FREE! FOR BEST AMERICAN POETRY BLOG READERS ONLY!
An exclamation mark after the word “free” usually signals that the word is being used in its economic sense. Today seems like my chance to drop an exclamation point after the word and still refer to political liberty rather than to monetary price. We’ve received answers to our questions from Stephen Burt, but the second question also provoked a different kind of response. The editors at the online journal InDigest (http://www.indigestmag.com/) — which is a site worth adding as an answer to #3, the “what other websites should I check out” question — have given us permission to post a sneak peak from their forthcoming issue: an advance look at Stephen Burt’s “After Virgil,” which is a “version” — it doesn’t take long to figure out it’s not exactly a “translation” — of Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue.
It seems worth reminding ourselves that, whatever the particulars of the relation between poetry and politics, our lives as poets, our lives as readers of poetry, and our lives as citizens are bound together with one another, not isolated from one another. Burt’s poem, whatever else it does also, tenders just such a reminder. So here is the poem:
for Jordan Ellenberg, father of Caleb
At last, today, we can talk about something else--
about rock and roll again, for example, or
about the relative merits of green and black tea,
about anything that we know will have nothing to do
with the national perils and chances that kept us fixed,
like greyhounds in harness, despite ourselves, on the tracks
of the polls, of the ground game, of cellphones and robocalls,
of the neck and neck, the face to face, the fears
we harbored all year for the winner in that great race
where two hundred million people could join, or jeer.
At last we know who won, and we can turn
our attention to something within our expertise,
to something like the parks and recreation
the verse of the past opens for us on sunnier days.
We can: but I don't want to. I want a song
as old as Rome, as new as Twitter, and
I want to revive the parched, beat-up idea
that song is now as it has always been:
if this one sounds too old, that's as may be --
should it fade, soon enough another will take its place.
It wouldn't be right to say that now
the Golden Age has come again, that now
American history reboots:
it might be right to say that the Sixties are over,
that new people come down from towers beside a Great Lake
to do their new jobs in a place built to look like Rome.
It might be right to say
that those people will do their jobs,
will execute the laws and cherish peace,
that some will work till morning, every week,
to scrub the blood out of the old concrete, or find
the money that departing miscreants hid;
to say that we can reread,
in confidence that they make sense,
the job descriptions 39 calm men
we like to call our ancestors laid down
in Philadelphia, in slavery days,
in signatures, in scratched up, wet, black ink,
like a check in a drawer, endorsed but not yet cashed,
a check kept in a drawer two hundred years.
It might be right to say
that slow and steady won one race,
to say that hope defeated fight-or-flight;
to imagine a new planet warms the night sky; to say
that under it the children congregate,
their homework done now, in Grant Park; to say
that over them, on one cool Tuesday night,
it looks like even the wind cooperates.
The age of riots is done,
the shouting is all for joy,
the work of the year to come is close at hand.
The iron implements
of violence are laid down;
dew covers them; they become
old monuments in Wednesday morning's sun.
It wouldn't be right to say
now kudzu will vanish from forests, now the banks
of an irrigated river will open up
and out of it flow enough water for all crops;
it might be right to say
that honest surveyors and clerks
can help us share what fruits and herbs we have.
And it might be right to say
that for Caleb the earth itself might flourish again,
longhorns look up to windmills, and coal cease
to blacken the pink granite mountains, and crisp heaps
of waste grass make electric turbines run;
that union cards will mean
what their carriers want them to mean,
that credit-default swaps will be no more.
It wouldn't be right to say that sometime soon
there will be no fatigues or camouflage:
we still have an Army, a Navy, and Marines,
and still need them; we still have a grisly war,
and grisly pictures Caleb, and Nathan too,
and Anna and Leonard will see much later in life.
And yet the new stars in their constellations may be
civilians, listeners, small stars that stay put,
by whose consistent lights we navigate:
it might be right to say
that we can now look up
to civil servants, small knots in a net
that holds together as it breaks our fall,
the famous and the anonymous who choose
late nights along cramped desks; who take good notes,
who "never do something just because it's cool";
who know how to hook and lace work boots, how to read
dosimeters, how to coax a bud from a twig
or buy safe tables for a preschool room;
who map and ride and plan
our too-thin skein of trains;
whose "highs are not too high," "lows not too low";
who make comprehensible graphs
of the particles in our air;
who can tell a mean from a median, understand
a standard deviation, or apply a standard of care.
No ancient lyre, no advertised success, excels such feats.
So much work still to do; this work
says we can do that work,
can make a republic out of an old school song.
That song should now sound new,
as the age itself is new,
as Caleb is still new, who knows the names
of his mother and father, and smiles at them; plays drums;
knows how to take turns; says "Thank you"; who knows, as we know,
having waited long enough, when his turn has come.