Culture Shocks


On Becoming from Soul on Ice

 

Folsom Prison

June 25, 1965

 

Nineteen fifty-four, when I was eighteen years old, is held to

be a crucial turning point in the history of the Afro-

American-for the U.S.A. as a whole-the year segrega-

tion was outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court. It was also a

crucial year for me because on June 18, 1954, I began

serving a sentence in state prison for possession of mari-

juana.

      The Supreme Court decision was only one month old

when I entered prison, and I do not believe that I had even

the vaguest idea of its importance or historical significance.

But later, the acrimonious controversy ignited by the end of

the separate-but-equal doctrine was to have a profound

effect on me. This controversy awakened me to my position

in America and I began to form a concept of what it meant

to be black in white America.

      Of course I'd always known that I was black, but I'd

never really stopped to take stock of what I was involved in.

I met life as an individual and took my chances. Prior to

1954, we lived in an atmosphere of novocain. Negroes

found it necessary, in order to maintain whatever sanity

they could, to remain somewhat aloof and detached from

“the problem.” We accepted indignities and the mechanics

of the apparatus of oppression without reacting by sitting-in

or holding mass demonstrations. Nurtured by the fires of the

controversy over segregation, I was soon aflame with in-

dignation over my newly discovered social status, and in-

wardly I turned away from America with horror, disgust

and outrage.

      In Soledad state prison, I fell in with a group of young

blacks who, like myself, were in vociferous rebellion against

what we perceived as a continuation of slavery on a higher

plane. We cursed everything American-including baseball

and hot dogs. All respect we may have had for politicians,

preachers, lawyers, governors, Presidents, senators, con-

gressmen was utterly destroyed as we watched them tem-

porizing and compromising over right and wrong, over

legality and illegality, over constitutionality and unconstitu-

tionality. We knew that in the end what they were clashing

over was us, what to do with the blacks, and whether or not

to start treating us as human beings. I despised all of them.

      The segregationists were condemned out of hand, with-

out even listening to their lofty, finely woven arguments.

The others I despised for wasting time in debates with the

segregationists: why not just crush them, put them in prison

-they were defying the law, weren't they? I defied the law

and they put me in prison. So why not put those dirty

mothers in prison too? I had gotten caught with a shopping

bag full of marijuana, a shopping bag full of love-I was in

love with the weed and I did not for one minute think that

anything was wrong with getting high. I had been getting

high for four or five years and was convinced, with the zeal

of a crusader, that marijuana was superior to lush-yet the

rulers of the land seemed all to be lushes. I could not see

how they were more justified in drinking than I was in I

blowing the gage. I was a grasshopper, and it was natural

that I felt myself to be unjustly imprisoned.

      While all this was going on, our group was espousing

atheism. Unsophisticated and not based on any philosophi-

cal rationale, our atheism was pragmatic. I had come to

believe that there is no God; if there is, men do not know

anything about him. Therefore, all religions were phony-

which made all preachers and priests, in our eyes, fakers,

including the ones scurrying around the prison who, curi-

ously, could put in a good word for you with the Almighty

Creator of the universe but could not get anything down

with the warden or parole board-they could usher you

through the Pearly Gates after you were dead, but not

through the prison gate while you were still alive and

kicking. Besides, men of the cloth who work in prison have

an ineradicable stigma attached to them in the eyes of con-

victs because they escort condemned men into the gas

chamber. Such men of God are powerful arguments in

favor of atheism. Our atheism was a source of enormous

pride to me. Later on, I bolstered our arguments by reading

Thomas Paine and his devastating critique of Christianity in

particular and organized religion in general.

      Through reading I was amazed to discover how confused

people were. I had thought that, out there beyond the

horizon of my own ignorance, unanimity existed, that even

though I myself didn't know what was happening in the

universe, other people certainly did. Yet here I was dis-

covering that the whole U.S.A. was in a chaos of dis-

agreement over segregation/integration. In these circum-

stances I decided that the only safe thing for me to do was

go for myself. It became clear that it was possible for me to

take the initiative: instead of simply reacting I could act. I

could unilaterally-whether anyone agreed with me or

not-repudiate all allegiances, morals, values-even while

continuing to exist within this society. My mind would be

free and no power in the universe could force me to accept

something if I didn't want to. But I would take my own

sweet time. That, too, was a part of my new freedom. I

would accept nothing until it was proved that it was

good-for me. I became an extreme iconoclast. Any

affirmative assertion made by anyone around me became a

target for tirades of criticism and denunciation.

      This little game got good to me and I got good at it. I

attacked all forms of piety, loyalty, and sentiment: mar-

riage, love, God, patriotism, the Constitution, the founding

fathers, law, concepts of right-wrong-good-evil, all forms of

ritualized and conventional behavior. As I pranced about,

club in hand, seeking new idols to smash, I encountered

really for the first time in my life, with any seriousness, The

Ogre, rising up before me in a mist. I discovered, with

alarm, that The Ogre possessed a tremendous and dreadful

power over me, and I didn't understand this power or why I

was at its mercy. I tried to repudiate The Ogre, root it out

of my heart as I had done God, Constitution, principles,

morals, and values-but The Ogre had its claws buried in

the core of my being and refused to let go. I fought

frantically to be free, but The Ogre only mocked me and

sank its claws deeper into my soul. I knew then that I had

found an important key, that if I conquered The Ogre and

broke its power over me I would be free. But I also knew

that it was a race against time and that if I did not win I

would certainly be broken and destroyed. I, a black man,

confronted The Ogre-the white woman.

      In prison, those things withheld from and denied to the

prisoner become precisely what he wants most of all, of

course. Because we were locked up in our cells before

darkness fell, I used to lie awake at night racked by painful

craving to take a leisurely stroll under the stars, or to go to

the beach, to drive a car on a freeway, to grow a beard, or

to make love to a woman.

      Since I was not married conjugal visits would not have

solved my problem. I therefore denounced the idea of

conjugal visits as inherently unfair; single prisoners needed

and deserved action just as married prisoners did. I ad-

vocated establishing a system under Civil Service whereby

salaried women would minister to the needs of those pris-

oners who maintained a record of good behavior. If a

married prisoner preferred his own wife, that would be his

right. Since California was not about to inaugurate either

conjugal visits or the Civil Service, one could advocate

either with equal enthusiasm and with the same result:

nothing.

This may appear ridiculous to some people. But it was

very real to me and as urgent as the need to breathe, be-

cause I was in my bull stage and lack of access to females

was absolutely a form of torture. I suffered. My mistress at

the time of my arrest, the beautiful and lonely wife of a

serviceman stationed overseas, died unexpectedly three

weeks after I entered prison; and the rigid, dehumanized

rules governing correspondence between prisoners and free

people prevented me from corresponding with other young

ladies I knew. It left me without any contact with females

except those in my family.

In the process of enduring my confinement, I decided to

get myself a pin-up girl to paste on the wall of my cell. I

would fall in love with her and lavish my affections

upon her. She, a symbolic representative of the forbidden

tribe of women, would sustain me until I was free. Out of

the center of Esquire, I married a voluptuous bride. Our

marriage went along swell for a time: no quarrels, no

complaints. And then, one evening when I came in from

school, I was shocked and enraged to find that the guard

had entered my cell, ripped my sugar from the wall, torn her

into little pieces, and left the pieces floating in the com-

mode: it was like seeing a dead body floating in a lake.

Giving her a proper burial, I flushed the commode. As the

saying goes, I sent her to Long Beach. But I was genuinely

beside myself with anger: almost every cell, excepting those

of the homosexuals, had a pin-up girl on the wall and the

guards didn't bother them. Why, I asked the guard the next

day, had he singled me out for special treatment?

"Don't you know we have a rule against pasting up

pictures on the walls?" he asked me.

"Later for the rules," I said. "You know as well as I do

that that rule is not enforced."

"Tell you what," he said, smiling at me (the smile put me

on my guard), "I'll compromise with you: get yourself a

colored girl for a pinup---no white women-and I'll let it

stay up. Is that a deal?"

I was more embarrassed than shocked. He was laughing

in my face. I called him two or three dirty names and

walked away. I can still recall his big moon-face, grinning

at me over yellow teeth. The disturbing part about the

whole incident was that a terrible feeling of guilt came over

me as I realized that I had chosen the picture of the white

girl over the available pictures of black girls. I tried to

rationalize it away, but I was fascinated by the truth in-

volved. Why hadn't I thought about it in this light before?

So I took hold of the question and began to inquire into my

feelings. Was it true, did I really prefer white girls over

black? The conclusion was clear and inescapable: I did. I

decided to check out my friends on this point and it was

easy to determine, from listening to their general conversa-

tion, that the white woman occupied a peculiarly prominent

place in all of our frames of reference. With what I have

learned since then, this all seems terribly elementary now.

But at the time, it was a tremendously intriguing adventure I

of discovery .

One afternoon, when a large group of Negroes was on I

the prison yard shooting the breeze, I grabbed the floor and

posed the question: which did they prefer, white women or

black? Some said Japanese women were their favorite,

others said Chinese, some said European women, others

said Mexican women-they all stated a preference, and

they generally freely admitted their dislike for black

women.

"I don't want nothing black but a Cadillac," said one.

"If money was black I wouldn't want none of it," put in

another .

A short little stud, who was a very good lightweight

boxer with a little man's complex that made him love to box

heavyweights, jumped to his feet. He had a yellowish

complexion and we called him Butterfly.

"All you niggers are sick"' Butterfly spat out. "I don't

like no stinking white woman. My grandma is a white

woman and I don't even like her!"

But it just so happened that Butterfly's crime partner was

in the crowd, and after Butterfly had his say, his crime

partner said, "Aw, sit on down and quit that lying, lil o'

chump. What about that gray girl in San Jose who had your

nose wide open? Did you like her, or were you just running

after her with your tongue hanging out of your head

because you hated her?"

Partly because he was embarrassed and partly because

his crime partner was a heavyweight, Butterfly flew into

him. And before we could separate them and disperse, so

the guard would not know who had been fighting, Butterfly

bloodied his crime partner's nose. Butterfly got away but,

because of the blood, his crime partner got caught. late

dinner with Butterfly that evening and questioned him

sharply about his attitude toward white women. And after

an initial evasiveness he admitted that the white woman

bugged him too. "It's a sickness," he said. " All our lives

we've had the white woman dangled before our eyes like a

carrot on a stick before a donkey: look but don't touch."

(In 1958, after I had gone out on parole and was returned

to San Quentin as a parole violater with a new charge,

Butterfly was still there. He had become a Black Muslim

and was chiefly responsible for teaching me the Black

Muslim philosophy. Upon his release from San Quentin,

Butterfly joined the Los Angeles Mosque, advanced rapidly

through the ranks, and is now a full-fledged minister of one

of Elijah Muhammad's mosques in another city. He success-

fully completed his parole, got married-to a very black

girl-and is doing fine.)

From our discussion, which began that evening and has

never yet ended, we went on to notice how thoroughly, as a

matter of course, a black growing up in America is indoc-

trinated with the white race's standard of beauty. Not that

the whites made a conscious, calculated effort to do this, we

thought, but since they constituted the majority the whites

brainwashed the blacks by the very processes the whites

employed to indoctrinate themselves with their own group

standards. It intensified my frustrations to know that I was

indoctrinated to see the white woman as more beautiful and

desirable than my own black woman. It drove me into

books seeking light on the subject. In Richard Wright's

Native Son, I found Bigger Thomas and a keen insight into

the problem.

My interest in this area persisted undiminished and then,

in 1955, an event took place in Mississippi which turned me

inside out: Emmett Till, a young Negro down from Chi-

cago on a visit, was murdered, allegedly for flirting with a

white woman. He had been shot, his head crushed from

repeated blows with a blunt instrument, and his badly

decomposed body was recovered from the river with a

heavy weight on it. I was, of course, angry over the whole

bit, but one day I saw in a magazine a picture of the white

woman with whom Emmett Till was said to have flirted.

While looking at the picture, I felt that little tension in the

center of my chest I experience when a woman appeals to

me. I was disgusted and angry with myself. Here was a

woman who had caused the death of a black, possibly be-

cause, when he looked at her, he also felt the same tensions

of lust and desire in his chest-and probably for the same

general reasons that I felt them. It ~'as all unacceptable to

me. I looked at the picture again and again, and in spite of

everything and against my will and the hate I felt for the

woman and all that she represented, she appealed to me. I

flew into a rage at myself, at America, at white women, at

the history that had placed those tensions of lust and desire

in my chest.

Two days later, I had a "nervous breakdown." For sev-

eral days I ranted and raved against the white race, against

white women in particular, against white America in gen-

eral. When I came to myself, I was locked in a padded cell

with not even the vaguest memory of how I got there. All I

could recall was an eternity of pacing back and forth in the

cell, preaching to the unhearing walls.

I had several sessions with a psychiatrist. His conclusion

was that I hated my mother. How he arrived at this conclu-

sion I'll never know, because he knew nothing about my

mother; and when he'd ask me questions I would answer

him with absurd lies. What revolted me about him was that

he had heard me denouncing the whites, yet each time he

interviewed me he deliberately guided the conversation

back to my family life, to my childhood. That in itself was

all right, but he deliberately blocked all my attempts to

bring out the racial question, and he made it clear that he

was not interested in my attitude toward whites. This was a

Pandora's box he did pot care to open. After I ceased my

diatribes against the whites, I was let out of the hospital,

back into the general inmate population just as if nothing

had happened. I continued to brood over these events and

over the dynamics of race relations in America.

During this period I was concentrating my reading in the

field of economics. Having previously dabbled in the

theories and writings of Rosseau, Thomas Paine and

Voltaire. I had added a little polish to my iconoclastic

stance, without, however, bothering too much to under-

stand their affirmative positions. In economics, because

everybody seemed to find it necessary to attack and con-

demn Karl Marx in their writings, I sought out his books,

and although he kept me with a headache, I took him for

my authority. I was not prepared to understand him; but I

was able to see in him a thoroughgoing critique and con-

demnation of capitalism. It was like taking medicine for me

to find that, indeed, American capitalism deserved all the

hatred and contempt that I felt for it in my heart. This had

a positive, stabilizing effect upon me-to an extent because

I was not about to become stable-and it diverted me from

my previous preoccupation: morbid broodings on the black

man and the white woman. Pursuing my readings into the

history of socialism, I read, with very little understanding,

some of the passionate, exhortatory writings of Lenin; and I

fell in love with Bakunin and Nechavev’s Catechism of the

Revolutionist-the principles of which, along with some of

Machiavelli’s advice, I sought to incorporate into my own

behavior. I took the Catechism for my bible and, standing

on a one-man platform that had nothing to do with the

reconstruction of society, I began consciously incorporating

these principles into my daily life, to employ tactics of ruth-

lessness in my dealings with everyone with whom I came

into contact. And I began to look at white America through

these new eyes.

Somehow I arrived at the conclusion that, as a matter of

principle, it was of paramount importance for me to have

an antagonistic, ruthless attitude toward white women. The

term outlaw appealed to me and at the time my parole date

was drawing near, I considered myself to be mentally

free-I was an "outlaw." I had stepped outside of the white

man's law, which I repudiated with scorn and self-satisfac-

tion. I became a law unto myself-my own legislature, my

own supreme court, my own executive. At the moment I

walked out of the prison gate, my feelings toward white

women in general could be summed up in the following

lines :

 

TO A WHITE GIRL

I love you

Because you're white,

Not because you're charming

Or bright.

Your whiteness

Is a silky thread

Snaking through my thoughts

In redhot patterns

Of lust and desire.

 

I hate you

Because you're white.

Your white meat

Is nightmare food.

White is

The skin of Evil.

You're my Moby Dick,

White Witch,

Symbol of the rope and hanging tree,

Of the burning cross.

 

Loving you thus

And hating you so,

My heart is torn in two.

Crucified.

 

I became a rapist. To refine my technique and modus

operandi, I started out by practicing on black girls in the

ghetto--in the black ghetto where dark and vicious deeds

appear not as aberrations or deviations from the norm, but

as part of the sufficiency of the Evil of a day-and when I

considered myself smooth enough, I crossed the tracks and

sought out white prey. I did this consciously, deliberately,

willfully, methodical1y-though looking back I see that I

was in a frantic, wild, and completely abandoned frame of

mind.

Rape was an insurrectionary act. It delighted me that I

was defying and trampling upon the white man's law, upon

his system of values, and that I was defiling his women-

and this point, I believe, was the most satisfying to me be-

cause I was very resentful over the historical fact of how the

white man has used the black woman. I felt I was getting

revenge. From the site of the act of rape, consternation

spreads outwardly in concentric circles. I wanted to send

waves of consternation throughout the white race. Re-

cently, I came upon a quotation from one of LeRoi Jones'

poems, taken from his book The Dead Lecturer:

 

A cult of death need of the simple striking arm under the street

lamp. The cutters from under their rented earth. Come up, black

dada nihilismus. Rape the white girls. Rape their fathers. Cut

the mothers' throats.

 

I have lived those lines and I know that if I had not been

apprehended I would have slit some white throats. There

are, of course, many young blacks out there right now who

are slitting white throats and raping the white girl. They are

not doing this because they read LeRoi Jones' poetry, as

some of his critics seem to believe. Rather, LeRoi is express-

ing the funky facts of life.

After I returned to prison, I took a long look at myself

and, for the first time in my life, admitted that I was wrong,

that I had gone astray-astray not so much from the white

man's law as from being human, civilized-for I could not

approve the act of rape. Even though I had some insight

into my own motivations, I did not feel justified. I lost my

self-respect. My pride as a man dissolved and my whole

fragile moral structure seemed to collapse, completely shat-

tered.

That is why I started to write. To save myself.

I realized that no one could save me but myself. The

prison authorities were both uninterested and unable to

help me. I had to seek out the truth and unravel the snarled

web of my motivations. I had to find out who I am and

what I want to be, what type of man I should be, and what I

could do to become the best of which I was capable. I

understood that what had happened to me had also hap-

pened to countless other blacks and it would happen to

many, many more.

I learned that I had been taking the easy way out, run-

ning away from problems. I also learned that it is easier to

do evil than it is to do good. And I have been terribly im-

pressed by the youth of America, black and white. I am

proud of them because they have reaffirmed my faith in

humanity. I have come to feel what must be love for the

young people of America and I want to be part of the good

and greatness that they want for all people. From my prison

cell, I have watched America slowly coming awake. It is

not fully awake yet, but there, is soul in the air and every-

where I see beauty. I have watched the sit-ins, the freedom

raids, the Mississippi Blood Summers, demonstrations all

over the country, the FSM movement, the teach-ins, and

the mounting protest over Lyndon Strangelove's foreign

policy-all of this, the thousands of little details, show me it

is time to straighten up and fly right. That is why I decided

to concentrate on my writings and efforts in this area. We

are a very sick country--I, perhaps, am sicker than most.

But I accept that. I told you in the beginning that I am

extremist by nature—so it is only right that I should be,

extremely sick.

I was very familiar with the Eldridge who came to

prison, but that Eldridge no longer exists. And the one I am

now is in some ways a stranger to me. You may find this

difficult to understand but it is very easy for one in prison to

lose his sense of self. And if he has been undergoing all

kinds of extreme, involved, and unregulated changes, then

he ends up not knowing who he is. Take the point of being

attractive to women. You can easily see how a man can lose

his arrogance or certainty on that point while in prison!

When he's in the free world, he gets constant feedback on

how he looks from the number of female heads he turns

when he walks down the street. In prison he gets only hate-

stares and sour frowns. Years and years of bitter looks.

Individuality is not nourished in prison, neither by the

officials nor by the convicts. It is a deep hole out of which to

climb.

What must be done, I believe, is that all these problems I

--particularly the sickness between the white woman and

the black man--must be brought out into the open, dealt

with and resolved. I know that the black man's sick attitude

toward the white woman is a revolutionary sickness: it

keeps him perpetually out of harmony with the system that

is oppressing him. Many whites flatter themselves with the

idea that the Negro male's lust and desire for the white

dream girl is purely an esthetic attraction, but nothing

could be farther from the truth. His motivation is often of

such a bloody, hateful, bitter, and malignant nature that

whites would really be hard pressed to find it flattering. I

have discussed these points with prisoners who were con-

victed of rape, and their motivations are very plain. But

they are very reluctant to discuss these things with white

men who, by and large, make up the prison staffs. I believe

that in the experience of these men lies the knowledge and

wisdom that must be utilized to help other youngsters who

are heading in the same direction. I think all of us, the

entire nation, will be better off if we bring it all out front. A

lot of people's feelings will be hurt, but that is the price that

must be paid.

It may be that I can harm myself by speaking frankly and

directly, but I do not care about that at all. Of course I

want to get out of prison, badly, but I shall get out some

day. I am more concerned with what I am going to be after

I get out. I know that by following the course which I have

charted I will find my salvation. If I had followed the path

laid down for me by the officials, I'd undoubtedly have long

since been out of prison-but I'd be less of a man. I'd be

weaker and less certain of where I want to go, what I want

to do, and how to go about it.

 

The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less.

 


 

STEPHEN MINOT was born in Boston and received degrees

from Harvard College and John Hopkins University. His stories

have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Kenyon Re-

view and Carleton Miscellany among others. He is currently

working on a critical anthology of modern fiction which will be

published next year. He is a professor at Trinity College, Hart-

ford, Connecticut, where he teaches the Fiction Workshop and

Advanced Literary Writing as well as a Senior Seminar in t11e

Creative Process.

 

Mars Revisited

 

  “Like I'm telling you," the sergeant said, "th' kid could be any-

where. But he's not here. So if you want to keep looking,

go with the patrolman over there."

  Frank Badger turned to see a patrolman elbowing his way

through the crowded Headquarters, heading for the door, ap-

parently in a hurry. But Frank hesitated. He wanted to ask

the sergeant at the desk why he was supposed to follow the

patrolman and what the man's name was and where he was

being sent. He didn't like the idea of nodding or saluting or

doffing his cap and running to do what he was told. At forty-two

he'd outgrown all that.

  But the sergeant had turned to argue with three men in

dark suits-detectives or perhaps suspects-and already the pa-

trol-man had made it out into the street, so Frank didn't really

have much choice.

  He had to hurry to catch up. It wasn't easy. The room

swirled with activity. He squeezed by a desk where two re-

porters were questioning a man in a pinstriped suit who

might have been an alderman or a prisoner; he pressed him-

self against the wall to let a handcuffed pair go by; behind him

the next room three policemen were talking with a long-

haired creature of undetermined sex. He found himself staring at

everyone, a bewildered Adam trying to find names for each

new object he saw. But that was nonsense. He wasn't a part of

all this. It wasn't as if he'd been arrested. He hadn't even been

asked to appear. He was only a father looking for his son. He

was just following up a rumor that the boy was being held by

the police in this city.

  The uncertainty of it all had left him unsettled. He had spent

three hours in a jet and was dizzy from two changes in time

zone, from four shifts in altitude, from the jarring contrast

between the sweet-talking stewardesses and the surly Desk

Sergeant, whose language, he recalled now after so many

years, was the language of all sergeants everywhere. And now

the patrolman he was to follow had disappeared through the

door out into the night and he, Frank, had better get his ass

out of there…

  The walls spread to the size of a warehouse and the blues

of the uniforms fade0d to khaki. It was brutally hot and humid.

He could smell the greasy dubbing which they had smeared

over their new boots and the sweat of a thousand inductees

being herded. They had been lined up by barking sergeants

whose voices echoed up to the steel rafters and back, and now

they were told to layout their gear-all their belongings which

had been carefully packed into duffel bags at four that same

morning. And when they had spread out every last thing-every

sock, belt, shirt, underpant, photo, toothbrush, condom, book,

packet of letters-all of it lined up neatly on the sooty, paper-

littered floor, they stood at attention for an hour for an in-

spection which never came.

  And of course when the order was given to pack up again,

they were to do it "on the double," they were to "get the lead

out of their ass," they were to "look alive" as they stood alpha-

betically in groups of fifty for another half hour, this time “at

ease," speculating to themselves and in undertones to each other

where they might be going. That was all more than twenty

years ago, and Frank couldn't remember what city that ware-

house had been in, but he could feel with right-now clarity how

the sweat ran steadily down his neck, shoulders, and back, tick-

ling as it plowed little furrows through the film of coal-dust which

clung to his skin.

  He was out in the street now, looking for the patrolman.

A squad car was coming in with lights flashing and a number

of pedestrians stood about-the same kind of crowd that gathers

for accidents. The patrolman was getting into a second car

parked further down the street. Frank ran and opened the back

door just as the motor started.

  "The Desk Sergeant said for me to go with you."

  He paused as if by some reflex he was asking for permission.

  "Well, get in then," the patrolman said.

  "Front or back?"

  "Jesus, will you hurry up?"

  Since it was the back door he had opened, he got in that

one moving awkwardly and stumbling, half falling, over two

civilians already sitting there.

  "Sorry," he said, and immediately wished he hadn't. He

would have to watch out for all those little phrases of accom-

modation with which the civil world oils its conversations. He

would have to tighten up again.

  They drove through an endless slum, an uncomfortable sec-

tion in a strange city. The summer's heat had squeezed all the

residents from their apartments down onto the steps and out

to the sidewalks. The patrolman drove at a moderate speed

and used no siren, but the red roof light was on and in response to

every face in every group revolved slowly, without expression,

following the car as it passed.

  The two passengers beside him paid no attention to the street

scene. They were preoccupied in a silent search for cigarettes

and matches. It was complicated by the fact that the left wrist

of one was handcuffed to the right wrist of the other. It was

impossible to tell which was the prisoner and which was the

captor.

  Finally the one whose right hand was free found a crumpled

pack in the other's shirt pocket and a Zippo from his own and

placed a bent cigarette in the mouth of the other and lit it.

Frank could remember placing a cigarette in his wife's mouth

some twenty years earlier when they were first living together,

seizing time on furloughs and treasuring the nuances of intimacy.

  He wished he had made it clear when he first got in that

he hadn't been told where he was being sent. It seemed ridicu-

lous to admit at this point that he didn't have the slightest idea

where he was going or even where he was. As a civil engineer

specializing in bridges and aerial expressways it was his job to

deal in facts. Mystery or even uncertainty was at best unpro-

fessional. It would never occur to him to spend a summer's

afternoon exploring back roads without a destination; nor would

he normally be willing to follow the orders of someone he didn’t

know and travel with strangers who wouldn't say where they

were going.

  Closing his eyes he could hear the endless "click-it-ti/click-

click-click-it-ti/click" of that old troop train, the creak of its

wooden sides, the muffled mutterings of poker players in the

aisle, a harmonica somewhere, distant snoring. A night and a

day and another night without the slightest idea whether they

were headed southwest to Texas ("that's where they do desert-

survival training-no canteens") or south to Georgia ("they make

'em swim across swamps at night" ) or west to the Rockies

("Arctic survival-I hear two out of ten die in basic").

  At night they tried to read their directions from the stars,

peering upward through the filthy windows, but there wasn't

a man there who could tell north from south in that way.

And by morning it was drizzling so that the sun was no help.

At some point that day the train waited for an hour in a

sodden wasteland of stubbled, burned-over fields and red clay.

No cattle grazed here and no cars moved along the puddled dirt

road. But from somewhere came a tattered delegation of black

children, rain-streaked and unnaturally solemn.

  Frank and all the others leaned out the windows and

shouted "Where are we? Hey kids, where are we? What state?"

  But the children didn't understand and held out their hands

saying, "Mon-ey? Penn-y. Gimmie penn-y.'

  The soldiers, mostly Northerners, were incredulous. "Jesus,"

one of them said, "they've drove us clear to North Africa." They

all laughed and started pitching pennies, watching the children

scramble for them in the puddles. This was even funnier. Frank

pulled back from the window, brooding about where these

children were, where they all were, and where in hell they

were going.

  "Where are we going?" Frank asked abruptly.

  “Never mind about that," the patrolman said.

  It seemed needlessly hostile until he realized that the driver

may have assumed that it was the prisoner who spoke.

  “Look,” Frank said, “you don't have to talk to me like I was

under arrest. I'm just looking for my son and they told me to

go with you. They didn't tell me where we were going.”

  “We can't talk with a suspect in the car. Regulations."

  His tone was neither reprimanding nor friendly. It was devoid

of human emotion. "Besides," he added in the same voice, "if

you'd kept your boy home he wouldn't be in trouble."

  Bastard, he muttered in silence. If it weren't for that uni-

form....

  He had almost forgotten what it had been like to be hemmed

in by uniforms. Below him, the old sergeants, leftovers from

the peacetime army, their minds addled by military life, yet still

ready to discredit the young officers over them. And, worse, the

deal-making colonels who knew they had to make good before

some idiot stopped the war. And those earnest captains, one

notch above Frank, insisting on the rights of elder sons because

they had entered the war just one year earlier-the incredible

subtleties of rank.

  He was startled by the siren. It was not a wail but just a

low growl, the sound of a large and threatening dog. The

streets were almost devoid of traffic, but they were more

crowded with pedestrians; and almost as if by reaction to it

the driver was going faster.

  It was a mixed neighborhood and the headlights picked up

white shirts against black bodies and some whitely bare chests.

No one ran from the path of the car; they merely walked with

insulting lack of concern until they were just barely out of

range. Occasionally one would raise a fist or a finger. Frank

wondered whether they viewed him personally as a friend of

the police or as a prisoner. But how could they tell when he

wasn't sure himself?

  They paused at a cross street while four fire trucks passed by,

wailing. And then patrol cars. When they started up again they

turned and followed in the same general direction but not as

fast. And in four blocks they had apparently arrived somewhere.

  The driver parked on a side street together with an array of

squad cars, patrol wagons, and a couple of ambulances. The

crowd in the street, a mixture of races and ages, was scattered

and calm, but the mystery of its presence-its mere existence-

struck Frank as ominous. It was like the armored half-track

parked under the streetlight, motionless but as arresting as if it

had been an enormous armadillo. Police floodlights lit the

entire area with sharp contrasts, making the scene into a moon-

scape.

  The driver got out and opened the door for the two hand-

cuffed civilians who emerged awkwardly. The three of them

headed up the steps of a many-storied, rambling brick building

which could have been an old hospital or an enormous city high

school, Every window was lit.

  Again he hesitated. It seemed impossible that this slum-castle

would have anything to do with his son, and it seemed out-

rageous that the driver expected him to trot along obediently like

some jeep orderly. Back in the real world Frank had thirteen

draftsmen and a secretary under his command and he had

forgotten what it was to be treated like a recruit.

  But it was clear that if he stood there much longer he would

be demoted to just another onlooker. He'd get nowhere that

way. So he ran, once again, to catch up.

  An adolescent-looking guardsman-a boy soldier-blocked the

door with a bayoneted carbine held diagonally before him. His

head was too small for his helmet and his Adam-appled neck

too scrawny to fill his collar. He was the original cartoon of

a hayseed recruit, the model for Sad Sack, a joke; he also held his

bayoneted carbine with shocking self-assurance.

  "D'you have a pass?" the boy asked.

  “I'm with the patrolman."

  “What patrolman?"

  “The one who just came in with the suspects."

  “You on the force?"

  “I'm a witness, They need me in there," He tried to muscle,

by, but in an instantaneous, perfectly executed movement, the

soldier spun his rifle to the horizontal position where, chest high,

it was poised to send the intruder hurtling down the stone step

to the sidewalk below. And it was entirely clear to Frank that

the soldier would do just that if he had to, not in anger or fear

but in the line of duty the way a meatpacker slings a side of

beef.

  "Look,” Frank said, trying a new approach. “I think my boy

is being held there.”

  “I’m not allowed…”

  "He's about your age. I don't know what he's done, but I

want to get to him. Just let me look and then I'll get out.”

  “We got orders," the boy said, but all self-assurance was lost.

  "Could you check with someone?"

  "Well, wait here a moment."

  Incredibly, the boy soldier was gone and Frank walked

directly into the large foyer, moving fast. He expected a heavy

hand on his shoulder at any moment.

  Almost at once he was in an enormous room-some kind of

armory or exhibition hall-in which hundreds of people were

working with intensity. The place hummed like a nest of hornets.

A semblance of order had been attempted by walling off sections

of floor space with Street Department barriers; desks had been

improvised by laying doors across saw horses; crude signs had

been scratched out in magic marker with titles such as MEDI-

CAL AID, INTERROGATION, SURVEILLANCE, and AR-

RAIGNED. Directly in front of him was a real desk-ancient,

scarred, and official. It was covered with scattered documents,

typed lists of names, and empty coffee cups. The sign, written

on the back of a torn placard, read CHIEF EXPEDITER, and

beside it was a small American flag on a lead base. The swivel

chair which was behind the desk was empty.

  Frank waited there, letting waves of busy people ebb and

Flow around him. He wanted to stop someone, anyone, and

ask him what in hell was going on. It seemed incredible that

I these people-police, detectives, soldiers, students, blacks and

whites in the street-knew perfectly well what was happening

and that he, Frank, was still in the dark. It wasn’t as if he

were uninformed. He read two newspapers and three periodicals

assorted political hues. He would have known if this city

had ever been characterized as "racially torn” or prone to student

strife. No, it was just another city and all of this had been

going on behind his back. It chilled him to think that perhaps

this scene was being repeated in cities all over the country.

  Suddenly he wished he hadn't come. It was a slim lead

anyway-just a phone call from un adenoidal young man saying

that Francis was being held by the police in this city. But why

on earth here? It was miles from the boy's college. And it

seemed impossible that a student with such good grades could

be deeply involved in anything political.

  At his wife's suggestion, Frank had brought along the boy's

college transcript. It would, they thought: serve us evidence of

good character. Remembering this now, he was startled at how

naive he had been before he stopped off that plane into all this.

But how could he have known? He recalled for the first time

in years a "V-mail" letter from his mother which had arrived

after the three week nightmare in the foothills of Anzio. She

was an unusually well-informed and intelligent woman who fol-

lowed the war day by day in the newspapers and by radio,

and she showered her concern by serving on the Rationing Board

without pay, yet she was capable of urging him to instruct the

drivers in his unit to make greater savings in gasoline by avoid-

ing quick starts and by coasting down hills. It seemed to him then I

that the wall between him and the civilians back home was

more impregnable than that between him and the enemy.

  It was no use waiting for the Chief Expediter. Perhaps he

didn't really exist. So he went over to INTERROGATION where

men in civilian clothes, usually in pairs, were questioning sus-

pects. There were ten or twelve such groups going on in the

little corral. The prisoners were mostly college-aged but highly

varied in appearance. From where he stood he could only see

two who had the traditional long hair and beads. The others

could have been pulled from the ranks of inductees-some

black, some tan, and a majority white; some in torn T shirts,

some in sleeveless denim jackets, one in a rumpled suit, several

in polo shirts. One had a filthy rag tied around his forehead and

another held a handkerchief to a cut on the side of his neck; but

the rest were uninjured.

  Frank stared at this group longer than it would take to de-

termine that his son was not among them. He began to under-

starnd, quite slowly at first, that his son could be among them.

One of the boys looked past his interrogator at Frank and his

expression was derisive. His son had given him that look from

time to time. But he checked his own thoughts, remembering

that the boy's name was Francis and that he hated to be called

Son or, worse, Boy. Francis. He deserved to be called that. It

would be a hell of a thing to act out the fantasy he had on

the plane while still 60,000 feet above all this, a scene in which

he walked down the long, sterile corridor of a model peniten-

tiary to the designated cell and to greet the prisoner with, "Well,

Son, how did all this come about?"

  The plainclothesmen were through with that student and

had him sign something and sent him over to the other side of

the pen where fingerprints were taken. Frank could hear one

of them say ". ..over to SURVEILLANCE," and as the

boy started to leave the officer added, "So don't try anything

funny because you can't get out of here without a pass."

  This reached Frank like the "thunk” of a slide-bolt. Intuitively

he looked around for windows and saw none.

  "Hey," he said to the boy as he passed. I’m looking for

someone. Maybe you know him." He paused, but got no en-

couragement from the boy. "His name is Francis. Francis Bad-

ger.”

  "Like if I knew, Dad, I wouldn't tell you."

  And he was gone. Frank's hands curled up into fists but there

was no one to hit.

  He went over to ARRAIGNED, wondering if at this point he

would recognize his Francis. Perhaps someone would have to

introduce them as, in fact, they had to when he finally came

home from Bremerhaven at the end of the war. "This is Francis,"

someone had said, and all the adults there laughed easily as

the father picked up his perfectly strange son, two years old

already, and held him awkwardly, the two of them solemn and

uncertain.

  ARRAIGNED was a larger pen than the others, and was

furnished with greater sophistication-it had benches. The pris-

oners lolled, half-reclining. Some dozed. They appeared to be

as unconcerned as sunbathers at the beach. But as soon as

Frank reached the barrier (Road Closed, P .D.) they all turned

to him as if he had orders for their disposition.

  The watchdog was a first sergeant, National Guard, who

must have weighed 250 pounds and flaunted his girth with a

tieless khaki shirt which strained every button. His face was

red, round, and sequined with beads of sweat.

  "Yes sir," he said, Amos and Andy style, taking Frank as a

plainclothesman.

  “I have a boy here who…”

  "You're the father?"

  "Yes, his name is…"

  "How th' hell did you get in here? You can't be here. You’re

outside, Mac, You can't be in here."

  "But I am here," Frank was not certain.

  "You're not on the force and you're not being held, so there’s

no way you could get in."

  A Regular Army major came up, talking fast. "What th' hell

is this? Don't block the passageway. What's going on here?”

And to Frank, "You authorized?" And to the sergeant, "Who is

this guy anyhow?" He looked like a welter-weight boxer who

was about to take on two opponents at the same time.

  “Man says he looking for his son.”

  "Can't be. No relatives in here."

  "That's what I told him. 'No relatives in here.' I told him

that."

  "I mean, we can't let just any sonofabitch in off the street.”

  "I told him. He can't be in here."

  "Then tell him to get the hell out," the major said.

  “He’s got no pass. He can't leave."

  "Give the sonofabitch a pass, then.”

  "How can I? He's unauthorized."

  There was a momentary pause which was broken by a third

a tall, angular civilian with a gray suit and a face to match.

The two soldiers stepped back for him like well-behaved boys.

  "You have a son who might be here," the man said, reviewing

the case. "You have reason to believe he might be here?”

  “Well, I just got this telephone call and..."

  The gray man simply led Frank into the pen and sat him

down on a low stool. The three of them stood in a semicircle

around him. It was as if the door he had been pushing against

had suddenly opened and sent him tumbling into something he

wasn't prepared for.

  “Have a cigarette," the government man said. Frank took one

even though he had given them up two years earlier. The

major lit it for him. The National Guardsman with the straining

buttons stood there with his thumbs under his belt, exuding

sweat. His stomach was twelve inches from Frank's left cheek.

  “Nice kids can get mixed up with the wrong crowd," the

government man said. “You’ll see it all the time. Nice families.

Nice kids. Sometimes it's drugs. You wouldn't believe some

of the things we see. Then it's politics. You know, leftists,

anarchists, hard-core stuff. Parents lose contact. They just

don't know. They'd help if they could, but they just don't

know what kind of trouble the kid is in. So that's where our

job begins. We try to pick them up and set them straight."

  Frank, in spite of himself, nodded. In spite of himself? Hell,

it was all reasonable enough. It was what a neighbor might say.

It was what he had said from time to time. After all, wasn't that

why he was here? If the boy was in trouble, it was Frank's job

to set him straight.

  Yet somehow, sitting there on the dunce's stool, walled in

by various authorities, he wasn't sure. The simple alliances of

the past weren't holding as they should. If the four adults here

were on the same side, why was one of them on a stool looking

up at the other three? And why was he scared?

"So maybe there came a time," the government man said,

"when your boy went along with the crowd for kicks, And

than he found himself in trouble. Real trouble." For some rea-

son, this prompted his first smile. But it vanished almost at once

and he pulled a spiral notebook from his pocket. "Your sons

name, age, and address, please."

Frank paused. The three of them waited. The sounds of

the armory blurred to a distant, rising wind. The unaccustomed

cigarette made him dizzy, and he could fee1 his loyalties shift

and heave under him. He was for a moment back at that mill

In northern France, the windy night hissing through the charred

trees and empty windows. The foot-by-foot advance through

Italy had recently become a crazy rush of 60 and 100 kilometers

a day and his group, demolition experts, was well beyond the

advance lines defusing the explosives with which the Germans

had so thoroughly mined each bridge. And somehow, almost

unintentionally, his special detachment of eighteen men had

ended up with five prisoners-not men but kids, end-of-the-road

Nazis, not one of them eighteen yet, two still smooth-cheeked,

all hungry-eyed and lice-ridden. They were a pain in the ass for

a unit that was supposed to move fast. So the next morning Frank

was waked with a cheerful shout, "Hey, who wants to go

shoot the Krauts?” the shouter, a captain in command, had

adopted the voice of the recreation director at a borsht-circuit

resort.

  Frank, a mere lieutenant, said, " Are you kidding? Execution?

Those kids? You want me to include that in our next report?”

No, no, that was not what he had said. He had said, "Count

me out." That's exactly what he had said. Then. The other

answer was the one he had said a hundred times in daydreams.

But the kids were dead and not even buried. Thrown in a

farmers well. And he had said, his exact words, “Count me

out.”

“So what's his name?" the government man asked again.

"Once we get him on the list, we'll straighten him out."

Twice in one lifetime? Frank thought. It was not courage

that drove him but the horror of recriminating daydreams.

"John Doe,” he said.

"No jokes now. This isn't a Mickey Mouse show, you know,”

"I don't know what you're talking about. My name is Doe.

Jack Doe. My son is John."

The gray man's pencil stub paused over the clipboard caught

between trust and fury. He looked questioningly at the other

two. The sweating sergeant was given courage.

"It can't be John Doe," he said. "That's everyone. He can’t

be John Doe.”

And in their moment of indecision, Frank sprang up and

jumped over the police barrier. Running, be heard a police

whistle and a shout behind him. He felt an exhilaration sweep

though him, flushing two decades of bad dreams.

He ran through MEDICAL AID. stumbling over stretcher

cases, and headed for the stairs which led up. They were roped

off with a sign which said "No Passing," but he cleared it with a

good jump. He thought he heard angry voices behind him, but

he couldn't afford to look back and the air was filled with the

sound of his own feet pounding against the old metal stairs.

He took two or three flights and then instinctively shifted his

course and headed down a corridor of offices. All the doors were

shut and locked against him except for the men's room.

He had just bolted the door behind him when he heard

shouting and the sound of feet in the hallway. They passed,

rattling doors, and then returned. By that time Frank had the

window open-filthy opaque glass-and was out on a fire es-

cape. He closed the window behind him, surprised at his own

logic. It had been years since he had experienced fear and he

had forgotten that clear-headed energy which glands can pro-

duce.

Out there in the dark he was abruptly aware that he was

high above the avenue. He must have climbed more flights

than he had thought. Below him, police floodlights swept the

streets. The crowds, more active now, moved in long ripple's

across the black river. Soundlessly a red fist leapt up and he

could see that a car had been rolled over and set afire. Sirens

came to him like wind sigl1ing through the rubble of a gutted

city. And a strange combination of smells-the iron of the rail-

ing he was gripping, oily smoke, and tl1e faint acidity of tear-

gas which reached him tl1rough the open spaces of time from

basic training at...Odd how the name had escaped him

while the smell lingered.

And now from down there the sound of firecrackers, a happy

celebration, kids having fun, the family gathered as a clan for

Independence Day. Crack! and the sound snapped into focus

and he dropped to his stomach, feeling naked without a car-

bine in his hands.

It shouldn't, he told himself, faze him. He'd spent time behind

enemy lines before. He had lived through a two-or-three-day

nightmare trying to. get back across an unfixed line of de-

marcation, trying to identify his own side, avoiding fire from

his own unit, clawing to get out of a dream which was con-

tained within a dream within a dream so that hour by hour

and day by day he only moved from one box to the next, never

quite catching sight of reality. But that was another life, a kind

of group memory for him and his generation.

No, this shouldn't faze him-except for the fact that he had

spent twenty years proving, year by year, that those nightmares

had never occurred, that he had never reeked with fear, had

never been propositioned by death, had never fired blindly and

watched shadows of himself falling, had never stuck a skull with

his carbine butt because the man was flipping like a fresh-caught

fish and was making sounds no human could be expected to

tolerate.

      For two and a half decades he had commuted between a

m__d family and an orderly office, creating life to replace that

which he had taken, designing spans for the smooth flow of

traffic, willingly washing in and out from work with the tide of

his generation, sweeping with daily strokes like a hand over a

blackboard, erasing, erasing.

Which is the lie? he thought. Which is the lie? For a moment

an imagininary part of him walked down that fire escape, un-

touched by that which simply could not be happening, and

turned to a friendly cop, smiling, and asked where he might

find a cab which would take him to the airport. Surely he was

a neutral in a foreign land; surely they would respect his pass-

port and lead him through chaos to the Airlines desk, there to

be treated as un adult whose credit rating gleamed golden like

the eagles of a major general.

Was he out of his mind? He'd be shot, going down there,

slithering down a dark fire escape like a sniper. Killed. No

metaphor. Dead. Never mind the goddamned issues, he told

himself. Leave that to the civies. Let the commentators wax

eloquent over what builds the fighting spirit. In the now and

here he was lying on his stomach on the metal grate, his brow

pressed against the iron, his body unprotected.

And in instant confirmation, a spotlight dashed his eyes

like spray. He could see nothing but a milk-white glare. He

was on his feet at once and racing up the fire-escape flights,

the light losing him and then catching him, raking him like a

cat's claw.

Above him was the parapet. Along it were three or four

heads like pumpkins. They urged him on, identifying them-

selves not with uniforms but by tone. And when he reached

the top, he wondered if he had strength to climb over. But a

clutter of arms seized him by the jacket, arms, shirt front, and

handed him roughly, lovingly over the edge. He collapsed

in the welcome dark and heard someone say, "Let him catch

his breath. I'll stay with him here. The rest of you go two

buildings over. Make noises."

Frank breathed deeply, aware that he was now back with

his own detachment. The great booming, buzzing confusion of

the conflict hushed. Years ago he had learned that in times of

crisis, all loyalties and all logic shrunk finally to the level of the

squad.

He lay back, still gasping for air.  Above him, way above, he

could see the green wingtip light and the blinking white taillight

of an airliner. It seemed preposterous that a hundred or so

people could be settling down to an evening highball, copies of

Time, Look, and Fortune, soothed by the familiarity 0f Howard-

Johnson decor, Muzak, and the cooings of stewardesses. Only

that morning he had been doing just that. He was reading a

"literary" best seller which described in intricate detail-like

an elaborate etching-the lives of bored New Englanders who

had turned to sex for therapy. Flying at 60,000 feet, the work

seemed at least possibly relevant and vaguely stimulating. Now

it reminded him of the early Fitzgerald novels which he had

skimmed with derision in the Army hospital outside Milan. No

wonder he had left it in his seat.

From the comer of his eyes he could see the bearded form

who had elected to remain with him. He sat with his elbows

on his knees, methodically chewing gum. He could have been

some French resistance fighter. He could have been his son,

Francis. Francis who had insisted on his full name ever since

he read about the saint Yes, this could be Saint Francis re-

sponding not to the birds but the killers of birds. Can there, he

wondered, be love without a corresponding rage?

There was no answer but the catcalls and obscenities shouted

from a distant roof, delivered for Frank's protection.

"I got involved," Frank said with difficulty, still sucking in

air, 'looking for my son. Francis Badger."

"I know him," the bearded one said

"Is he all right? Arrested?"

"He was. But he got out. Same way you did.”

"He's up here?" It seemed impossible.

"The other side. He got down and across. He's O.K.”

"How do I get up there?"

The boy didn't answer for a while. He picked up gravel

from the roof and rattled it around in his hand like ideas.

Then he said, "Don't go up there. It's not your thing. We'll

get you back."

Frank nodded of course he would go hack, perhaps even

looking much the same. Still, it seemed terrible, that black river

that Bowed between himself and Francis.

"Suppose you'll be seeing him?" he asked.

“Sure. I'll tell him you were UP here looking for him." Then

he laughed—a kind of quick snort like a poker player who is

caught off balance by a good card. “That’s something,” he said.

“That’s pretty good. I’ll tell him you gave a damn.”

      And then they were off over the roof tops, heading back to

The homefront where the civilians—even his best friends—would

listen carefully but with little comprehension to his account of

the war.


From Butter Name by C.K. Williams

 

In the Heart of the Beast

 

MAY 1970; CAMBIODIA, KENT STATE, JACKSON STATE

 

this is fresh meat right mr nixon?

 

this is even sweeter than mickey schwerner or fred Hampton right?

even more tender than the cherokee nation or guatemala or greece

having their asses straightened for themisn't it?

 

I

 

this is none of your oriental imitation

this is iowa corn grown

this is jersey tomato grown

washington salmon maryland crab

this is from children

who'd barely begun ingesting corruption

the bodies floating belly up like polluted fish in cambodia

barely tainting them

the black kids blown up in their churches

hardly souring them

their torments were so meager

they still thought about life

still struggled with urgency

and compassion

so

tender

 

2

 

I’m sorry

 

I don't want hear anymore that the innocent farmer in ohio on guard

      duty meant well but is fucked up by his politicians and raises his rifle

      out of some primal fear for his own life and his family's and that he

      hates niggers hates them hates them because he is warped and deceived

 

and pulls the trigger

 

I'm sorry I don't want to forgive him anymore

I don't want to say he didn't know what he was doing

because he knew what he was doing

because he didn't pull the trigger once and run away screaming

they kept shooting, the kids said

we thought they were blanks but they kept shooting and shooting

we were so scared

 

I don't want to forgive the bricklayer from akron who might or might

not hate his mother I don't care or the lawyer or gas station attendant

from cleveland who may or may not have had a bad childhood

I don't care

I don't want to know

I don't want to hear anything about it

 

another kid said the rocks weren't even reaching them!

 

I don't want to understand why they did it

 

how could you?

just that

 

everything else is pure shit

 

3

 

on the front page of the times a girl is screaming

she will be screaming forever

and her friend will lie there forever you wouldn't know she

wasn't just sleeping in the sun except for the other screaming

and on the editorial page

"the tragic nature of the division of the country…the provocation

undoubtedly was great and was also unpardonable…"

 

o my god

my god

 

if there was a way to purify the world who would be left?

there is a list

and it says

this person for doing this

and that person for doing nothing

and this person for not howling in rage

and that for desperately hanging on to the reasons, the reasons

and

there is an avenger

who would be left?

who is there now who isn't completely insane from all this?

who didn't dream with me last night

of bumming everything)destroying everyone

of tearing pieces of your own body off

of coughing your language up and spitting it away like vomit

of wanting to start at the bottom of your house

breaking everything floor by floor

bumming the pictures

tearing the mattresses up

smashing windows and chairs until nothing is left

and then the cars with a sledgehammer

the markets

the stores that sell things

the buses

the bridges into the city

the airports

the international harbors

the tall buildings crumpling like corpses

the theaters torn down to the bare stage

the galleries ___ed the bookstores like mouths open

there should be funerals in front of the white house

bones in the capitol

 

where do you stop?

 

how can we be like this?

 

4

 

I remember what it was to come downstairs

and my daughter would be there crawling toward me as fast as she

could

crying HI DADDA HI DADDA

 

and what it was to bury my face in my wife's breasts and forget

 

to touch a friend's shoulder

to laugh

to take walks

 

5

 

I don't want to call anyone pig

meeting people who tell you they want war they hate communists

or somebody who'll say they hate niggers spics kikes

and you still don't believe they're beyond knowing

because you feel comfortable with them even drawn to them

and know somehow that they have salvageable hearts

you try to keep hope

for a community that could contain both of you

so that you'd both be generous and loving

and find ways that didn't need hatred and killing

to burn off the inarticulate human rage at having to die

 

I thought if I could take somebody like that in my arms

I could convince them that everyone was alone before death

but love saved us from living our lives reflexively with death

 

that it could happen

we would be naked now

we'd change now little by little

we'd be better

we would just be here

in this life

 

but it could be a delusion couldn't it?

it could be like thinking those soldiers were shooting blanks

up until the last second standing there scared shitless

but inside

thinking americans don't shoot innocent people!

I know it!

I learned it in school in the movies!

it doesn't happen like this

and hearing a bullet slam into the ground next to you and the flesh

and every voice in your body saying o no no

and seeing your friend go down

half her head blown away;

and the image of kennedy in back of the car

and of king

and the other kennedy

and wanting to explode o no no no no no

 

6

 

not to be loaded up under the flopping bladewash the tubes sucking to

be thrown out turning to flame burning on trees on grass on skin

burning lips away breasts away genitals arms legs buttocks

not to be torn out of the pack jammed in the chamber belched out laid

over the ground like a live fence of despair

not to fog down into the river where the fish die into the rice where the

frogs die into the trees where the fruit dies the grain dies the leaves

into the genes

 

into the generations

more black children

more red children

more yellow

 

not to be screaming

 


Dan Georgakas

 

San Francisco, 1968

 

ruling guru greybeard bards

having new fun in yr rolling rock renaissance

have you passed thru the Haight

lately?

have you seen yr turned on kids?

 

you promised them Vision & Love & Sharing.

they got clap,

hepatitis, fleas, begging, the gang bang.

 

sure you didn't want it that way

but that's how it went down.

& I do not hear yr howl.

I do not see you exorcising demons.

 

you told the congress that yr acid

had taught you how to luv

that filthy blood soaked thieving swine

of a cowboy the Others call their president.

is there nothing left over for the kids

sleeping on sidewalks

waiting to be carried off by the bikes?

has yr acid & cannabis power wilted like yr daffodils?

is there no compassion left over for the broken bodies

of yr children's crusade?

 

yr disciples are dying in the streets, gurus.

you have been among the philistines too long.

you have become their Spectacle.

heal the sores upon thine own bodies, prophets!

 

yr Word has brought them as far as the Haight.

can you not carry them to the seashore?

 

or is it yr power and not theirs which is wanting?

 

can it be we warrior poets were right all along?

can it be all the buddhas are hollow

& like the Dalai lama

you have been sipping buttered tea upon a peacock throne

as Tibetans perished in the snow?

 

is it not time to admit that Hate as well as Love

redeems the world.

there is no outside w/out inside.

no revolution w/out blood.

 


 

Galway Kinnell

 

from The Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible

 

In the Twentieth Century of my trespass on earth,

having exterminated one billion heathens,

heretics, Jews, Moslems, witches, mystical seekers,

black men, Asians, and Christian brothers,

every one of them for his own good,

 

a whole continent of red men for living in unnatural

community

and at the same time having relations with the land,

one billion species of animals for being sub-human,

and ready to take on the bloodthirsty creatures from the

other planets,

I, Christian man, groan out this testament of my last will.

 

I give my blood fifty parts polystyrene,

twenty-five parts benzene, twenty-five parts good old

gasoline,

to the last bomber pilot aloft, that there shall be one acre

in the dull world where the kissing flower may bloom,

which kisses you so long your bones explode under its lips.

 

My tongue goes to the Secretary of the Dead

to tell the corpses, "I'm sorry, fellows,

the killing was just one of those things

difficult to pre-visualize-like a cow,

say, getting hit by lightning."

 

My stomach, which has digested

four hundred treaties giving the Indians

eternal right to their land, I give to the Indians,

I throw in my lungs which have spent four hundred years

sucking in good faith on peace pipes.

 

My soul I leave to the bee

that he may sting it and die, my brain

to the fly, his back the hysterical green color of slime,

that he may suck on it and die, my flesh to the advertising

man,

the anti-prostitute, who loathes human flesh for money.

 

I assign my crooked backbone

to the dice maker, to chop up into dice,

for casting lots as to who shall see his own blood

on his shirt front and who his brother's,

for the race isn't to the swift but to the crooked.

 

To the last man surviving on earth

I give my eyelids worn out by fear, to wear

in his long nights of radiation and silence,

so that his eyes can't close, for regret

is like tears seeping through closed eyelids.

 

I give the emptiness my hand: the pinkie picks no more

noses,

slag clings to the black stick of the ring finger,

a bit of flame jets from the tip of the fuck-you finger,

the first finger accuses the heart, which has vanished,

on the thumb stump wisps of smoke ask a ride into the

emptiness.

 

In the Twentieth Century of my nightmare

on earth, I swear on my chromium testicles

to this testament

and last will

of my iron will, my fear of love, my itch for money, and

my madness.

 


Meridel LeSueur

 

Dead in Bloody Snow

 

I am an Indian woman                 

Witness to my earth                      

Witness for my people.                 

I am the nocturnal door,              

             The hidden cave of your sorrow,               

Like you hidden deep in furrow  

and dung

of the charnel mound,     

I heard the craven passing of the  

white soldiers        

And saw them shoot at Wounded Knee     

upon the sleeping village,

And ran with the guns at my back    

Until we froze in our blood on the snow   

 

I speak from old portages           

Where they pursued and shot into the river crossing

All the grandmothers of Black Hawk.

I speak from the smoke of grief,     

from the broken stone,

And cry with the women crying from the marsh

Trail and tears of drouthed women,           

O bitter barren!          

O barren bitter!    

I run, homeless,                    

I arrive         

in the gun sight,           

beside the white square houses

of abundance.       

My people starve

In the time of the bitter moon.     

I hear my ghostly people crying     

A hey a hey a hey.     

Rising from our dusty dead the sweet grass,

The skull marking the place of loss and flight.

I sing holding my severed head,      

to my dismembered child,

A people's dream that died in bloody snow.     


Mage Piercy from To Be of Use

 

The crippling

 

I used to watch it on the ledge:

a crippled bird.

How did it survive?

Surely it would die soon.

Then I saw a man

at one of the windows

feed it, a few seeds,

a crust from lunch.

Often he forgot

and it went hopping on the ledge

a starving

scurvy sparrow.

Every couple of weeks

he caught it in his hand

and clipped back one wing.

I call it a sparrow.

The plumage was sooty,

sometimes in the sun

scarlet as a tanager.

He never let it fly,

He never took it in.

Perhaps he was starving too.

Perhaps he counted every crumb.

Perhaps he hated

that anything alive

knew how to fly. 



C.K. Williams From: Bitter Name

 The Beginning of April

 

I feel terribly strong today

it's like the time I arm-wrestled a friend

and beat him so badly I sprained his wrist

or when I made a woman who was really beautiful

love me when she didn't want to

it must be the warm weather

I think

I could smash bricks with my bare hands

or screw

until was half out of my mind

 

the only trouble

jesus the only trouble,

is I keep thinking about a kid I saw starving on television

last night from biafra he was unbearably fragile

his stomach puffed up arms and legs sticks eyes distorted

what if I touched somebody like that when I was this way?

I can feel him going stiff under my hands

I can feel his belly bulging ready to pop

his pale hair disengaging from its roots like something awful

and alive

please

 

I won't hurt you I want you in my arms

I want to make something for you to eat like warm soup

look I'll chew the meat for you first

in case your teeth ache

I'll keep everybody away if you're sleeping

and hold you next to me like a little brother when we go out

I'm so cold now

what are we going to do with all this?

I promise I won't feel9myself like this ever again

it's just the spring it doesn't mean anything please

 


Roger Allen LaPorte

Born July 16, 1943; died November 10, 1965, following

self-immolation before the United Nations, New York.

(By A spy.)

 

Only because it happened in so public a place

and so unusual a manner was his death noticed.

Here and there flames had burst revealing

slumping figures within, like the bush of Moses

but surely he knew (he had talked of it to friends)

of the thousands whose burnings went unreported.

We are accustomed to people trapped in flames descending

from the air like fish-nets; when they burst from the ground up

it is as if the fish struck back.

 

Only because he was himself unusual

was his death as it was; for his brothers

(they would not have answered to the word) went in step

and some were caught by bullets (hurled pathetically

by men fleeing from moment to moment) and fell over

with the same prayers on their lips (in my Father's house

are many mansions, said the Lord): he would have refused

if called (and he hadn't been) and not wishing

simply to get home safe (he was unusual)

seeing his life as netted with others'

and talking, his friends reported, often of God

(indeed he was unusual) he did an unusual thing.

 

Because he was this way usual men

ever maximizing their chances, spoke spitefully:

my acquaintance whose face contorted as he hoped

he'd suffer for a month (coward: enlist) and when

the archangels Michael and Gabriel descended to the coffin

in Greco's painting and bore the corpse to heaven

in their own arms the hands that gestured to the event

the mildly astonished faces thought what thoughts?

For this was outside experience, a threat as if

lone thoughtless act might undermine a structure.

 

And if unusual in our time he was usual

in all time since it is too utterly familiar-

as once a month the moon goes out so once an age

all this happens, saints appear. You can't play

canasta without jokers. But this

kid of gentle face for his place in history

-which one day we will generously mark with ghoulish

iron-casting of what so clearly was flesh

perhaps right there-almost certainly did not care;

and on a deserted street, in gray morning, the wind cold,

upended a gasoline tin-it began

to evaporate, he shivered, thinking mainly of how

ridiculous it would be to walk home drenched in gasoline

(for he was ordinary, his friends tell us so:

smoke, drank, dated)-and between banalities

with matchbook open aimed like Odysseus's ship.

 

Stand by the roadside, hold fronds of palm, for Christ our Lord

rides by on donkey's back, feet flapping in the dust.


(Anger/confusion)

 

Don't

 

I have been saying what I have to say

for years now, backwards and forwards

and upside down and you haven't heard

it yet, so from now on

I'm going to start unsaying it:

I'm going to unsay what I've said already

and what everyone else has said

and what hasn't even been said yet.

 

I'm going to unsay

the northern hemisphere

and the southern,

east and west, up

and down, the good

and the bad. I'm going to unsay

what floats just over my skin

and just under: the leaves

and the roots, the worm

in the river and the whole river

and the ocean and the ocean

under the ocean. Space

and light are going,

silence, sound, flags,

photographs, dollar bills:

the sewer people and the junk people,

the money people and the concrete people

who ride out of town on dreams

and love it, and the dreams,

even the one pounding

under the floor like a drum-

I'm going to run them all down

again the other way

and end at the bottom.

 

Do you see? Caesar is unsaid

now. Christ

is unsaid. They trade toys

but it's too late.

The doctor is unsaid, cured;

the rubber sheet grows

leaves, luscious and dark,

and the patient feels them

gathering at the base

of his spine like a tail.

It is unsaid

that we have no tails--

an old lady twirls hers

and lifts

like a helicopter.

 

Time turns

backwards in its womb and floats out

in its unsaying.

It won't start again.

The sad physicist

throws switches but all

the bomb does is sigh inwardly

and hatch like an egg,

and little void-creatures

come, who live

in the tones between notes,

innocent and unstruck.

 

A baby fighting for air

through her mother's breast

won't anymore: the air is unsaid.

The skeleton I lost in France

won't matter. No picnics,

no flattened grass,

no bulls.

 

Everything washes up,

clean as morning.

My wife's wet underwear in the sink-

I unsay them,

they swallow me

like a Valentine.

The icebox is growing baby green

lima beans for Malcolm Lowry.

The house fills with love.

I chew perfume

and my neighbor kissing me good morning

melts and goes out

like a light.

 

There is bare rock

between here and the end.

There is a burnt place

in the silence.

 

Along my ribs, dying of old age,

the last atom dances

like a little girl. I unsay

her yellow dress, her hair,

her slippers

but she keeps dancing,

jumping back and forth

from my face to my funny bone

until I burst out laughing.

 

And then I unsay

the end.

 


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