fever,
but not quite. On the contrary.
It is the command of the monarch,
the chrysalis in the congress of iron,
failed drugs, mutant diseases,
minds picking souls from the gardens like daffodils,
and the curling slab of a history book
burning in a bowl on the ice
in the winter twilight.
History is peculiar. It seems unbearable,
and is all we are sure to leave behind.
Here are the words you left.
They burn under history like a pair of hands.


Horse

They ripple like velvet on the ocean's skin,
their eyes sorrows no one knows are questions;
they look right through you. "What is my nobility
to me?" A flick of the tail undoes the paddock.
The little fellow lifts his butt sky high,
and Lightning, Hot Mama, Candyland and Grace
charge across the mud.
I know nothing. Particles and chance
work like a hand to bring your prize to me.


People Should Not

People shouldn't die. It's a disgrace,
obscene to wreck what you create like toys.
Tell the bastard when you meet him, face to face.

It's mud and savagery of little boys
outside the celestial bullpen where we race
to see who wins the prize for who destroys

with a swifter whelp from end to end of space,
like refined mosquitoes, an irritant that annoys
the back of Phlegethon burned under ice,

music of a silence spiced with outraged noise:
they should not die, once born - that is the disgrace:
an artist stabbing his canvas, writer bilking his cries,

musician drowning his instrument, beauty shattering her face,
breaking a world under a welkin open as joy.
It is not right. It is in bad taste.

Say it is not. Repeat it: it is not. It is lies.
People should not die. It is His disgrace.
Tell the bastard when you meet him, face to face.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Disappearance of the Flies

      " 'Secular humanist' - it almost sounds like mockery."
                          - Overheard at a climatology conference 


So, the word’s finally out:

I am the world's Nazi,
and you are my Jews.

Not that I hate you absolutely –

on the contrary, I enjoy you,
for the most part;

those of you I cannot eat
or flog into subservience,
to help or amuse me, decorate my
upscale live-work high-end design space
now – or by no later than the end of next quarter –

are just in the way,

as I thrust ahead

to glory, sweet power,
and a suffocating wealth
built on the dependable human delight
in the enchanted moment of acquisition.

I’ve got you,

I’ve got the world.

It is no longer God’s or nature’s;

it is mine,

I own you,

I who hate to have and love to get.

There was once a despot
whose footsteps bloodied his time.
After he had conquered the world,
bored with his possessions,
he decided to destroy them:
slaughtered his slaves, his women, his sycophants,
sent his soldiers to the ends of his empire
to pillage and sack it, out of boredom and rage
that he had no more worlds to conquer.
He burned his own palaces to the ground.

In a raging drunk one night,
he broke his neck in a ditch.
The peasants crept up to his filthy, stinking body,
the one that had conquered the world,
and watched the flies flickering over it.

There are no peasants tomorrow.

There are no flies.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sun and Ice

With edges sharp
as your eye’s knife,
it stands, suspicious
of the rite,

the callow, beg-eyed, leg-thrummed calf,
the wet, thin-fleeced, wobbly lamb.

The chasuble
drapes the rail.
The crow opens his wintry beak.

Where’s the blood that saves the mark?
Somewhere under Easter week.

Their sacrifice
will not suffice.
The heart is made
of sun and ice.

Oh, how I hoped how we might sing! How
wrong I was. It’s like a tick,
that sticks to the skin, or jerks the eye.

The square will not
the circle win,
though roses open
in her hand
and thorns stigmata the winter land.

The altar stands
between taut oaks.
We ’wait the god
and kneel in mud.

Slap the drum.
Pluck the dance.
Eat the blood.
Horses, prance!

Bring in the callow, leg-thrummed calf,
bring here the thin-fleeced, wobbly lamb.

The eyes stare
and staring, blind.
Drink the heart
of human kind.

Love is not a fallow field.
It ripens, or it does not yield.

The sacrifice
will not suffice.
The heart is made
of sun and ice.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Blanco

… white as a slab of pork,
white as scuffed and angry cement,
a dust rag moist with lemon oil.
White as a dirty hand.

Nada es muy blanco.

White as pink gray yellow blue.
White as you.
In other words: not white at all.
(Nada es muy blanco.)

The gall
to call him from the depths of night
by what he is not: white.
They call them what they are not, too:
all of them, they sort them out
like beans in bins,
recycling tins,
by more or less grotesque colors,
trash here,
cans there,
garbage over there.

Bitcoin martinet,
petty aristocrat,
tyrant of the file folder,
form grid, matrix,
the broken glass in the yoga mat,
bureaucrat –
you know exactly what I mean.

Burn them in hell,

or call them by their names.

Nada es muy blanco.