The old black-and-white

Deeper into the trumpeting tattoo.  The sullen weight of atmospheric pressure in these passages (from Once in Paradise) keeps gathering.  The foreboding marks racial, sexual, geo-political tensions.  "Henry Clay" is a nickname for the poem's protagonist, but also a figure out of American history, as storm-clouds gathered before the Civil War.


. . . heard himself muttering in the dark. 
Unaccountable black cone of jagged war 
– like a spiralling ashen djinn – wore 
through the skin, leaving an acid blood-mark.

The White House sketched a venereal river 
of chattering teeth squirming in a mask 
through immaterial Mardi Gras.  Ask
not what your country can, Sergeant. Shiver.

Until the vernal Jordan overflows.
White foam, tumbling over golden shoeblack 
into the microphones; a floating shack
out of Arkansas, to the gulf of hexagons, she goes,

a strong brown goo.  And the dust began to blow, 
the fertilizer.  Dried bowls by the Mississippi, 
iron harvesters plowing down the slippery
red Indian mounds – slow, slow.


Throw all the acorns into the black account, 
cried Henry Clay, last of the statesmen.
Time flowed through the blurred windowpane. 
Irreversible.  It seemed a blissful river, heaven

sent.  Or just a po wayfarin stranger. 
Depends on your outlook.
Hmmmmm. . . Hmmmmm.. . . rook
to queen's knight's eagle's castle.  Danger.

Shrubbery on the move there, Ahab; 
question for you, iron man. 
Shadow for sundown.
Take these samples to the lab,

cried Henry. The black lab.
And he glanced off through the trees
into surrounding dusk.  A breeze crawled. . . 
scrawled across gray beech bark.  Like a scab.


In the darkroom, the old black-and-white 
plays out in spools across a bloody field. 
Something missing. . . the last leg on the shield 
of Malcolm's hurtling emancipation. . . not quite

there yet.  In mordant clay
the old man seals his will and covenant–
Ahab's slave-ship now (a raving cormorant) 
dives after the white inscrutable. Say,

Bluejay, Queequeg, if you can – since 
Henry's finally lost his power of speech
where Pushkin gone?  The fatal touch 
of earthy lips – sealed up his coffin?

Or is there someone waltzing into view 
kings' concupiscence cannot comprehend? 
And missiles miss?  And Henry's hand 
skip over – like a monkey at the zoo?

2.16.98 (President's Day)

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