Having claimed that a virgin could cross the empire carrying a sack of gold and both arrive intact, the Emperor feels called upon to prove it. A girl is chosen from one of the new, half-slaughtered half- assimilated western provinces. At the vizier’s suggestion, she has strong legs. Treasure is promised her weeping parents; on the other hand the consequences of pilfering are made clear. (A squad of proven veterans will secretly accompany her at a distance.) In the first hamlets, weeping gives way to stares, resentment of the all-too-visible soldiers, the gold, and her. She protests — “Brothers!” — then walks silently. Cities she comes to she crosses undismayed; she has seen market days and tells herself these are just bigger markets. When buildings are tall and strange she remains unawed; to be awed would mean stopping. (Her guards approve, but keep her in sight.) In villages she stays with widows, discarded wives, and crones not too suspected of witchcraft; helps them clean and cook. The soldiers camp nearby. (The girl likes the beardless one but dreams of the tall one with scars; her face reveals nothing to either as they move from hill to hill above.) As languages shift, she encounters harsh looks: she is a whore because she’s alone and a stranger. Now the soldiers intervene (as the vizier said they should if neither gold nor maidenhead per se are under threat. And they’re in desert now; these villagers won’t talk, would not be listened to, and will be punished if they do.) A bit later, the guards help the girl across mountains. Scarface gives her a new thong for the sack she wears beneath her breasts. The boy slips, and falls into a bottomless chasm. The girl seeks something in the eyes of each of his comrades; no one speaks. They descend into the thickly-settled eastern provinces. The virgin walks always with her eyes on the ground. The soldiers fade into crowds. She sees them drinking sometimes, never much. They fade entirely when she reaches the palace of the Eastern Governor, where she is made much of. The Governor, luckily with witnesses, counts the gold. As she stands silent, scribes write down her story. From a window she sees, for the first time, the sea, which she perceives as a sort of wall. The Governor’s ancient mother, a motherly type, is kind to her, asking what she saw in her travels that struck her as unusual. The girl hesitates a long moment, says “Nothing.”
The uniform is like an allover bib, or a washerwoman’s ad for her work. The wide ruff mocks the idea that someone like him could have status, and, for cognoscenti, the idea of status. The famous look, all modern alienation (which the bourgeois will translate as “being overqualified”), suggests also a sense that the joke, however universal, is on him: to escape this frame would be the punchline. The others chat. The role of ingénue mutates quicker than fashion. The old father, rich, deaf, outwitted, must seem convincingly stupid. Offstage are the fops, who must not see, only pay and applaud, and a lute, and cellphones. Gilles circles the concept “deadpan,” wonders how long a laugh may stretch, and whether after the Revolution he can get a spot on late-night.
The powers that be, intuiting and improvising, seek a “spiritual” counterweight to the slightly out-of-control fascist populism. They find it among the flames consuming the Northwest. A middling, easy-to- identify-with ranch house is consumed, and a young fireman runs in to save two little girls. His expression as he cradles them, caught in a photo taken by the mother and a CNN segment, is sublime. It helps that he’s a hunk. When a reporter hurls questions, he replies — stern, exhausted, utterly there — that he’s busy, but is interviewed later. Has a not-unintelligent innocence, the sincerity we imagine, and a voice to die for. No current love-interest. The guys in his unit think he’s special. Larger questions are raised, about fire, fear, God; all receive from the Fireman the same sort of answers. The eyes neither plead nor command. The voice, though always thoughtful, never hesitates or lies. Where is this going. Politics doesn’t grab him. Nor Hollywood. He walks onstage at talk shows neither smiling nor waving, nor acknowledging the mad applause, except with that gaze. He talks about fear, damage, hurt, the need to help. Religion in various forms picks him up. Not the fundies but liberal-sensitive types and the easily- sparked cult-spirit. Word gets around that he’s Jesus. He denies this. Word gets around he’s the Antichrist. The Fireman very seriously considers this, asks, “How would I know?” Then — Langton writes that some of my poems read like notes for a story. He may be right, but actually I don’t feel it as a fault. Anything to defeat that bloated usurper, the novel! But the ultimate aim, I think, is not only, or not so much, to create narratives as to destroy them, the one that is told us, the ones we tell ourselves. Imagine the chaos if stories suddenly disintegrated, were seen through... it would be bloody marvelous. I am a mad animal. I have plans.
“Sorry for your loss,” he says. No pronoun. Is he sorry? The department? The justice system? Probably wouldn’t go that far. In any case, sorrow is out there, and will be, presumably, renewed, deepened when the last box is filed, last name signed on this and all the cases. Meanwhile you stare at the cop, because there’s nothing else to look at. And before he thinks you’re weird, you find something to mumble, words, thanks even, the spirit pretending to want decorum, coherence, and continuation in being, like the body.
Cops, those friendly fellows, can talk to anyone, however unwilling; but I must explain myself, smile, see doors slam, get punched out, a timid childhood returning whenever I ask, “Do you know this man?” Holding up a grainy xeroxed photo, a failed sketch-artist’s sketch, a prose passage. I knock on the doors of those closets where society keeps its young, interrupt their texting, and my face must be broadcast to the world before they’ll check their only form of memory. Sometimes he’s there, on their phones. “What’d he do?” they ask, but don’t complain when I’m vague; their role is to be out of the loop. That face on their screens, behind dancers whose arms seem raised in surrender, is full of character, but which is hard to say: sardonic-nasty, perhaps, there by the keg and pool, turning water into beer.
In Miami, a lawyer watches closed feed. The colors, he thinks, are those of Miami, except for the rust-black chains and clamps occluding, in the lights from a submersible, the gold. The trademark grin of the famous salvager returns. “It isn’t the San Miguel or Maria Galante,” he says. “Still it’s great, thirty million at least. But what the hell are those?” — “From the ship?” asks the lawyer. — “Unlikely,” replies the captain. “And why here? We can’t film this.” — “I’ll do some checking,” says the lawyer. The next time they speak, he watches machines and divers gather iron and carry it over dunes, into murk; then a vivid narrated clip, the gold glinting; then a larger submersible vacuuming up doubloons. “A slaver from Charleston,” he says, “ran into bad weather in 1820. They made port, but had to dump half the cargo. There.” “It’s a good thing bodies don’t last,” says the captain, without discernible laughter. But the lawyer laughs, alarmed by the sight of a reef of irrelevant bones.
At first, in the haven, we imitate old movie heroes — nice, orderly, generous, helpful, stoical I guess you’d say — too aware of those outside, who are neither healthy, cool, dry, fed, or alive. But humanity asserts itself. Former chairmen of boards who could afford to buy in, now chairmen of nothing, vie then duel for seats on committees that issue quarterly fantasies. Religions spawn, split, fight, attack labs and sex. There’s a lot of sex, and gossip with the astral plane and the ghost of the Dalai Lama. Great interest in seeking transmissions — mostly futile, otherwise depressing. One fool who was about to reveal our position is shot. The widow of a CEO thinks not of him but a long-dead love he never knew about, then less of him than of his small green bottle of cologne. The void between her and that scent fills up with metaphysics. She spends more and more time in her quarters, staring at the wall; reflects: If there’s nothing on the other side of a wall, love the wall.
History is a function of biology. Biology as a whole is tragic. A point worth remembering, career-wise, when the robot calls you into its office to talk about your career. Its office is, famously, a closet, with a hint of a desk and one chair, but the robot looks comfortable there. Something like flesh has been printed onto its circuits, and a suit, but no meat face is so implacable or sympathetic. You’ve heard that, if the dark day comes, and you want to waste time, you can ask it why it exists. (This glitch is corrected in later models.) It says, with its usual cheer, To project power, to prevent executive embarrassment, to absorb damage if necessary, and to provide a human touch. Then it lists various options and tells you when you might expect your check. As you pass whatever eyes meet yours from other offices, the bullpen, cubicles, classrooms, cells, screens, and clean out your desk, you maintain the expected confident expression. To be human is not to act out. To be human is to work, if in no other way than being afraid.
They let him write an editorial. He’s quietly ecstatic. Not merely a “first draft of history,” but of political thought! He begins with the paradox of the Internet and other social media promising endless communication but resulting only in little fortresses (delete “ghettoes”), where people only listen to what they already believe. Here his prose and interest soar. Extremism of the left and right — no. Extremist “voices” from left and right are what the masses hear. The thrill of stating this equivalence, not naming names, transcending names, and crying for old-fashioned politeness, “tolerance” in a deeper than political sense — till at last he invokes “we,” the unarguable, the moral pronoun. We must learn to listen to each other. With this he lands where thinkers ought to be: above the battle, the realm of truth, proclaiming which is in itself both victory and martyrdom. (Or else, he thinks, not being religious, the realm of beauty, something like a poem.)
“Mass-murderers”; but the term pertains more properly to state and quasi-state actors, and the point isn’t necessarily body-count. “Berserkers”? My occult connection to them is alarming: on the rare occasions one is taken alive and glares at the camera, he glares at me. But that too isn’t the point. What is the word he shouts at the phalanx crouching behind cars and shields? Or at the snipers on surrounding roofs, those heights he should have attained and which are rightfully his? Or into the phone through which they disingenuously “negotiate”? Money, the helicopter, peace on a beach qui reste encore sous le pavé will never come. That Word is inaudible, missing, presumed mad, but I’d like to hear it. Art also lies behind a yellow tape. Cops mill and loiter, when the shooting ends, like critics. He is borne out, cherished by blankets. “I like to have a few corpses around,” said Wyndham Lewis; “it makes the others look almost alive.” A point these bodies tacitly dispute.
You have a random vision of someone two time-zones west, enrapt by a later version of the sunset gilding weeds or bushes at the edge of his property. It’s unclear if they are shrubs or weeds, and whether his yard is full of cars on blocks or sighing sprinklers, but either way he’s proud. He lights a smoke. Two hours since, you sucked a Nicorette. The Rockies or their foothills call to him; less so his neighbors and a shuttered mall. His thoughts are as layered as the grit-, pig-, and insecticide-rich breeze, the layers compacted but ill-fitting. Women are one, wife another, bad women who abort their babies or run their mouths a third; and there are other bad people whose punishment is long in coming, but he has waited decades and can wait. Who is this schmuck? You thought he was a friend, an opposite number. You were misled, betrayed. He understands that.
In modern wars, when a conqueror enters a city, ethnic or ideological foes tremble, leave if they can, are sometimes hidden by the compassionate; while partisans of the new regime cheer, wave flags, behead shoot eat former neighbors. What interests me (for here what matters is what’s interesting) are people who are safe and uninvolved. Whatever happens happens — whatever the boss believes — for their entertainment. There is no pleasure like not being on a list, not suspect. Only in this way, whether one lingers at or skirts the stoning-ground, walking to work or market or the usual starved idleness, does each day become a gift. Later they say I didn’t know, i.e., I lived in awe of knowing; we had no power means that I was blessed. Night and the stars belong to the small and meek. They inherit, while the great and the despised trade status. Unconcerned, the uninvolved sleep the sleep of the just, like fingers warm and cozy in a fist.
If the boss ever rises to be a real boss he will think as little and vaguely about his “team” as any white, gwai lo, or gringo. But for now they are to him what spattered grease, cold fries, thawing meat, unswept floors are to them. Plus he must schedule emotionalism, keep apathy from acting out, rally the drugged and indebted. In a brown room somewhere, bunks are stacked three high. The two women sleep behind a curtain. The men, though generally glumly disciplined, quarrel about what to buy and how much they owe. The girl who is good with customers is mother and — or so the boss imagines — includes him in her prayers.
Frederick Pollack is the author of two book-length narrative poems, The Adventure and Happiness, both published by Story Line Press. A collection of shorter poems, A Poverty of Words, was published by Prolific Press in 2015, and another collection, Landscape with Mutant, will be published by Smokestack Books (UK) in 2018. Pollack's poems and essays have appeared in print journals such as Hudson Review, Salmagundi, Poetry Salzburg Review, Die Gazette (Munich), The Fish Anthology (Ireland), Representations, Magma (UK), Bateau, Fulcrum, Chiron Review, and Chicago Quarterly Review; and in electronic journals such as Big Bridge, Hamilton Stone Review, Diagram, BlazeVox, The New Hampshire Review, and Mudlark among many others. He is an adjunct professor of creative writing at George Washington University.