Civil Twilight

Friday, January 15, 2016

                        If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with.

                                                            —Ronald Reagan

In this the latest version of history, which looks, as we enter into it,
Like just another block of vacants recolonized after being boarded up,
Boards now torn down but still no water or electricity, and so the street

A latrine and evening’s air unbroken by turned-up TV talk shows,
All the police’s different voices, when they finally erupt, are so garbled
By bullhorn and two-way radio they become one, and so utterly

Incomprehensible, and so the very idea of authority perfected:
Head-splittingly loud, and dumb. We walked, the sky above us fig-flesh
And flesh and baton-black at the edges, and on the bus benches and fences

Around us the Graffiti Eradication Task Force’s patches of color,
Earth-toned and muted, a sort of bland abstract expressionism
Which if the world itself were art might hang on thrift store walls

Above the ten-deep stacks of Americana landscapes that sell occasionally
For frame salvage or what we might call irony if we took the time
To recognize it as such anymore, irony in the absence of perspective

Being so easily mistaken for sincerity. But who couldn’t love this view’s
Sudden novelty? Traffic redirected, we stood in the middle of the empty
Six-lane, stared out at the city. It was Napoleon III, when he leveled

And rebuilt Paris’s poorest districts, who called them riot-streets:
Long, straight boulevards too wide to barricade and arranged on a grid
So that the beast of the people rising could be contained and attacked

The whole length of its body. Yet it was with no Old World stiffness,
No particular sense of occasion, only instead those peculiarly American
Virtues of efficiency and enterprise, that the SWAT team,

Each individual’s blood-type scrawled in permanent marker upon his neck,
Descended the steel grating of their armored transport’s ramp
Single-file and then, in a maneuver choreographed with a textbook

Precision and punctuated by the lobbing of gas grenades,
Expanded to sweep the terrain. Mass eviction and mass arrest.
Another clearing of the land, easy as the bolt-cutter’s blades

Through a padlock’s hardened steel, a gesture natural now after so many
Landing parties, after men on the moon. Descend and fan out
And subdue. We witnessed masters practicing the fine art

Of brutality within its legally described parameters. It would be
An insult—boot tread’s pressure applied with such great
Care to a bare clavicle’s tender skin—to consider them

Anything less. And so like masters their labor seemed effortless, almost
Automatic, some human machinery which would not hesitate, would not
Flinch reflexively before compressing with the night-stick a stranger’s

Windpipe, and which would, later on, simply crack a few
Cold ones, a day’s work done. One would have to really believe,
Believe even in the face of great doubt, that helpless face, that face

Swollen by disuse; one would have to have some measure
Of faith, as, beneath his helmet of hair, Reagan, when he ordered
The bodies of students to convulse and fall, to fan out over Sproul Plaza’s

Criss-crossing pavers, a cloud of CS gas pouring from the helicopters,
And guardsmen, masked and bayoneted, surrounding them, did.
It’s something I hadn’t thought about for a very long time: high school

Civics, our teacher’s retelling of the People’s Park protests in Berkeley.
I hadn’t paid much attention really, eyeing, instead, in the next desk
A girl’s bra strap which had strayed just outside her top’s neckline,

And so which, in the dress code’s terms, constituted flagrant violation.
I studied its lacy edge, lace’s refusal to lead the eye anywhere in particular,
Its invitation to linger where one did not belong, that simple beauty

Of transgression. In May of ‘69, their hair down, topless young women
Offered soldiers lemonade dosed with LSD. Then beating’s delirium,
Reagan’s What do you mean negotiate? and the dust of bulldozers undoing

Trespass, the inevitable dust of order’s return. And from that hazy
Distance wasn’t some moral supposed to have emerged, some parade
Of millenarians halleluing down the median-stripe, their earth-

Toned and loose-fitting clothes trembling in the breeze, their bells jangling
In exultation of that final, that most complete genocide, law,
Once and for all, having been handed down from on high? Instead,

On flesh, riot-guns inscribe their less-lethal thou-shalt-nots
And we’re constrained from every direction: sidewalks’ from-the-ground-up
Prescriptions, tattered and month-old police tape’s yellowy warning

Beneath the firmament’s unrelenting slate. There’s something so shockingly
Ordinary about it all, its repetitiveness, how it can no longer surprise us,
Even with its sudden violence. Descend and fan out and subdue, and over

And over, until everything’s tight as ship’s rigging in a stiff offshore wind,
Masts and sails and rope backlit, the coast never yet fully cleared, or else
A paint-by-numbers kit’s strict circumscription, where, within the lines,

Any dilettante’s a master, where a small palette of colors’ smoothed-out
Tones exile all detail’s potential for complication. It’s just so easy to take:
A benign sky, Art 101 composition which pulls the eye as if by force

Down to some singular figure just outside the background’s reach.
Who is that mounted there in the distance, mesa and twilight rising
Behind him? Prince Jesus himself, maybe, lawman made manifest

And destined to occupy the whole of the territory with his gaze.
He’s wearing the Gipper’s hat and shifting in the Gipper’s well-worn saddle
And ready to clip-clop right up to the frame’s edge, to speak loudly,

To speak with one clear voice. Though of course there’s nothing there
Save a stroke of cheap acrylic, a speck, a suggestion, all that was left
Of our Ronnie at the end: the Great Communicator robbed of speech,

Of thought, of memory, his hair plastered in sweat across his forehead,
His soul like the Sibyl sprawled in her little jar, gasping for air.
And so his final legacy: mealtime and drug time, then bedtime for Bonzo,

The little room tidy and utterly unrecollectable, every moment another
Morning in America. To have a whole existence reduced to nothing but
Order, that invasive species in the ballast waters of history; history

Which again has its gang-plank down, which storms the coast,
Which gathers those things it comes across and stores them in the hold
And forgets about them there; history which so becomes us

Without our even noticing it much, like helicopters’ rattling again overhead
Or prefab bulk institutional wall art, the sort of thing that hangs
In lobbies of interstate-adjacent motels and psych-ward waiting rooms.

When I went to see you there, you leaned in and told me all territory
Is occupied territory
, or you meant to tell me. Would have, certainly,
If you’d spoken at all. You’d never believed they’d made it to the moon—

All those hours of late-night AM talk—you’d held out a little hope.
By the time they found your body, it had long since stopped swaying
In that small rented room off the alley, the funding for your bed long since

Slashed. I didn’t hear about it for months afterward. Now, I can’t
Remember much of that last time I saw you. I could hardly bear
To look, your eyes blank, what in your mind was wild, and everything else,

Subdued finally. My eyes kept wandering to that framed print behind you
As I went on about the job I’d gotten, the girl I was about
To marry. I think it was either a sunset or sunrise, something bright and

In the distance. From what I can remember, it was a very pretty picture.

Friday, January 15, 2016