The Beauty of the Weapons

Occasionally, I come across poems that have similar themes. I like to keep a record of them, or respond to them as if I were part of their conversation.

Fleet Visit

The sailors come ashore
Out of their hollow ships,
Mild-looking middle-class boys
Who read the comic strips;
One baseball game is more
To them than fifty Troys.

They look a bit lost, set down
In this unamerican place
Where natives pass with laws
And futures of their own;
They are not here because
But only just-in-case.

The whore and the ne’er-do-well
Who pester them with junk
In their grubby ways at least
Are serving the Social Beast;
They neither make nor sell–
No wonder they are drunk.

But their ships on the vehement blue
Of this harbor actually gain
From having nothing to do;
Without a human will
To tell them whom to kill
Their structures are humane

And, far from looking lost,
Look as if they were meant
To be pure abstract design
By some master of pattern and line,
Certainly worth every cent
Of the billions they must have cost.

W.H. Auden, 1951

The Beauty of the Weapons
El-Arish, 1967

A long-armed man can
carry the nine-millimeter
automatic gun slung
backward over the right shoulder.

With the truncated butt
caught in the cocked
elbow, the trigger
falls exactly to hand.

These things I remember,
and a fuel-pump gasket cut
from one of the innumerable
gas masks in the roadside dump.

I bring back manuscript picked
up around incinerated trucks
and notes tacked next
to automatic track controls.

Fruits of the excavation.
This is our archaeology.
A dig in the debris
of a civilization six weeks old.

The paper is crisp and brittle
with the dry rock and the weather.
The Arabic is brittle
with the students’ first exposure

to air-war technology and speed.
Ridiculous to say so, but
the thought occurs,
that Descartes would be pleased:

the calculus is the language
of the latest Palestinian
in the field of theology.

The satisfying feel
of the fast traverse
on the anti-aircraft guns
is not in the notes.

It lies latent and cool
in the steel, like the intricate
incarnate in the radar:

the antennae folded and rolled
like a soldier’s tent,
sweeping the empty
sky and the barren horizon,

the azimuth and the elevation,
sweeping the empty air
into naked abstraction,
leading the guns.

The signal is swirled until it
flies over the lip like
white, weightless
wine from a canteen cup.

Invisibly, the mechanism sings.
It sings. It sings like a six-ton flute:
east, west, always the same
note stuck in the rivetless throat.

And yet, a song as intricate
as any composition by Varese,
and seeming, for the moment, still
more beautiful, because,

to us, more deadly.
Therefore purer, more
private, more familiar,
more readily feared, or desired:

a dark beauty with a steel sheen,
caught in the cocked
mind’s eye and brought
down with an extension of the hand.

Robert Bringhurst, 1967

A Prison Psalter

I’ve begun a slow project of poems in the voices of various inmates reading the Psalms. Millions of King James Bibles are regularly distributed to inmates each year, and I’ve heard that all 150 Psalms cover the range of human emotion. I’d like to believe it.

My hometown of Amarillo has two state prisons. One named the William Clements Unit is strictly high security. The names of inmates and their transgressions are public record, so I’m pairing a psalm with a convict currently housed at the Clements Unit. Each will likely be a different style or form, as each convict’s crimes will be illuminated with a psalm. Here’s an example:

TDCJ ID: 02290142
Aggravated Assault of a Child.
7000 years.
Age 41
Psalm 8

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, and the hum and the buzz and the blue flicker of the fluorescent tubes that wink and exasperate for decades like an overhead highway stripe, flashing the marked path with a tease of reflected light to burn without ceasing night and non-night, projecting on my closed eyes a map of blinking veins, so that, if my eyes would focus, I could consider the vision of my own pulse, kept steady by my unsleeping lizard brain, yet the what-is-man-that-thou-art-mindful-of-him part of me is up, which means I lean on the cell door attempting to name each noise on the block: wall taps, snoring, roaches clicking under my feet, bosses ascending and descending the metal grate stairs, pacing the catwalk where I can see the soles of their boots as they pass over me, and beyond them the impenetrable ceiling, and below me the inviolable floor, and if somehow I could break free, past these guards, through these walls, I’d be standing in the concrete yard under the sealed vault of floodlights, the mouth of a babe testifying against me.