A Modest Jeremiad – America, Vermont and Purgatory

August 22nd, 2010

Having re-visited Dante’s Inferno in To Join the Lost, I am now engaged in re-visiting his Purgatorio.  Purgatory was the mountain Dante climbed after leaving hell, on which the souls of those whose sins had not disqualified them for salvation were purged and cured and made ready for heaven.  In my vision, the mountain has been flattened and replaced with a Rust Belt-ish city full of ambiguities, dreariness, and occasional flashes of ruinous beauty.  Unlike those in Dante’s vision, the souls in my City of Purgatory have no idea why they are there and grope uncertainly for whatever degree of tikkun may be available to them.

Once a month I attend an “open mike” poetry reading group at the Flynndog in Burlington, and usually I read something from the work in progress, discovering how it sounds in front of an audience.  It’s a great way of focusing on what needs revision, and how much.  This month, I got some warm applause for the following exerpt.

The action takes place in late August, 2005.  The character known as me has just come away from an encounter with a group of pro-life protesters outside an abortion clinic.  I have He has been walking along the road, lost in thoughts about the protesters:

They march around calling down the light on others
like spotters calling in an air strike.
Despite the fervor boiling in their skulls,
nothing answers. Despite their persistent
invocation of divine interference
with these purposes, these bricks,
the house continues to stand uncauterized
of its business, its clients to come and go.

Their prayers, which seem to me him in the ultimate analysis to be brutal and vicious, clearly go unanswered, and yet they keep offering them up, urgently, insistently. My His train of thought arrives at some musing on the nature of prayer, and then, like when a subway train comes above ground, light breaks in:

Like a gentle bell, the thought of silent
godless prayer awakens me

to this strip of concrete walkway, segmented by roads;
the discs of shadow that dot it every
fifty feet for blocks ahead, their near
congruence with the drip lines
of the maples that cast them; half the day done.
How far I have to go, or where
I might stop for the night, or if I’ve no more need
to sleep than eat, I’ve no idea.
Looking up as directly as I can,
I ask the ferocious solar blob to

give me a sign, but in this residential
stretch there’s not even signage to help me.
Gaily painted, tight-packed triple-deckers
line the lane and its tributaries
about as far as pollution permits me to see.
A tree old enough to have tethered horses
adorns each lot by the street. I pause beneath
one for a moment’s probosculation.
Across a shallow yard full of weeds and a half-filled
inflatable wading pool, a very

fat old woman dozes on her porch,
slumped in her wicker chair, arms crossed, and
curled on the shelf of her bosom a tabby cat sleeps,
riding peaceful respirations.
The sight of these two mammals enjoying so fully
the little they have in common should shame
you to weeping, America!  How hard can it be
to care for one another?  Your rich
begrudge your poor their mite.  Your poor begrudge
each other.  The ones in the middle fear

those below them, bend the knee to the moneyed, and
suspect their neighbors.  The space a dollar
takes is more than you’d spare the creatures around you.
One thing you’re free with: you shit your nest
and everywhere else.  You stomp around the world
with an anxious smile and a big knife,
taking whatever you want, and whoever gets in your
way had better look to god for
help.  You wonder why they hate you, who loved you,
back in the days of FDR.

Your bodies, your selves, your world, your awareness touches
glancingly, as if its business makes
other, more pressing demands.  So disconnected,
you float in a cloud of faith.  The bulk
of life slides dreamily by.  Your passion is spent
on spectator sports and disappointment.
You wallow in stuff.  When plunged into war by the sudden
destruction of your tallest buildings,
your president hires mercenaries and
advises you to go out shopping.

He takes your money, leaves you your unappeased wrath, turns
havoc to purposes of his own,
hocks your children’s future to moneylenders,
kidnaps tortures murders and spies in
your name, lies to the world in your name, abandons
Kyoto in your name.  Don’t you feel safer?
He and his claque proclaim their love of god and
homeland, fearless disdain for others’
gods and homelands, reverence for the unborn
who may some day be ready to live

but not for the living women who carry them.
When (I write after the fact) your beautiful
southernmost port is drowned, as soon as it’s safe he will
stand in the floodlit, sodden square and
make fine promises no one expects him to keep (he
won’t), just like a politician
character in the movies or on TV.
In what way is this much concentrated
delusion and stupidity consistent
with the survival of the species?

Perhaps it’s not, and the clearest evidence we are
likely to get of a loving god’s
existence is our continued presence on earth
despite our manifest unfitness.
Or maybe the bar is set very low.  Most likely,
we simply have not reached it yet.
Some six hundred seventy years ago, Ambrogio
Lorenzetti anticipated
Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life by painting
the walls of the hall where Siena’s elite

would do their republic’s business with lovely frescoes
showing, here, their town and its hilly
countryside governed well, and there, quite poorly.
You, Vermont, so justly proud of your
politics almost as deep blue as the
beautiful sky where Ambrogio suspended his
bodyless spirits of stable republican virtue,
look: can you see yourself in the ring dance
the women weave on the cobblestones next to the merchants’
peaceful stalls?  A man buys shoes.

The dancers and singers excite no comment among
the many but not too many who pass
on foot and horseback with calm and friendly smiles,
the well-to-do better dressed than the rest
but not by much, unarmed.  The streets are clean,
the buildings well maintained, and well fed
peasants, decently clad, send laden donkeys
into town from their orderly fields.
Or is the city of crumbling buildings your mirror?
Barefoot people walk past the cobbler’s

and past the bodies lying in the street.
The rich stay hidden and carry weapons.
Clots of people stand around the square and
quarrel.  Drunks drop junk from towers.
Across the blackened pastures, the totentanz
of armored men is all that moves.
A far cry, you might say, from Chittenden County,
where no one is homeless – the shelters and food shelf
are as empty as the prisons – and never a
meadow lost its flowers for Walmart, a

long way from Newport where none of the windows on Main Street is
boarded and cheerful natives find plenty of
interesting work, another world from Spear Street’s
McMansions and Essex County’s trailers.
Your Democrats and Progressives can tell you, no faction
trumps the common good.  Your governor
keeps your National Guard at home, to serve you.
Yes: seek your face in Ambrogio’s fresco.
And know that eight years later he died of the plague
that took away half of his city’s people.

This entry was posted on Sunday, August 22nd, 2010 at 4:50 pm and is filed under Poems, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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