Green Blood and Beard Butterflies i
For Flavia M. Lobo
America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw;
Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law!
Saadi, as most people around the world,
you love jeans, jazz, the blues,
John Silver’s parrot,
the balconies of New Orleans,
the endless fields of wheat and corn,
the Mississippi steamboats,
the smell of Virginia tobacco.
Oh, yes, that rich, manly smell of tobacco,
and the image of a bearded man
in a silk paisley vest,
his red tie looped into a loose knot,
fastened with a stickpin,
his shirt sleeves rolled up,
showing his muscular arms,
their golden down stirred by the river breeze,
his watch chain showing
out of his vest pocket,
his tweed trousers breaking slightly
over his polished congress boots,
his knowing hands shuffling,
his smiling blues and impish smile
taunting his opponent across the table
of the Robert E. Lee Riverboat saloon.
But, Saadi, are we going to cast Clark Gable,
Robert Redford, or Leonardo Di Caprio
as the leading man of our movie?
And as we play director or leading lady,
do we remember the “Middle Passage”
of the Colonial Trade Pattern
following the eastward “trade winds”
that allowed slave ships to cross the Atlantic
carrying slaves from the west coast of Africa
to the Americas and the Caribbean,
where the ships traded their human cargo
for rum, tobacco, molasses,
before following the westerlies on their return trip to Europe,
where they would again load their ships
with manufactured goods they would later trade
for more African slaves?
Once in the Americas, it was those African slaves
who labored in the cotton, sugar, and tobacco plantations
to harvest the products the European elites craved.
Does the smell of Virginia tobacco still spread that aura
of strong, silent, masculinity?
Or does it reek of the stench of suffering black flesh
stacked in squalid ships,
of the slave masters who washed their slave-selling,
to become the soave senators,
the sophisticated scoundrels,
the scions of the financiers of America?
Does it stink of huffing, puffing, blood spitting,
and stubborn inhaling through a plastic tube in the throat?
Saadi, you want to exchange gifts with America:
James Bond’s golden pistol for Marilyn Monroe’s giggle,
the Afghani mujahideen beard
for Walt Whitman’s beard filled with butterflies,
for paper to write poems that defame America,
Saddam Hussein for Abraham Lincoln.
Yes, Saadi, we the poets of the world want paper,
forests of paper,
to write rivers of poems,
tender and majestic poems
about a beautiful world that includes America,
but we do not need to defame her,
she defames herself.
Saadi, I am with you. The rest of the world,
the ninety-five percent of the world that is non-American,
is with you. Good choices.
Except for old Abe. He’s just another myth.
Oh, yes, I know: abolition, holding the Union together,
the Gettysburg Address,
and Lincoln logs to build a cabin in the Illinois woods
and live a simple, honest life, as Abe did.
Sometimes it seems as if the Founding Fathers
had political strategists, analysts, pollsters,
message and media gurus, and mass marketers
right from the beginning,
the number of myths they came up with,
and then with Hollywood making everything American
seem larger than life,
with Dolby Digital sound,
and bombshells like Marilyn with her giggle,
and Leonardo with his caressing blues.
I don’t blame you, Saadi,
it’s hard for a foreigner to disentangle the truth from the myth.
Even Americans don’t know.
They keep talking about American values.
Which American values?
From the beginning, it was the bottom line,
the almighty dollar,
the enshrined gun,
killing the Indians,
and stealing, at the point of a gun,
or buying cheap, at the point of a gun,
the entire continent, from sea to shining sea,
and the entire world.
Genocide... Plundering... Hail to the Chief... American values.
And they make it all seem glamorous.
And Holier than the Prophet and Virgin Democracy,
let’s not forget Democracy,
the wild card of the Empire.
They pull it out and make it stand
for anything they need at the moment,
for when Humpty Dumpty uses a word,
it means just what I choose it to mean—
neither more nor less,
and when the World says,
The question is whether you can make words
mean different things,
Humpty Dumpty responds,
The question is which is to be master—that’s all. ii
And Humpty Dumpty plays the Democracy card
against the Japanese, the Nazis, the Vietcong,
the Latin Americans, the Communists,
the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein,
Osama Bin Laden, the Iranians, the Palestinians,
and, of course, Terrorism,
the new, all-purpose, one-size-fits-all
But Americans don’t know their history.
Most of them are good people,
good, generous, people,
who have been trained not to question,
to believe their own myths,
to believe anything their leaders and their media tell them.
They have been bred to believe
they are good and patriotic when they fly around the world
defending American values,
and not just defending them,
but sharing them with the rest of the world,
with all the defective humans
who would still be living in caves,
killing their dinner with a club, and
dragging women by the hair,
were it not for their kindness
and their willingness to teach others their values.
The Emancipation Declaration
had all the moral grandeur
of a bill of lading.
- Richard Hofstadter
Saadi, like you, most Americans believe
that Abe was the liberator of the slaves.
The Bush administration undermined civil rights,
suspended habeas corpus,
destroyed the Constitution,
the new Obama administration is trying to do the same.
And so did Abe. So did Abe.
Oh, he said that he opposed slavery,
but he wanted to free them and send them back to Africa.
In his 1858 campaign for the Senate
he told his audience in Charleston, southern Illinois:
I will say, then, that I am not nor ever have been,
in favor of bringing about in any way
the social and political equality
of the white and black races (applause);
. . . . . . . . .
And inasmuch as they cannot so live,
while they do remain together there must be
the position of superior and inferior,
and I as much as any other man am in favor
of having the superior position
assigned to the white race. iii
And it wasn’t just Abe,
or the South,
or the slave owners,
no, it was also the northern elites.
For years, they decided not to enforce the law ending the slave trade
and to be harsh in the enforcement of the laws providing
for the return of fugitives to slavery.
The northern elites decided that slavery would end
when conditions were ripe and under their control,
and that Abe combined the qualities they needed
in the president who would free the slaves
at the precise moment when their political and economic needs
determined it was necessary. iv
The northern elites decided that
they might as well profit
from the legend they built
around the man they picked
to do their dirty work,
so we have Lincoln memorials
in the nation’s capital
and in his state’s capital,
and we have many different Lincoln statues.
We have granite Lincoln on Mount Rushmore,
and copper Lincoln on the penny,
the lucky penny we pick and pocket
when we find it face-up on the sidewalk,
the lucky penny we put in our penny loafers,
and we have Lincoln’s lucky bronze nose
to rub and teach our children to rub
when we visit his memorial in Illinois.
And, lest we forget, in February,
after the Christmas shopping,
after the New Year’s new gown and noise maker shopping,
after the Martin Luther King Day shopping,
after the Valentine’s Day shopping,
and before the Easter shopping,
we have President’s Day
to celebrate Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays
by, what else, shopping.
Saadi, you ask why American Phantom pilots
want to turn you and your country
back to the Stone Age when you are not their foe
and do not lust after their things,
their New York with its skyscrapers, their Golden Gate,
their roaring iron birds, their Tomahawk missiles,
their Day of Doom.
No, you do not want their things,
but they want yours—your oil,
your land, where they can build military bases
and from where they can control the entire region,
and, though they would never admit it,
they want the excuse you give them to use up their arsenal
and have a reason to replenish it,
for those northern elites that decided
when and how slavery would end,
own the weapons factories
and make sure there is always a war
so they can increase their profits.
Saadi, you want to know why the American soldier
comes to you from his Nevada desert armed to the teeth.
It is simple. He has been taught that
there must be
the position of superior and inferior,
and [he] as much as any other man [is] in favor
of having the superior position
assigned to the white race.
But not just anybody in the white race,
only American whites,
and not just any American white,
only the wealthy, the elite, American whites,
and, adapting to the times, in the 21st Century,
a black can now be assigned the superior position
as long as in his chest pulsates an elite white heart
that wants to keep everybody else in the world
in the inferior position.
And, Saadi, that soldier armed to the teeth
could today be white, black, Asian, Hispanic,
Native American, Arab,
because Humpty Dumpty can make any word
mean anything he wants to,
and he has convinced people at the bottom
of the American pyramid, that they are all superior
to everybody else in the world.
Saadi, you ask the soldier to leave you what you already have,
your house roofed with palm fronds,
the wooden bridge down the street,
the fish that used to swim by your doorstep in Basra,
the water buffaloes lazily chewing on water lilies,
your floating cane hut and your fishing spear,
your migrating birds and green plumes,
your summery summer.
You invite him
to take what he does not have,
a simple house,
a friendly village,
time to fish,
a summery summer.
But, Saadi, oh, Saadi of the bleeding heart,
he cannot accept your gift,
cannot comprehend it.
He has been taught that anybody
who is not American
is property or a sexual object,
cheap labor or a customer,
a target or collateral damage,
a compliant ally, or a foe.
You say you are the poor
and yours is the god of the poor,
born out of farmers’ ribs,
but Saadi, you are not the poor,
that Nevada soldier is the poor.
He thinks others are obstacles or instruments,
and when he remembers a tree,
when he remembers the mulberry,
the pomegranate, the flowering dogwood,
he does not touch it.
He does not notice the birds and the angels
that fall out when his father axes it,
or the green blood that oozes from its wound,
he cannot touch it,
he cannot become the dizzying, dying tree.
He has never seen butterflies alighting on Whitman’s beard,
their fluttering wings
Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.
Song of the bleeding throat,
Death’s outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,
If thou wast not granted to sing thou would’st surely die). v
His throat does not bleed with Death’s outlet song,
his head is not dizzy when the pomegranate falls,
his heart does not flutter when the wings whisper,
and his god emerges out of the ribs of weapons makers
jingling bullets and coins,
thirsting for the red blood of the dark.
Pity him, Saadi. Pity him.
i Written in answer to Saadi Youssef’s “America, America.”
ii Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, chapter 6
iii Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present, 188.
iv Zinn, chapter 9.
v Walt Whitman, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.
when a heart finds his voice
If I keep a green bough in my heart, the singing bird will come.
- Chinese proverb
I was faithful,
did my job,
beat seventy–two times per minute,
forty-two million times per year,
kept him working, loving,
being a good man.
For 59 years, I was faithful,
then the accident...
I wanted to go with him.
Loved that man,
took care of each other,
planned to leave together
when our job was done.
just grabbed me --
hadn’t said good-by--
pulled me out,
kept me in dry ice,
put me in another chest,
famous one, they said,
keep beating, they said.
... a dumb muscle,
a machine that performs,
keep the blood flowing,
the man alive,
They don’t understand.
We were in accord.
I murmured, he whispered.
I sang when he kissed his daughter,
I danced when he threw a ball with his son.
I fluttered and soared,
We had no discord,
loved the same woman,
thirty years loved the same woman,
rejoiced when the bees returned to the zinnias,
quivered the first time we saw the sun rise on the South Rim,
went to a different place
when we listened to Plácido,
on Sunday afternoons,
were wounded when his baby died.
His breath was my mainspring.
and I, happy to love with him.
Now I beat in the chest of a stranger,
one who ordered mass destruction,
and knows no remorse.
I can’t dance
to the beat of his resentment,
to his plots of revenge,
when he dreams of his crimes,
and wishes for more.
I murmur, he curls up his lip.
I spend my days pumping blood
heavy with cells of contempt,
corpuscles of hatred
that poison his body,
wither my song.
Men of science...
didn’t ask why his first heart preferred to die.