I play with words the way rulers play with lives.
I elevate some of them, and I set others
against each other, slashing as if knives
were what they were. If I find a word that smothers
the others in my word menagerie
I snuff it out the way rulers do with lives.
Unlike with shamans, presidents, and tzars,
my powers do my subjects little harm.
When I am dead and done for, words will be
in dictionaries alphabetically,
and locked in novels, and free in open minds,
and floating between planets while they wait
for future speakers to provide them breath.
When shamans shame a person to go fight,
when presidents preside and send in troops,
and when tzars drive cars across their peasants’ heads
the people they run down stay grievously dead.
I can’t know if I am more moral than all world leaders,
but fortunately I am weaker, and I use words
as my objects for tormenting. Words can’t die.
The powerful trick or force the weak to work
on things that make the powerful more strong.
The strong earn billions (‘earn’ is here misused)
off the backs and dreams of people with less power.
I play a game with words, but those I exploit
remain as well off as do those I don’t.
To rulers causing torment, words are a quoit
they throw to ring in dissidents who won’t
kow-tow to them. Let them throw rings of iron
as often as they like till they expire,
these rulers, who like us must grievously die,
but our words and word games will survive their worst.
The railgun fires and devastates the cruise ship
delivering it of its once inalienable rights
to liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and life.
The oil slick smears the people treading water.
There are fewer of them each hour. Then they’re none.
What Happens When You Win:
We achieved everything we fought so long for, and then…
What Happens When You Lose:
We lost everything. Everything, I tell you.
Can you understand me? No?
The phone in this Mercedes has a fault;
I’ll ring back from one of my other cars.
When Neutrality Is Affordable:
Jimmy reached out and maimed me.
I refused to be drawn,
knowing the teeth
that his club broke
were not needed for ice cream.
With God On Our Side:
Nowhere more than in war do we enjoy
such confidence from our people.
We lead and they are disposed to follow.
There were very few we had to shoot.
The Holy War Against Drugs:
War is a drug.
Something Worth Fighting For:
The better places on Earth are limited
There is competition
for the better grasslands,
the more beautiful lakes and
the fatter sheep.
Sometimes we strong are at peace with each other,
sharing with our peers
and deploring the cries
of the have-nots.
disturbing our armed suburbs with their cries.
they shine the sun on rats by lifting covers
and tell themselves they represent the sun
they bomb the little children and their mothers
we stay inside our restaurants having fun
and me i spend my life hide in the shallows
and nothing make me stand up grab a gun
like i live forever i avoid the gallows
while the others’ childrens’ bones bleach in the sun
they say they had to shoot john get him down
get him quiet and leave the loonies lone
nobody has to shoot i stay home drown
my conscience front an altar carved from bone
i getting crazy hearing voices whisper
put my head in pillows peek but don’t walk out
like i waiting for a benediction vespers
the whispers work they way up to a shout
In a minute she will say ‘good morning’ and the ghosts
will scamper from my skull back to Biafra
where, like every day, the conquerers will kill them
and wipe the bayonets on oil-stained grass.
The sun will race everywhere when she opens the curtains,
its beams, at this prime distance, bringing me warmth
more bearable than gun barrels burning flesh from hands
that tried to push the noise and the light away.
My distance from the sun will make me welcome
its particles, the way we welcome ambassadors
who bring this message from so many lands:
Our oil supply stays safe, and in good hands.
Five minutes after firing stops, birds sing.
The smells of coffee, butter, fresh croissants
and the sounds of Jan Sibelius do their work
expecting my greeted skull to say it’s fine.
© Alan Reynolds, 1998 – 2016
I have worked and reworked this poem over the years, trying to write something that expresses my reaction to what I feel is the madness of being well adjusted in a maladjusted world.
There are too many examples of the maladjusted world. Here I went back to one which had a name and face many years ago, Biafra, conflating it with today and any day. Maybe I chose Biafra as my ‘scene’ (and Finlandia as my title, especially when listening to the music) because of Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote so movingly about that country when it was one: The Republic of Biafra, May 30, 1967 – July 17, 1970: ‘The tune of Biafra’s national anthem was Finlandia, by Jan Sibelius. The equatorial Biafrans admired the arctic Finns because the Finns won and kept their freedom in spite of ghastly odds.’ Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons: Opinions, 1974. p. 140.
Can I be frightened? Yes. Shocked? Every day.
Each hour brings news I don’t want to know.
It’s not the knowing but the happenings I hate.
Murderers ruin survivors’ lives and leave
Earth worse off than they found it. There’s no Why.
The good among us vacillate and grieve.
We ask each other why must children die
for madmen’s twisted searches for the power.
The power eludes us all. Thank gods for that.
Each minute that we mourn takes us an hour
further away from Heaven. Lives go flat.
Bright colours fade, reduce to black and white.
We follow demagogues who bring the night.
Apathy is a developing response.
Ask the young what should be done about some ‘X’
and they will answer with a certainty admired
by falling rocks which don’t so straightly plumb
the depths as do the certainties of youth.
In middle age, amongst their bouts of rage,
the folk, perplexed by living the long riddle
they call their lives, will entertain first doubts
about positions they once firmly held.
And then they’ll hold them tighter, fear letting loose
and a fall into ‘senescence’ — as we call
that acceptance Buddha lauds and Calvin hates,
where the answer to what one’s required to do
engenders daily less hot animo
and more and more a careless ‘I don’t know.’