Us Against Greed
A Fable for a Gilded Age
I recollect a party at my uncle's house,
some thirty years ago, a hundred hungry guests,
and tantalizing pie. But some began to grouse
when little Richie Leet (if memory attests)
was inexplicably allowed the biggest piece.
We couldn't argue, though, for we were satisfied
with what we had. As fate would have it - in caprice
or serendipity - my uncle would preside
at our reunion party, thirty years removed,
a hundred guests returning and a luscious pie.
But now, discretion notwithstanding, it behooved
me to complain, or short of that, to testify
for fairness: Richie's piece was bigger than before -
in fact, it nearly tripled in enormity!
"No fair!" I cried. Had Richie done some special chore
to earn his piece? The rest of us would quite agree
that we had even less than thirty years ago!
My uncle spoke at last: the years had made him weak,
he chose to step aside, and it was apropos
that Richie cut the pie himself. With this critique
of party planning sinking in, I looked around
at all the guests, and while I carefully refrained
from judgment or admonishment, without a sound
they stood and wondered why their hunger still remained.
As I embarked upon my catechismal quest
for noble humankind, I quickly came upon
a trader of securities, who would invest,
contended he, in any upper echelon
negotiation, regulation-free, of course.
While dallying between his yacht and his chateau
I felt I had identified a welcome source
of meritorious veracity, and so
I asked him what's important to society.
With little hesitation came his firm response:
"Without a doubt the marital fidelity
of our revered celebrities -- the nonchalance
with which they scandalize the public is a crime!
And while you ponder this, defer the moribund
economy to me -- it takes a little time
to prestidigitate a weak retirement fund."
Continuing my search, I quickly came upon
a seller of converted hedged derivatives
(if jargon of the sort is in the lexicon),
and with financial stress reduction expletives
he offered his opinion, at a modest price.
I asked him what's important to society.
With little hesitation followed words concise
and Constitutional: "the right to weaponry,
of course, for all injustice can be overcome
without the intervention of a referee."
Intrigued, but stubbornly unwilling to succumb
to such opinions till a sense of certainty
infused my spirit, I proceeded with my search --
and though in virtue's quest at best a hobbyist,
I felt in awe within the inner circle's church
and sanctuary, temple of the Lobbyist,
whose expertise would certainly reveal the Truth.
I asked him what's important to society.
In tones peremptory he answered me: "Uncouth
are those who tolerate the impropriety
of compromise! The left, the right, the gay, the straight,
devoted Socialist or Libertarian,
we must continue argument. To demonstrate
neutrality destroys the whole contrarian
foundation of our Founding Fathers. Put aside
concerns about impending economic woes --
free enterprise without restrictions will provide
prosperity for all. Of course, we won't impose
our will on you -- continue with your arguments,
and don't give in!" Enlightened now, but ill-at-ease,
I turned away, acknowledging these testaments
to Truth with the conviction of Diogenes.
And All Shall Prosper
The splendid gentlemen breathe soothing strains
of wisdom like the seraphim, and light
uncertain paths and shadowy terrains
with inspiration certain to ignite
the bleakest soul. Their special expertise
is proffered: sleight and stealth and schemes they weave
to spirit treasures on a silken breeze
to godly pleasure rooms, where they receive
idolaters to covet bulging sacks
of golden coins, and men in jealous trysts
caress their spoils like aphrodisiacs.
But comes a promise from these alchemists:
for all of us their riches will provide,
when breezes, brash and bountiful, subside.
A Capitalist Inferno
A winding path and gentle dusk invited me
to ease myself upon a sylvan pleasantry,
to seek my hearth and haven in the sunny white
celestial peaks before the ravages of night.
But woe of woes -- commotion on the path behind
disrupted my advancement and my reverie,
invoking wonder: was it beast or humankind
impinging indiscreetly on my destiny?
A moment later were identities revealed:
a warrior, a governor, a financier --
the first with gold accoutrement upon his shield,
the second predisposed to speechify and sneer,
the third an architect of some complicity
that couldn't be surmised amidst the secrecy:
and in a frightful moment they were after me,
so I discarded thoughts of intrepidity,
withdrawing quickly to a sanctuarial
retreat, where stood a ghostly shape that seemed inclined
to spirit me beyond the adversarial
triumvirate that loomed forebodingly behind.
"Identify yourself," I cried, "and don't forsake
a kindred spirit. Have you come to be my guide?"
The specter talked to me in soothing tones: "We'll take
another path to journey to the mountainside,
but pray beware! We'll travel through the deadly fires
and poisoned banks of Satan's isle before we reach
your lovely Zina, who invoked seraphic choirs
in voices liberal and lustrous to beseech
a messenger to shepherd you. The speaker's name
was Virgil, man or spirit never manifest,
with this and nothing else revealed to me: he came
because of Zina and her friends, at their behest.
The journey to the mountain started with descent
to entranceways of netherworlds that surely meant
we'd pass the lobbies, walls, and streets and fires of hell
and risk our trembling spirits to the deadly spell
of sin and deviltry, abandoning all hope
to malefactor, miscreant, and misanthrope.
We entered first the ante-Hell, where hapless souls
ran aimlessly in scalding air as worms chewed holes
in rotting flesh and blackish swarms of hornets chased
them -- these, said Virgil, were the lords of ignorance,
forever blind to all the treachery and waste
of wealthy men, and living with indifference
to good and evil. Then, appearing at the shore
of Acheron (a river on the edge of hell),
was Charon, ferryman, to take me to explore
the Circle First of Hell, whose vaunted clientele
included Homer, Horace, Ovid -- poets all,
and pagans; and another group who worshiped gods
from gilded ages -- flailing in a folderol
of egomania in businesslike facades.
Continuing to Circle Second, sins of Lust
for love and money: there the serpent judge decreed
that we should meet the sons of Plutus; we were thrust
inside a den of Hubris, where the dirty deed
of "carnal malefactors" augured lechery
in heads of government and war and industry,
the lot of them consumed by humanlike desires
but pleading innocence while marching to the fires.
In Circle Third were overlords of Gluttony,
whose lifelong legacy of sumptuous affairs
would render manifest, they felt, their destiny
to serve society by gathering the shares
of laborers, the indigent, and commoners
and managing the fortunes of these amateurs.
Their fee? Whatever generosity confers
upon elites, amidst angelic overtures.
Upon admission to the Circle Fourth of Hell,
we witnessed lines of businessmen in parallel,
along the scum-encrusted banks of the abyss;
and these were unrepentant men of avarice
who deemed it well and proper to be prodigal
with other people's money: they would push and pull
great boulders here, forever, on a battleground,
with homeless victims looking on without a sound.
In Circle Five we came upon the River Styx,
within the foul and muddied world of politics,
where every senator and representative
had come to validate the Master's words, to live
his life defending rich against the "poor and mean
condition" of the masses. And a ghostly scene
unfolded as their gilded Man of Steel embraced
a notion rare: by dying rich they died disgraced.
And next we stood before the flaming city Dis,
where demon Furies gathered, seeking to dismiss
us. "Come," said Virgil, "take the hand of messengers
from long ago. They'll lead the way for passengers
to travel to the mountaintop, as readily
as once they helped the gentle angels make their way
through man's imposed injustices of yesterday!"
The maiden Eleanor procured the city's key.
The depths of hell awaited us. In Circle Six
were housed the hordes of Hypocrites and Heretics
forever mired inside a sticky boiling mix
of silk to spin the tangled webs of politics.
In Circle Seven, those condoning violence
and servitude in other lands in search of gold
were chained in mines beyond the reach of Providence
to suffer in the heated pits a thousandfold.
Nearby, from what appeared to be a boiling sea,
a centaur - half a man and half a horse - appeared
to take us to a deeper space, where Blasphemy
on sacred Earth defined the hapless souls; I feared
the sights and sounds, the stinking gaseous flaring ground,
the fractured mountains, poisoned rivers -- a degree
of violation unforgettably profound,
the precious motherland exposed to Sodomy.
To Circle Eight. I noticed that the entranceway
was like a wall of earth - quotations filled the wall,
from those inside, perhaps intended to convey
the gist of capital ideas. I recall
the images they conjured: "No morality,"
shrugged Atlas, "in an altruistic man!" "A sin
is competition!" cried the Man of Oil. "A free
and open market works for all!" With great chagrin
I pictured Milton, once my hero. Sophocles
was also quoted: "Profit's sweet," his words proclaimed,
"if even by deception!" Then, from mysteries
Ecclesiastic came this final dictum, framed
in gold: "The profit of the earth must be for all!"
Beyond the wall were men of industry and war,
who fervently believed they had the wherewithal
to bribe the demon overlords of hell before
the shrieking Furies came to get them; now instead
the pits rang out with voices of the living dead:
the first was filled with panderers and lobbyists
and flatterers, the second sycophantic trysts
between the government and men of industry,
revolving doors that spun around at tempest speed
while whips destroyed their flesh -- so many came to bleed
their second death that I was choked with sympathy.
The other pockets (earthen folds) of Circle Eight
were filled with worms and snakes and great varieties
of slitherers who plotted to manipulate
the lending rates, and those who escalated fees
through whim or wickedness, and those who bit the hand
that bailed their vessels from the tempest; in a grand
display of justice they were crawling through the heat
with twisted heads that led them forward in retreat,
with faces puffed like bubbles fixed with grimaces,
their lack of empathy recalled and amplified:
regaling nightly at their gated premises,
condemning urchins lying hungry just outside.
We passed through Pluto's vaults to enter Circle Nine,
a sudden change to frozen depths containing souls
of those betraying workingmen; to them a shrine
was fashioned, and their bodies wedged in icy holes,
and just beside them, fittingly, was Lucifer
himself, interred inside the icy sepulcher
with financier and warrior and governor,
their hellish triple countenance to long endure.
And in the end we traveled, I and Virgil, far
from glacial blazing hell, from Lucifer's domain,
from scenes and spectacles perplexing and bizarre
and Plutocratic and satiric and profane.
And now the river of forgetfulness appears
in front of us, in morning's light, to cleanse our souls:
it brings me back to Zina, and again endears
me to progressive notions, which the dawn extols.
A World Apart
The children huddle in the razor cold
that numbs their hunger pangs, as nightfall paints
the stench of squalor on the walls in bold
assurance that their coffin-like restraints
shall never be undone. Once-sugary
and elfish notions barely blossoming
are slumped in grayish pulps of apathy.
Outside are tools of fire for butchering
the innocents, or seething from the great
industrial devices to defile
and blacken human breath. Tomorrow's fate
is cast, but spared in slumber for the while,
and ne'er to breathe the air of destiny
that surges sweet and giftlike over me.
Till the Next War
Ashes flickering, taunting,
twisting to and fro
in the smoldering blackness,
shirking from sulfurish fleshy pustules
on the gravel below:
the whole grayish image
swelling with vapory reverence,
as if lifting the souls of
warriors never again to stir,
never to bounce bubbling infants
on their knees.
The night brings a merciful silence,
as the soothing rush of the breeze
through leafy poplars
seems to lend hushabye sounds
to the movements of the dark.
And when the silvery morning
dances through clusters
of contented greenery
and children tag and tussle
far from blurring memories
of tearful nights,
and the air breathes honeysuckle,
and the breeze teases and taps
against my eager lips,
a choir of doves will
pulse from the clouds
to replace the fiery clamor,
and for a little while
the doves will live forever.
In This Way She Returned
Her lips, like unblossomed orchid petals,
pink and still, resting on a glossy bed
of fabrics that reflect glittery specks
of silver as lilac-drenched air settles
around us. Candles hint at life; instead
dance on her eyes, to startle and perplex.
For she remains steadfast in her retreat
to worlds beyond our own, a universe
where wind-borne whispering, a distant voice
rising and fading, hastens to repeat
its taunting and little-understood curse,
that resignation is my only choice.
I kiss her cheek and sing of cottontails
in the clouds and lavender ribbons soft
and silken on her ruffled party dress,
and ponies descending from fairy tales
with downy wings to carry her aloft
to magic lands of king and sorceress.
But she chose a path where powerful steeds
snorting plumes of steam and bolting at flames
that raged and ribboned through blackened terrain
inspired valiant feats of derring-do, deeds
so wondrous that as the vanquished proclaims
her brilliance, trumpets echo in refrain.
She stole like a satiny mist through lands
legendary with grandeur and danger:
the palaces of Xanadu - pity
to those who would heed not the reprimands
of a victor merciful, this stranger
at the gate of their Forbidden City.
The wrath of Alexander, son of Zeus,
Macedonian, no match for her skills
in acts of war, or her resourcefulness:
the celebrated Gordian Knot, loose
beneath her spell; and captive are the wills
of all who bow before the conqueress.
Mighty Achilles, slayer of Hector,
and lovely Helen, who coaxed men to war;
compare to their own this child's attributes!
In her sight their god is but a specter,
the brazen seductress of men a whore,
the heralded warriors dullish brutes.
All turn away from her in frenzied flight,
thrashing side to side like frightened sparrows,
stirring dust and grit in a rising gale;
impotent swordsman, an armorless knight,
a master archer stripped of his arrows:
with fists and bows and blood and brawn they flail.
But now, like them, she returns defeated,
snapping in the tempest, a sapling's bough.
As great machinery felled the phalanx
surrounding her, the battle conceded,
her spirit subdued, she heeded her vow
to remain to the end. Shall I give thanks
for this, or fall to despair? For she's crossed
endless worlds to explore the mysteries
beyond the stars, her destiny the grail
of the philosophers, who would be lost
as I, embarked on lonely Odysseys
seeking her trodden path, to no avail.
Unholy savages repulsed us in the west,
but we secured the land with every confidence
in our Creator, as His words made manifest:
the "heathen shall be part of our inheritance."
And in the south arose the vital routes of trade,
but primitive societies would jeopardize
our growth until a noble and benign crusade
could serve to "Christianize, redeem, and civilize."
And as the engine fueling our resolve ran dry
we ventured east to distant realms, where dusty tombs
and gleaming modern doctrines came to prophesy
the precious lifeblood offered up from ancient wombs.
And now the earth and its economies collide,
and frenzy in the markets grows in evidence,
and global appetites remain unsatisfied,
but we are comforted by our preeminence.
Gini's Turning 1
A puppy's sigh, our princess, bloom of Babylon,
her dewy eyes obscuring the museum glass
of parents rising from the dust, a maiden swan
escorting chariots from starry bliss where brass
was turned to gold through whimsy-sculpted alchemy,
and fortune seekers on the gravel-slickened slope
were swept in giddy bounds of seven leagues with key
and compass to the money dens, kaleidoscope
of gaud and flounce and filigree, mosaic glow
of palace halls. But we have pledged to our betrothed,
the scorned and beggarly below, the overflow
of boundless cornucopia, and they'll be clothed
in satin robes and finery, the queen's trousseau.
For this we wait in patience, watching Gini grow.
Once upon a long and weary voting day, with chances dreary
for a quaint and curious choice, a liberal ambassador;
while I gauged the sense of voting, suddenly I heard some gloating
as of someone sugarcoating memories of years before.
"'Tis some candidate," I muttered, "ill-informed with good rapport -
only this, and nothing more."
Ah distinctly I remember, 'twas a leap year in November,
every Senate member had a hundred lobbyists or more.
Earnestly I wished for fairness, recognizing all the rareness
of the public welcoming purveyors of progressive lore -
condescending to the noble precepts of progressive lore:
here, then gone forevermore.
Now I heard this faint intoning, not unlike a distant moaning,
near the bust of Adam Smith above the Senate's chamber door.
Grave concern about tomorrow seemed to frame these sounds of sorrow,
sorrow that we haven't known the likes of since we lost with Gore -
sorrow like a candidate who'd never lost the vote before -
sorrow like a lost l'amour.
Heart of mine now all aflutter, hurried I to raise the shutter -
there appeared an old acquaintance in his saintly guise of yore.
Ghostly, gaunt, and ancient fellow, wrinkled, cheeky, pink and mellow,
Mister Reagan, ever tasteful, decked out with a pompadour -
speaking with the flourish of the surf on California's shore:
Quoth the Reagan, "Tax no more..
"..Minimize the legislation, put an end to regulation,
give big business all it wants, then turn around and give it more."
Nothing further did he utter in his Presidential stutter,
not the least obeisance would betray his movie star decor,
glowing like a quote from Milton Friedman on the Senate door,
"Laissez-faire and nothing more."
Then the Gipper, ever smiling, ever skillfully beguiling
all my anger into words to counteract his charm galore:
"Mister Reagan, let me state this: didn't you anticipate this?
All the wealth is concentrated, just a few have wealth galore.
Is there any balm on Main Street - tell me, tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the Reagan, "Nevermore."
There he dallied, never leaving, still deceiving, always peeving
those of us who choose the bust of FDR to stand before.
"Wretch!" said I, "Your righteous leaning surely is devoid of meaning -
still, it seems the Seraphim is on your side forevermore."
All my hopes for income fairness, lying on the Senate floor,
shall be lifted nevermore!
He says he couldn't find a job - c'mon,
keep lookin' - guy's a loser, guy's a con,
his children needed food, he told police,
the rent is due. Well, let him find his peace
in jail. A year is all he got? The clerk
was scared to death. The system's gone berserk.
Who, me? Still dabbling in derivatives.
Our bet against the mortgage market gives
a lot of business to my company -
all fees and carried interest, almost free
of taxes. Times are tough, though, bonus pay
is down. You can't afford a yacht today.
Torn from Woman, Torn from Earth
In delicate and savage motions flesh
disgorges, like a rotting passion fruit,
as twisted carnival reflections mesh
with wailings from a ravaged prostitute
discarded to the painted grimaces
on alley walls. And tiny fingers scrape
bijouterie from womblike surfaces
till bloodied senses callus, as the rape
by phallic masters of a butchered earth,
bravado spurting from their whiskied seed,
ejects the wretches in disfigured birth,
in pull and thrust and pull -- the vulgar deed
proceeding in a violent reprise
that spirits boyish dreams from lifeless eyes.
We run as if an agitated earth
were breaking up behind us, and we fight
to gain our stations at the gritty trough
half-filled with corn, where each survivor's worth
is daily measured by another's right
to fair apportionment denied; and off
our makeshift plates of muddied, calloused hands
ensues a squealing angry vulgar rush
to suck the greasy nourishment before
there is no more, beneath the reprimands
of our possessors, who behold the crush
of vermin squirming to and fro, and roar
with ridicule at other men's distress.
And now the furnace of the picking fields:
my sweat, like acid, so intense the heat;
the layers of my skin in merciless
assault laid bare, as one would flay the shields
of weary swordsmen crumbling in defeat.
For I am just machinery, a tool;
and I must step and lift and strip and clear,
again, again, until all hope becomes
a moment's respite from another's rule,
a storm-whipped seedling doomed to persevere
until its fleeting energy succumbs.
The night, at last, should be our time of peace.
Instead a tempest rises from inside
of me - my brother kneels before the fire;
and all the creatures of the darkness cease
their plaintive calls, the churlish winds subside;
to touch his breath the spirits all conspire,
as like a starry pond his amber skin
reflects a thousand beaded silver pearls
of terror; time and motion seem to pause;
a fearsome crackling - flesh explodes, the din
of horror as a scarlet vapor curls
above bewitching firelight; and the cause
of all the misery of humankind
is set aglow upon the lustful eyes
of those in witness to the spectacle;
his swelling body thrashes in a blind
contortion at the resonant reprise,
the whistlings of the lash a chronicle
of limits to endurance, or of prey
in final battle, and we both recoil
with every searing flash of brilliant white;
the wordless ritual proceeds till day
begins, and merciful the rite of toil
to shroud the distant memories of night.
The valuation: ox and mule and I
are harvesters, production's pulse and breath;
the traders, sure as scripture of their just
and righteous task, assess and quantify,
and probe and estimate each life and death;
like seed we will be spread among the dust.
I watch my mother's face: 'tis just as well
they hack away her arm, so great her pain;
but all her tears dissolve in scenes of mirth
and profit, as the men who buy and sell
the bucks and hands and breeders do ordain
for us a last embrace upon their earth.
Our dearest bond is cherished; as the men,
becoming restless, hurry us along.
Once more I'd like to gather a bouquet
for her, to see her smile; and once again
to drift to slumber on an angel's song
as all my fears of darkness slip away.
A Son at War
At beck of Melancholy, wizened thief
of Time, I watch the hordes lift altar stones,
as sweat and levers ooze in bas relief
in turbid wallows of testosterone's
anointed soil, and this idolatrous
cortege invokes a godlike warrior,
the phallus of a lecherous abyss
where rabid gnarling men and beasts defer
to him, and flaming chariots arise,
orgasmic with revering royalty.
And with my withered guide they lionize
this lord of cardboard swords and fancy-free,
his boyish battle-sculpted mask to burn
in grownup realms from which he can't return.
An American Tale
Upon a once delightful time, when I,
abiding by a sylvan sigh of sycamore and pine,
contrived to pass upon my neighborland in scholarly repose,
I chanced to happen on a curious component of the wilds,
at once buffoonish and benign,
a squirrel aslumber, tummy dumpling plump, a nutmeat at its nose.
"Upon my word," spoke I, "how still you lie,
malformed aboard a rolling hoard of hickory delights,
content to ornament an oaken door, quite indisposed to move;
for all your cousins, scores and dozens, fill the forest,
ever tending unrelenting appetites,
while you preponderate in plenty, more than Eden would behoove."
"Upon my pappy's scraggly stern," said he,
"you seem to be, cerebrally, simplistic to assess,"
as he commenced a roll in troubled tones to loftier terrain;
"I spurn this piteous portrayal of my rodentry, to wit,
my kith and kindred in distress,
all fur and flurry, sniffing fervidly for unbegotten gain.
"Upon my well-provided bastion I will gladly glut
on butternuts and sweetmeats of success,
and I will wax the night resplendent in celestial silhouette;
for as the progeny of honor I'm decidedly entitled
to the gatherers' largesse,
and I am pleased to sip the nectar of their sacrificial sweat."
Upon the gusty culmination of his lordly rant,
he huffed and panted, turning on his tail
in proud retreat in sluggish sweep into the shadowy inside;
and I sat quietly amused, and quite convinced that I
was party to a miscreantic tale
by which no member of a more developed species could abide.