COMEDY, Canto 27





Garrison then took his turn and said, “I once

Thought Lincoln lacked moral vision, but I

Was wrong and knew it before the assassin’s shot


Punched a hole in our reality that could not

Be healed by the lesser men who came to power,

And I myself foolishly thought in that hour


That this man’s heart had been too much of a flower,

Too delicate to take the whip against those

Who had enslaved fellow humans and then chose


To violate the union and to oppose

The destiny of freedom that belonged

To all, especially those who had been wronged


By men who knew better yet still prolonged 

The brutal institution, Jefferson 

And too many others from our nation’s 


Origin, but now I have reservations 

About my view of what he might have done.

In retrospect I see his compassion was matched


By the will of a brain that always remained detached

From his own emotion and that of a screaming mob,

Which he never confused with les misérables,


The multitude for whom he took on the job

Of redeeming the nation from its fallen state.

I can’t add much to what these others relate,


Except to say, he was not driven by hate,

And his own death he seemed to anticipate 

As the payment due for the shedding of so much blood,


Though that tragic end opened the gate to a flood

Of anger and resentment, both north and south,

That once again would put freedom in doubt.”


I looked into Lincoln’s face and wondered about

The mind that bore the cause of so much death,

Which it never shunned until his last breath.


Then he spoke, “You want to know what in the depth

Of my soul enabled me to justify

A war in which so many had to die.


Whose blame was it that our world went so awry?

None but myself could assume that terrible burden

Because the soul of the multitude fell on


My head through my unforeseen election.

I said at first it was all for the union,

But I knew the truth came from a deeper law,


From what a young man who had nothing saw,

Myself who was nothing and felt that pain

When I witnessed a cruelty that laid a stain


On human existence and I could not remain

Indifferent as I looked into the eyes

Of a black man and to my witless surprise 


Saw my own misery in another guise

And heard my own history in his awful sighs.

But his was sorrow without hope, which does


Make the worst a thing we can bear because 

Another world sheds its light on the present 

And promises new life to one who is patient.


But not for those who have never felt that moment 

Of possible redemption, like a seed 

Awaiting spring rain from which will proceed 


Its rebirth as a living form nature has freed

From the earth which enclosed it like a dark prison.

Darkness with hope becomes a nurturing reason


To look forward to a new life and season,

But to men enslaved all this had been denied,

They were forced to keep all human desire inside,


And their consciousness of evil they had to hide

From the masters who in their suffering took pride.

I knew, given the chance, I would destroy 


That evil, but what means I would employ

Escaped me, though I got it into my head

Early on that if we could prevent its spread,


Then of itself slavery would soon be dead.

But the Southerners knew it as well as I

And made up their minds they were ready to die,


Though I could not understand the reason why

Those who came from poverty like me would make 

Such sacrifice for a cause in which their stake


Was nothing, for men who would not hesitate 

To dispossess them for any going rate.

So I had to choose—either a slave empire 


Or the war for freedom to which all men aspire.

And yes, all women too, which I know you’d say,

But I must confess that back in my own day


I didn’t grasp the role women would play

In a future some here grasped better than me.

And I know you’ve read about the colony


For those who once had known the hell of slavery.

It was a silly idea, I’d have to agree,

But look at the fate of ex-slaves after me—


What might we have done to prevent that misery?

I was not a perfect man or president,

My leadership was often insufficient,


But I never wavered in my commitment

To make Jefferson’s words about equality

A truth that would end the horror of slavery,


Though sometimes it was not clear what my strategy 

Was, even to me, because I thought through actions,

That could be both right and wrong, as some new condition


Altered my perception of what had to be done.

Then death came to me almost as liberation,

My peers forgave my lack of education


And almost forgot my faulty pronunciation.

For me the afterlife has been both sorrow

And joy, for my dream of a better tomorrow


Became the one that history would bestow

On us, in which vicious Mister Jim Crow

Thought he could erase once and for all the desire


Of multitude with his silly crosses of fire,

But time has proven old Jim to be a liar,

Despite his late reincarnation as the louse 


Who lied his way into my former house.

My joy derives from the resurrection of thought

That will not die in the brains of those who have fought


To make the world conform to what it ought

To be, like those who sit here next to me.

No single soul changes the course of history,


And the one you call Lincoln is not like a tree

With a single apex but with a thousand crowns.

It takes many voices to make a sound


That echoes through time and is to the multitude bound.

Douglass is in me and I am in him,

And for eternity we will be friends,


Along with these others who pursued the same ends,

Even when we did not know we were kin.

The multitude thinks through all brothers and sisters,


And everyone else who joins us as resisters

To the lie that there are people who don’t matter.

Democracy is the force that will always shatter


The betrayals of truth from those who mindlessly chatter

About walls and borders and enemies of the state.

The path we follow never will be straight,


But the time for resistance never comes too late,

Because the revolution is not a point

In time but a movement of forces sometimes joint,


And at other times, through fractured minds, disjoint,

Because the multitude thinks through error,

And most of all when it becomes a terror


To itself, hating its own image in the mirror,

But that blindness awakens a force interior

To itself that will not surrender to illusion


And promises the hope of a conclusion 

To human history that makes the multitude whole.

Perhaps that can only be an ideal goal,


But the power to think it is what we call soul.”







COMEDY, Canto 26






Hayden rose from his chair and led us out

The way we had come in and to the right

Down the hall, and then through another door


We entered, and there opposite us were four,

Three men and a woman, and one face I knew

Was Lincoln and another I could construe


Was Frederick Douglass, but the other two

I was embarrassed not to know just who

They were before Hayden said to us, “Lincoln


And Douglass you recognize, but this other man

Is William Lloyd Garrison and this woman

Is suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton,


Three abolitionists who decried the one

Who eventually brought slavery to its end

And whom they could not always call their friend


When his strategy they could not comprehend.”

We all sat down in a circle and behind

His desk Lincoln leaned back as if his mind


Chose this time to rest while these others opined

On what he meant to a future realigned

By all their struggles and a brutal war


That required the toll of immeasurable gore

Such as the world had never seen before.

Then Douglass’s voice was the first to be heard.


“Inside myself I can never find the word

That would convey for this man the love I bear.

Yet there were times I could not decide where


He stood on the issue that consumed my care,

Which made me harshly criticize his stand,

While I always sensed something hidden in the hand


He played and hoped one day he’d give the command

That would lift the cross from the backs of that band

Of souls who had never known freedom in this land.


They gave birth to me but still lived with the brand

Of unimaginable human misery,

Yet dreamed, as we all do, of liberty.


But with freedom won, we inherited poverty,

For the white man knew how to resurrect slavery

In a different form, and so our struggle went on.


We had had a glimpse of something beyond

Vicious subservience, and that drove us to fight

The neverending war for what is right.


For our generations Lincoln became a light

That infused the dream that someone who was white

Could surrender the fantasy of supremacy 


That had rendered the multitude a mockery 

Of itself as it thwarted its own power

In the war of all against all that was our


New Leviathan, the monster ready to devour

The hope that had once been within our reach.

Long ago I entered this room with the aim to teach


This man the equality that belonged to each

Of us, but instead I found the hand of a friend

Who seemed blind to the color of my skin


And treated me as if I were his kin—

Then I knew I had misunderstood him.

The multitude thinks, that’s why he compromised,


Thought itself had to be democratized,

Only then could we end the evil we despised.

It wasn’t enough to say one group had lied,


Multiple souls had to be drawn to our side,

The transindividual mind had to be won,

For the truth is never the property of one.


I do not apologize for my vision

And I do not regret any decision.

Without the commitment of singular souls


Who keep their eye on the particular goals,

Even a man like him would start to slide

Back into complacency that would divide


Our will to stand against the evil tide

That made human bondage seem divinely ordained.

But if he had not through compromise obtained


The compliance of those whose brains were still enchained

By ideas that justified the cruelty of white men

Who refused to see in slavery any sin


Against the humanity that resides within

Even those who don’t happen to look like them,

Our liberation might not have been won,


And the minds of new generations might not have begun

To participate in the truth for which Lincoln died.

So I look on our eternal friendship with pride.”


At the thought of Lincoln’s death I could not hide 

My tragic sense of the price one has to pay

To change the human course toward a new day,


But then I wondered what the woman would say.

She looked at me as if she knew my thought

And then spoke, “My hatred of slavery made me distraught 


When I called him ‘Dishonest Abe,’ which wrought

In me some shame as time rewrote the past

And I realized how his slow patience recast


Our common mind into a force that would last

Beyond the reversals that came to block the path

To freedom, and perhaps if he had lived,


Since with others it was his way to forgive,

Things might not have gone so bad as they did,

  For without him hatred was given free rein,


And as a result bigotry was long sustained 

And up to the time of this pilgrim it has remained,

With new faces to propagate the lies.


But the multitude has proven itself to be wise,

For the struggles we began are still on the rise,

And there will be no surrender until freedom 


Is the condition of every man and woman.

In my day—,” but Jefferson’s slave chose to interrupt.

“Forgive me, madam, if I seem somewhat abrupt,


But even in your movement you did obstruct

The voice of black women who sought your support,

Whom you did not consider part of your cohort,


Whose demands perhaps you thought did not consort

With the rights you and your sisters would prescribe

For the future, even if that act belied


The truth of your own cause since it denied 

To us the same power to shape this country,

Which negated freedom’s universality 


And justified social inequality.”

Sorrow covered the face of the suffragette,

Who said, “You have to know how much I regret


My own and others’ blindness, which only set

Our movement back by weakening our power

And delaying for the multitude its hour


Of triumph, which should have brought something to flower

That expressed the goal of our mutual desire.

Still there is something integrity would require 


Of me, without excusing what once transpired.

History viewed with a cold eye cannot hide

The crooked path along which truth must stride


And sometimes lose its way when there’s no guide

To keep it from the confusion of time’s maze.

 We hear the chorus of those singing our praise


But do not see the face with a critical gaze.

I don’t ask you to forgive what can’t be undone,

But for the war that has not yet been won


You and I are a force that acts as one

In minds committed to a long revolution.”

Sally Hemings did not hesitate to say,


“We won’t replay the feuds of a different day,

When so often from each other we turned away.

 Women couldn’t vote when some black men could,


Though the new slavery of Jim Crow surely you would

Not have thought to be the freedom for which you strived.

We have to forgive the errors that compromise 


Forced us, out of necessity, to devise.

You and I are no longer poles apart

But fused into one intellectual being to restart


The transformation of the human heart

In every generation that remembers us.

Their faith and forgiveness, which we are bound to trust,


Will spring us all forward to a world more just.”





COMEDY, Canto 25






The four of us sat down on antique chairs

And I started to introduce the woman 

When Hayden stopped me to say, “Sally Hemings,


You have been resurrected from mental springs

Where time refreshes itself through language recharged

By imagination that has our minds enlarged,


Even as it forces us to look hard

At a cruel history that left you forever scarred,

But memory itself has a redemptive force


When it refuses as a matter of course 

To treat the past as if it were a dead

Thing at which we can only gaze instead


Of a process by which we can turn time on its head.

In my life I taught that history is an art

But also a field that can’t be set apart


From the social struggle to make the world restart

Itself when it takes a wrong turn or strays

From the path of human desire, and losing its way


Creates the appearance of infinite malaise

That makes people lose hope and surrender their will

To the worship of authority that would kill


The truth through the objectivity drill

When people mistake their own image for a thing 

Outside themselves like Narcissus at the spring


Whose reflection became the ultimate red herring

That led him down the path to his own death

Like that Shakespearean idiot Macbeth.


Madam, looking at you I must confess

Your beauty conveys to me a truth sublime

That historians fail to see most of the time,


Declaring such perception almost a crime.”

The woman then responded, “Sir, the text

Of history for me was written in the flesh,


And though it is a hard thing to express,

Every trace that remains, however faded,

Conveys something of a past that degraded


The human form, surely not created

For mindless labor in cruel servitude.

But the worst is that the evil has pursued 


Us and continues to rear its head in crude

Violence that leaves masses of people dead

Or wishing they were because their souls have been bled


Of the freedom to think and imagine a world ahead

Of us that would give death itself some scope

As a step in a process that leads us back to hope


Without which in darkness we stumble and grope

But hardly know whether we move forward 

Or backward in a world so disordered


That truth is neither spoken nor heard

Without arousing the fury of some sect

Who think of God as the savior of the elect


Or think human freedom must be select,

Which leads them to justify their own neglect

Of the strangers who come to their door and forget


The words of the one who came to pay our debt

With his life, for to ignore the least of them

Is as if you had once again crucified him.


Yet it’s not so much about our primal sin

As the failure to see that godliness is human,

Which not seeing can make humans into slaves


By those whose blindness sheds darkness on our days.”

Then she turned to me and said, “You don’t believe

In a god above and may think my words naive,


But understand a slave has to conceive

Of a different world in the language they have learned,

And in order to find hope, to the Bible we turned,


Which echoed other truths that were affirmed 

Even in Mister Jefferson’s Declaration.

We longed to be part of this new nation


Since we too were part of divine creation.

But divinity is not some man in the sky,

And to reach it you don’t have to learn to fly,


For even the man who died had to ask why

So much pain and sorrow had to be his fate.

The man in the room next door didn’t desecrate


The son of God when to friends he would relate

His view that Jesus was the son of Joseph

And not of some invisible being,


Though later he had no choice but to believe in

A higher power that some called God but he,

By that name, expressed a force that he could see


In every form and act of humanity.

What does it matter if God is above or within,

And why should anyone think it a sin


To lend your faith to the angels we begin

To be when we break the shackles that bind

Us to a narrow conception of humankind?


Those who enslave other minds by design

Themselves become the slaves of their own lies,

Until one day they wake up to a surprise 


When they look into the newly opened eyes

Of those they thought would be forever blind.

God’s love and the love of God are intertwined


When the God in one mind is with another aligned,

For love is thought and every thought is divine.

Your philosopher understood all of this,


And though some men called him an atheist,

He called the force he saw in all things God,

Like the man who wrote, it’s not how things are or


Came to be, but that they are, which is more

Miraculous than any magic trick.

A person or a force, it’s all rhetoric,


And one need not the other contradict.”

With these words, a silence fell over us,

And despite our different views, there was a trust


We felt, which said respect for the other must

Rule our common thought and from it create

The greater human form that would translate


The desire of multitude into a state

Of being that could break through convention’s wall

To found a world in which justice for all


Is not a cliché or meaningless phrase but a call

To subordinate the law to universal 

Truth that forbids any exclusion clause


And allows the creation of a common cause

That arises from compromise rather than lies.

Then my old professor spoke, “I was a skeptic 


And thought metahistory a rather anarchic

Idea that made my field into a game, 

And so for me Hayden White was the name


Of a false innovation fueled by such acclaim,

It seemed like a fashion and rather inane.

But in this one’s head,” he looked at me, “the two


Of us intersected and from that there grew

A vision of the past beyond what I knew

That I knew and now I have a debt to pay


To one who showed me and others the way

Forward to a vision utterly sublime

In which the past becomes in future time


The condition that makes us toward new hope incline.

Though you were hardly aware of what I taught,

The convergence of minds in this one has wrought


A will to truth that cannot amount to nought.”

“Dear Brother, since in thought we are akin,”

Hayden responded, “there’s no contest to win,


And my theories were not the beginning or the end.

We are both posts in an infinite process,

And these others with us are of it no less.


But now let’s take another shot at progress.

In the next room are minds time truly has blessed.

They will show us how much thought is compromise 


From which the universal itself must arise.”







COMEDY, Canto 24


Lincoln's White House




As we seemingly drifted blind over the sea,

My mind contemplated human misery

About which this lady knew more than me,


For she knew the truth of unrecorded history.

How could someone we think is good be evil,

And how can evil condition something good?


These thoughts passed through my mind though not understood

As if the fog outside were also within.

I looked to this woman who seemed like a friend


Who might my own ignorance somehow amend.

“Evil,” she said, as if she knew my mind,

“Is not some demonic force from below


But something that in each of us can grow

When we choose the effortless path to tread

Which is usually the way of the walking dead


Who fuse together and are blindly led

When they make themselves the thing they feared to be.

As long as truth exists so will evil,


Which is only the everyday betrayal

Of truth from ignorance or fear or greed.

Truth will triumph, nothing evil can last,


For in time even the worst evils will pass.

Hamilton and Jefferson were not reprobates

Whom we should exile to some horrible place


Where infinite torment infinite truth outweighs.

Only love and intellectual freedom

Can redeem the sins of our fallen condition,


Which mostly derive from errors of omission.

Every generation leaves something undone

Which would dry up like a raisin in the sun,


As Langston wrote, the dream deferred for some,

If the multitude did not regenerate

Itself by defying the pretense of fate


In casting forth those souls who reinstate

The human desires that make us who we are.”

With that word I suddenly could see ahead


As the fog lifted, and with it my sense of dread.

Yet I was amazed to see the ocean gone,

For it was a wide river we were on,


Approaching a pier and beyond it a green lawn

Extending some distance toward a house all white,

And I knew where we were in the glorious light


That on this new day the sun shed so bright.

The skiff came to rest at some steps where we

climbed up and then followed the pier to a street


Marked seventeenth, when the lady I had to entreat,

“I know this place, but it is not the same,

And the ocean over which we somehow came—


What happened to that monumental main?

And what about the archive where I began

This journey, was that a never never land,


Or is there a logic here I don’t understand?”

The lady’s smile competed with the sun,

Though not to make me feel like an object of fun,


But rather to say my questions were not burdensome

But illuminated the way on which we had come.

“You are still there where you think you have left,”


She said, “of nothing have you been bereft.

The imagination is topological,

And even when it seems illogical,


It innovates a truth not at all magical.

Though it bends and twists and reshapes the forms you see,

The matter of vision sustains consistency.


But now I sense another question for me.

You wonder how a slave woman can speak

Knowingly with words unavailable to her caste,


Or to anyone who lived in that painful past.

The words are yours, but the thought is mine expressed

By a life experience that made a test


Of my power of thought that has found a place to divest

Itself of silence in the mental action

Of your brain, which produces a redaction


Of my essence through our mutual passion,

For the feelings of myself and millions enslaved

Leave traces in your soul like unmarked graves.


That’s what soul is, the passage through time of waves

Of feeling, the unexpressed thought of multitude

That your critical conscience can never elude.


Your mother was a receptacle imbued

With the power to take the impression of a rude

History that shaped her visions some thought insane,


As she did herself, but their logic entered your brain,

And it has been your task in life to explain

To yourself and others the images that strain


Understanding for those who still remain

In her wake and bear the imprint of her love.

Though she was never a slave in the way I was,


She felt the curse of being owned because

Her soul was bound down by mental chains and

Laws that pinned her freedom to their command


With the argument it’s all part of God’s plan.

Men love to make God into an arrogant man

And worship their own image in that lie,


So that once again God, who is truth, must die

When men bury truth in their own fantasy.”

Soon we reached Pennsylvania Avenue


And turned right toward the White House where I knew

Some historical vision was bound to reside,

But when we came to the door I could not hide


My surprise at seeing my original guide,

The professor who started me on this quest.

He opened the door and then to me addressed


These words, “Enter here where you will attest

To something sublime that sheds light on our common

Past, but first we three will meet with a man


To whom I have long wanted to extend my hand.”

I embraced my intellectual father and said,

“The path I follow is the one you have led


Me to, from the time you spoke the words that have bred

Into my head the view that history is thought.”

He smiled and silently to a hall he brought


Us and then left and left again where we caught

Sight of a stair and went up to the floor

Above and then across a hall to a door


On which my professor knocked and then before

I could consider where we were a light

Shot through our space from the opening so bright


That almost hid the face of Hayden White.

He stood before us as tall as he was in life,

And with a wit that was as sharp as a knife,


He said, “I see your mind remains as rife

With dreams as when at Santa Cruz I knew

You and thought you had some ideas that were true,


But, oh, sometimes how your style came unglued

As you tried so hard to write like Derrida

Which led to excesses and confusion in need of


Some revision to which someone gave you a shove,

For the final version seemed somewhat better,

Which gave pleasure to me and your other professor,


Though in Jameson’s mind you remained an aggressor,

For some indiscretion that should have been a lesson

You didn’t need, as I tried to let you know


These academics have a surplus of ego,

Me included, but I went to state schools,

Which, as you know, don’t inculcate the ruse


That the ivy gang learn quickly how to use,

The belief they’ve been touched by the finger of fate

Which inducts them into the league of the great


And explains why their egos tend to inflate.

But forget those cranky souls now that you’ve come here.

Come into this space of my afterlife austere


And let’s say why time is not rectilinear.”







COMEDY, Canto 23






A silence fell over the room and I

Looked into the faces of the two Founders

That expressed such a profound sorrow that bled


Into the space between us and in my head

I was overwhelmed by a sense of dread.

Then my eye fell on Spinoza who could read


My state and quickly responded to my need.

“History leaves in its wake a trail of error

And those who make it become icons who bear


Into the present the force to make us care

Unless stone cold monuments imprison them

In fantasies of the national origin


That regulate the past and make forbidden

The sight of painful truths and contradictions.

You must harvest the essence their lives expressed


And in that way you will put their memory to rest.”

He turned to look at Jefferson at his side.

“This one wrote his declaration to be a guide


To the revolution in which he took some pride.

He knew the phrase, ‘All men are created equal,’

Approached a thought that must be universal


And that his own words were just a rehearsal

Of meanings other men would have to complete.

In time the words themselves may become obsolete,


But the truth they bear no age can ever deplete.

The suffering you see in their faces derives

From the recognition of how many lives


Were sacrificed so that what they began survives

Into a future that will realize

Better than they could what equality is.


Think of Lincoln’s face in which is traced his

Pain when confronted with so many slain

For decisions from which he could not refrain


And the balance of forces he had to maintain

In order to expand what it means to be free.”

With that word Catherine stood and came over to me.


“Come,” she said, “there’s someone I want you to see.”

I followed her out the door and then to the shore

That appeared not too distant from where we were,


And as we approached the beach I saw a figure

All in black standing at the foot of the waves,

Which seemed to have fully conquered her gaze,


While the gray sky mirrored the sadness of her days.

As we came closer, she turned toward me her face

In which I saw beauty and amazing grace.


Then Catherine said, “This woman knew the embrace

Of the man who made the demand for equality,

While she always remained his property.


For so long she had no voice in your history,

But as William wrote, nothing is lost in time—

All we do, say, or desire informs the sublime


Wonder from which beams of light shoot forth that shine

Through the ages and disclose the human form,

Long buried in darkness, only to be reborn


Through a process that requires us to perform

Our duty to those whose existences were erased

From the human family that had debased


Itself through mindless acts of laying waste

To its members as if to mutilate

Its own body, a strange form of self-hate.


None of this is ever a matter of fate

And redemption never comes to us too late.

Go to her, for she has something to say.”


I turned to the woman in black and felt the spray

Of the sea behind her that might have been tears,

For I felt the sorrow of two hundred years


Emanate from her face in which tenderness did appear.

Then she spoke, “My pain is not for myself alone,

But for generations of black folk who were owned


By men who refused to know what they had sown

Of hatred for their world but even worse

Of love that for us could only be a curse,


When the one you love is the one who would coerce

Your affection that your soul begs you to resist

While your heart longs for the comfort of kiss,


Which gives even to suffering the feeling of bliss.

That’s how I felt about Mister Jefferson.

He awoke in me the fire of tender passion


And made me love him without the satisfaction

Of seeing in his eye something reflected

Of my own essence, but instead dejected


He seemed, and the gift of my heart he rejected,

And the children of our union were neglected

When they looked to their father for recognition,


While he obeyed a social prohibition

And looked away until the day he died,

Which enabled them at last to have the pride


Of freedom, though still enchained by the need to hide

The truth about their inadmissible birthright,

Which they could do because their skins were light—


Oh, how could such evil not turn my days into nights?

And that would have been all there was for me,

But in death I was redeemed by the force of history,


For consciousness survives death through memory

And imagination that can resurrect

In other minds what my world kept in check—


That even slaves have the power to reflect,

That with our condition we were never content,

That our understanding went beyond resentment,


That freedom was our holy covenant

With God and the better angels Lincoln could see—

That one day would come the end of slavery,


Which begins the war on all human misery.

Now come with me and we will cross this sea

For there are souls we both need to witness,


Who will contribute to your mental fitness.”

With her finger she pointed toward a skiff

Without oar or sail as if we could just drift


Across the chasm, an idea I had to resist

By turning to see if Catherine could explain.

She said, “All this is the work of your own brain,


And it will define the physics of this domain.

Trust your vision.” To which I then replied,

“Can I go forward without those two at my side?


With Blake and Spinoza I would still abide.”

She answered, “There’s something in you that inspires

Her appearance and the goal of your quest requires


You to follow this sign of your true desire.”

The dark lady then took me by the hand

And led me to the boat which we pushed off the sand,


Then climbed in for the return to our own land,

And without effort we left behind the strand

As if the skiff followed our mental command


Through some means beyond my power to understand.

Almost instantly a dense fog consumed us

And I could hardly feel the skiff’s own thrust


Though I knew I simply had to place my trust

In forces that seemed to be working through me

And through this woman whose desire to be free


Awakened in me admiration of her esprit

That never lost hope or fell into despair.

Then she spoke, “Don’t think I am unaware


Of generations of white folks who still don’t care

About the things we all have in common,

Though in death I have also met with someone


You know and who through her example won

You to a lifelong struggle for justice.

In the heaven in your head she remains restless


And over her children she keeps a jealous

Eye to protect you all from losing sight

Of what she taught you to see in the darkest night—


That no one should be excluded from the light.”








Working Class Hero 1926-2013





Or Ded

We called you that

For years

Never Daddy

Our father

My father

Now that you don’t have the power

I have to tell you the truth

That even I don’t want to hear

Which is why speaking to you

Has been torture for both of us

For years


You cut a hole in me

The size of Lake Michigan

And poured into it black water

When you had all the power

And that hole was the engine

Whose bitter fuel drove me

To what I am today


There has never been a moment

When I was free of the shadow

You cast over me

And while I have known

Some makebelieve fathers

Minds sometimes famous or not

No one has surpassed your power

No one equals your tragic influence

The terrible gift of your monster

Which makes me wish you could share

In the light that always shined

In your darkness in me our bond

The only true link between us


So I ask you to forgive me

As I struggle to forgive you

For what you did to my mother

When you plunged your fingers

Into the hole in her soul

There long before you came

And stretched it out

For years

Until it swallowed you

And we both used it did we not

I hid there and so did you

Until we used her up

And threw her away

But the monster she became

Would not let go of us

Your monster became hers

And hers yours mine theirs

But you didn’t see the light

In her only the darkness

Or did you know something more

The darkness was the light


All your words the cruel knives

You cut us to the bone

She couldn’t cook

She couldn’t think

She couldn’t love

She couldn’t clean

She couldn’t serve

She wasn’t a good mother

A good wife

She was insane

The madwoman who raised

Your children on the words

That flowed out of you

For years

And they were for me too

Until I was nothing at all

The walking wound you carved


But I loved my coconspirator

Against your absolute rule

Until she left me in the desert

Until she deserted my cause

And became your secret service


But I have to forgive you now

If you could only forgive me

For not loving you the way

A son should love a father

And for knowing it wasn’t

Your fault any more than hers


You had a father too drunk to love

A mother too vain to see

The light that struggled to be

Born in you the infinity

That now lies buried in your hole

The stillbirth of your true existence

The man you could have been

And maybe sometimes were


I am what I am

Because of you

Because of her

Everything in me is you

And her

My sisters and my brother

Are you

And her

They all bear the wound

And struggle to forgive

The you and her in us


Forgive us father

For we only know

What you taught us




There was a time

Once upon a—

Oh, what’s the point


I want to say something

About the love that bears

The name of the father


It’s such a burden

To be a father when

There was no father for

Me and you and her and them


James Joyce said that fathers

Are fictions while mothers are

All too real


Like any fiction you can

Revise a father but not a

Mother because mothers

Know the truth about us

Naked vulnerable beings

We all were in the dark


Mothers are infinite which means

Always incomplete and you can’t

Change the eternally unfinished

The way you can the written

Law that fathers come to be


So if you’re a fiction

With beginning middle and end

Why don’t we rearrange the parts


In the beginning your love

In the middle your suffering

In the end your strength


But there are more than three

And the multitude of parts

Get all mixed up in memory


You suffered and you punished

You loved and hated what you loved


How do you love the one

Who held you hostage for

A ransom you couldn’t pay


We went fishing once

And that was the first time

I saw the child in you

The sad lonely little boy

Who pretended to be tough

Who was more articulate with fists

Than with words though you learned

How to grind the edge of speech

Until each word like a razor sliced

A piece of my heart that you chewed

And spat out because the taste

Didn’t go with your favorite beer

But when you caught those bream

You should have known the weight

Was not enough to justify

The hook that dragged them

Out of their world and if they had

Words like yours they would have

Scaled your skin and filleted your flesh

But your heart they would have thrown back

And you knew it when the man told you

It was wrong to drag such slight

Harmless existence out of the lake

No bigger than your love for me

And still I saw it on your face

That sad lost look that didn’t mean

What your body so often said

Through the booze that made you

Drown the living parts of your true

Existence that human form Blake

Wrote about when he saw the angels


Yes even you or your little boy

Not me but the one in you

That you want to kill for

Being a weak little bastard

Who could never whip his way

Out of a paper bag so thin

It resembles the angelic

Light that once swallowed even you

And will again I promise old man

No matter how you curse us

And act out your rage against the light

The little boy who wants us to love

Him is you forever and I

Promise if we throw you back

Into the lake from where you came

Like those bream you murdered

Without malicious intent I know

You will wake up to the luminous

Boy of your forgotten dreams




You were young

With your friends

On the beach

In the South


Waiting for God

Knows what when

Something exploded

A human form

The guy who bummed

Smokes from you

Wiped off the world

While you go on

And think

Who loves me

Here in this heat

And blood and sand

And yes the fear

Possessed you

As it would anyone

Don’t you know

Did you imagine

The future already

The woman

My mother

With that funny look

Of unformed thought

And all those kids

You weren’t so sure

You would want

Did you know

You would break

All their hearts

Not what you wanted

But you were haunted

By the memory

Of blood and sand

And so much more

You can’t say

How your heart

Was broken

So many times

By the man

With hair like me

Each day thinner

And the bottle

Or the woman

Who kissed you

Off to war

And forgot

How your blood

Ached for something

You can’t name

Always waiting

Waiting for it

To come

But it never


The way you want

Like the woman

My mother

You wanted her

Until you saw

She wasn’t it

No one is


You see

And if someone

Had loved you

Then maybe

You would not

Have broken hearts

And left such a

Wake of destruction

Your children

The debris of

World War Two

But they love you

Old man and stand

Near you as

The hour approaches

When you may

Wash off the blood

And the sand

And become the man

My mother loved

No matter the times

You looked at her

Through sad dis-

Appointed eyes

She never saw

Beach or Blood

But surely

She deserves

A Purple Heart

Since she bled

For you and saw

In you the love


You had missed




What’s left

After forgiveness

In the days to come

Those future worlds

Where nothing lasts

Forever except forever


But nothing is nothing

And something remains

Though not in the way

You may have thought

When you held me

In your hand with

A grip on my feet

There was no one

At that moment

In the world I

Trusted more than you

And I could see

The creation around us

Through your eyes

From your towering height


I couldn’t fall

From that vision

And I never will

Because your hand

Became your heart

And your blood flowed

Into mine with a thought

You could never express

In words or looks

Or gestures but

Only in that grip

That once enfolded

All that I

Would ever be


But nothing rhymed

For many years

Except my fears


I could never say

And you could never say

The things fathers and

Sons need to say

To one another

But years and tears

Wash away the pain

And what remains at

The delta of time

Are these among other

Words I’ve written down

In your name

Through your voice

And my mother’s

Because that dialogue

Is infinite


So after forgiveness

Only truth remains


Love is


Your anger

And cruelty

And sorrow

The day you hit me

For no reason

And said it was because

I was what I was

And the night I found you

Drunk on the floor

In the form of Christ


I wanted to save you

My bold angel killer


You tried to kill

The angel in yourself


But everything you were

Has been translated

To truth and for all


You will survive

Because you are singular

The irreplaceable piece

Of the infinite puzzle


Prince Hamlet has

Nothing on you


What’s left

After forgiveness is


The silence of space

The breathing of time

The days and nights

In which we hide


The memories that abide




In the name of the father

And his daughters

My sisters

And his sons

My brother

And his wife

My mother

And his friends

Most of whom

Have met their ends

And all the others

In the genealogy

Of this common man


We loved you

Each in our own way

We forgave you

For what you could not say

We thanked you for

The food we ate

The air we breathed

The loves we shared

The hearts we broke

The books we read

The children we taught

The tears we shed

The falls we survived

The truths we defended

The lies we refused

The joys we felt

And the sadness beneath

The jokes we told

The heavenly laughter

That never grew old

The life you gave us

When you hardly knew

What life could be

The wine we drink

To your memory


Fathers are not gods

And we cannot worship

At the altar of your absence

Except to say this much


You were the creator

And everything we are

Expresses everything you were

You live in our thought

In our bodies

In our children

And their children

And when the memory of you

Has blown away

Like so much dust

You will still live

In all the atoms

Of this world

To which you once

Gave a human face

And in your last days


A beatific smile




The day my father died

My sisters cried

My brother sighed

And I had a vision too


Behind the mask of the old man

Appeared the boy he must have been

The one I never knew

The one who had a dream

Like all boys do


And I wondered if life killed his dream

When he went to work

And went to war

Or began the slow sacrifice

Of his body for ours


He was not always kind

And hurt the ones he loved

Because he hurt in ways he could not understand

But thought it was just part of being a man


His life was a thought

That married the thought of my mother

And together they were a couple like no other

That produced a thought written in the flesh

Of me my sisters and my brother


Life may have killed his dream

But what life kills it can redeem


Though he didn’t know it

Dad’s life was a protest

Against the world as it was

That treated working men like trash

For nothing more than a little cash


When first I heard the pain

In my father’s voice

I kind of went insane

And without any remorse

Sought my vengeance on the world


I struck out at the pain

My father transferred to me

And maybe thought I could gain

His love by fighting for his liberty


But I didn’t know what freedom was

Who the hell does?


In time I had a better vision

When I saw in my father something true

Though I wasn’t sure he even knew

The thing he made into my condition


And when I heard his final sigh

I had no desire to cry

Since in that long awaited pause

I realized what had been the clause

The prelude in the sentence

That demands no repentance

For the main idea I’d be

For all eternity


He was a working class hero

Without a formal credo

Who loved as best he could

And did more than others would


Remember him at his best

And then discard the rest



Epilogue—For a Sister


Love is not private


Love is not never

Having to say

You’re sorry

Love is not all

You need


Love is energy and

Matter as in Einstein’s

E equals MC squared


Love never ceases

But only transforms

Into other expressions


Sometimes cruel and bitter

Sometimes barren and frigid

Sometimes silent and indifferent

Sometimes mushy and phony

Sometimes misplaced or redirected

Sometimes mad and unwelcome

Sometimes violent and unforgivable

Sometimes desperate and needy

Sometimes tender and passionate

Sometimes boring and predictable

Sometimes wordless and pure

Sometimes forgotten and mourned


When you love someone

You are loved by someone

Even if they don’t know it

And even if you don’t know it


And if you love

You have been loved

Because love is one thing

And we are all in it


Love is its own cause


I love you my dear sister

And have always loved you

Even when I didn’t know you

Because I was loved by those

Who loved you

And I saw that love


But now that I know you

I can express the feelings

Of generations


Your mother loves you

Through me as you

Loved me through her

Because she had the gift

Even if she often

Betrayed it


We all betray the truth

Of who we are

Some of the time


And she was the banker

Of our father’s love

Which she lent out

With interest

But that’s okay because

He didn’t know how to make

Those transfers on his own

And if on occasion

He took over for her

And returned the interest

To us in her name

That’s only because

He was loved all his life

Even when he didn’t

Think he deserved it

And he didn’t know

That the love he thought

Was hers was really his

Own love of her


And the interest is

The feeling we couldn’t let

Go of on his last

Day on this earth


So please know my sister

That you are loved

And everything you thought

You didn’t have exists

In me and all those

Who know you


That may not be enough

Or all you need

But it is your inheritance


As the man said

You can only take

The love you make






Down in New Orleans at the Westin
I got to see the Republican brawl
And learn who was who besting
As the bullies tried to address their all

Trump went on the offensive
And as always became offensive
Singing out
I’m so strong
I’m so strong
I’m strong
I’m strong
I’m strong
And any fool could see
That he was wrong
But wrong doesn’t last long
And soon people will cheer
For what they imagine they hear

Bush the whatever almost cried
And you could see he might have died
At the hand of the smug dolt
But still he tried to revolt
Until his words got dumped
Money by more money always gets trumped

The queen of smug was Fiorina
The beloved corporate signorina
Who thinks she can knock Hillary down
With a contemptuous lie and a frown
But pretty quick she got mad
At reporters not thinking she’s so bad
Oh yes and she’s strong strong strong
So strong so strong so strong so strong
How long how long how long how long

Chris Christie announced World War 3
And soon had a lot of company
And Obama must be weak and feckless
That last word being rather wreckless
For those of us who read and think
That racist term has a long history
Stepin Fetchit surely wouldn’t blink
Over something heard repeatedly
And Chris is strong strong strong strong
And New Jersey proves he can’t be wrong
As Nixon taught in his second election
War is the politician’s best protection

Big Ben Carson had little to say
Just annihilate the enemy any old way
I’m not letting this guy into my head
Even if it means I’m going to be dead

Marco Rubio made his own blues
Trying to put a dent into Ted Cruz
He should’ve known that wouldn’t work
The teflon candidate is no ordinary jerk
And up against Marco’s constant lies
Cruz gave the baby boy a big surprise
He used something utterly unexpected
He told a truth and Marco ejected

Now don’t get the idea Ted’s okay
He just lies in a more bulletproof way
And after he carpetbombs Syria away
He’ll star in a movie by Michael Bay
Oh the day the day the day the day
The polar ice caps melt away
Ted won’t have much to say
Surely it would’ve happened anyway

Rand Paul shocked us all
When he didn’t want a war
But just to build a tall wall
And pay off debt some more
This guy is no whore
But he is kind of a bore

Lindsey Graham is a real man
Whose politics should go in a can
He hates hates hates hates hates hates
What Obama has done to our land
But don’t worry he knows how to kill
Your sons and daughters with his pill
War for all seasons makes us strong
Strong Strong Strong Strong Strong Strong
Would somebody please hit the gong?

Kasich Santorum and Huckabee
Let’s just forget these three
No one believes they’ll win
Though all three believe in sin
Too bad they won’t listen to the Pope
Which might provide us with hope
Okay so I have a weak point too
But whatever I’m still not through

The minority candidate won
And the new world had begun
On his inauguration day
Trump had to have his say
When he hallucinated a crowd
That made him so very proud
Which wasn’t the first clue
That nothing he said was true

His hero is Vladimir Putin
Who may bring about his ruin
But they have one thing in common
Indifference to the downtrodden
They sing one song in harmony
Money money money money
Is sweeter than honey
They both think they’re gods
But they’re just a couple of sods

Trump says his gang didn’t collude
But he’s generally more rude
To Americans like Obama
The guy who got rid of Osama
And Trump wants him on the rack
For the crime of being born black

He calls Hillary a crook
But if he took a good look
In the mirror maybe he’d see
What he’s done to the presidency
Sure he wants to make more rockets
But mostly he’s lining his own pockets

Boy does he hate Democrats
Who continue to drive him bats
Because he wants plutocracy
While they still think democracy
Is what this country is about
Trump just wants to shout
You better watch out
The Muslims are coming
And immigrants keep bumming
Off of your Uncle Sam
I heard it from Doctor Flimflam

Here’s the lesson you get from Trump
If you don’t want to be a chump
Understand where the truth lies
And see the world through Donald’s eyes
Only he can save us now
Because he’s smarter than Chairman Mao
Hell he’s smarter than everyone
And the guy with the biggest gun

Of all the presidents living and dead
He’s the one least well read
Which guarantees his special vision
That submits to no revision
Based on the pointless use of facts
Or anything else that detracts
From his superhuman
Political acumen
And people who throw rocks
Should spend more time watching Fox

Oh God what a gift
As we watch our country drift
Into authoritarian euphoria
To the greater glory of
The GOP which sells out our
Freedom by the hour

The Russians are coming it’s true
But there’s no reason to feel blue
What’s good for the rich is good for you
Except for one little hitch
If we end up in a financial ditch
As Trumpty Dumpty might have said
Even if some of us end up dead
It’s just God’s will and Trump’s delight
And you know Trump is always right