Bob Herz

Traveler

1.  

Yes of course we can travel time and become the great A, the sad B, the tragic C

But we can change nothing, 

We only complete their history ourselves, speaking their speeches, 

Living their deaths, dying through our own lives their lives.... 

So here I am with Hamilton worried about the rigid designs 

Of Jefferson and Madison for this our American society, 

I know that if they succeed no man who follows me ever will, 

They buy a newspaper to smear us, 

I'm up night after night writing another version of the Publius letters, 

I win, it is sweet, the victory of workaholics and insomniacs, 

But this overwork is destroying me, the woman comes, 

I know the end, I’m helpless to prevent it, 

I write that stupid book, 

My professional life succeeds, my private life is a mess, 

And I can't stop it any more than I could the death of my father, 

It’s like a train running through an open field, 

My enemies want their kind on top forever, 

Jefferson wants it both ways—wants his pregnant slaves 

And also to feel good speaking his democratic pidgin-rhetoric

A bad man

He wants to be loved

I respect Hamilton for that he never wanted to be loved, only to tell the truth

To do his job as best he could 

Making the mistakes a man makes when he has to invent everything even including himself, 

We die paupers, shot by the future we created,

And I leap from that death into a far distant moment, 

I am present at the “Nation of Laws” speech, witness 

The Supreme Court's foolishness with the establishment clause, 

See the Blaine Amendment adopted in hate and mistrust, 

Mistakes that will destroy us— 

You can make people afraid of breaking laws 

But they will not feel shame without virtue


2.  

In the America of the terrible new millennium 

I see virtue disappear under the impact of mere adherence to law, 

See the litigants twisting laws this way and that like flies in amber 

With no sense of the original character-making motive behind them, 

Look here, 

The brilliant young theorist on the pistol range shoots at the marker labeled "shame" —bullseye—"guilt"—bullseye—"remorse"—bullseye—"stigma"—bullseye—"regret"—bullseye—“censure"—bullseye—"dishonor"—bullseye—"responsibility"—bullseye—"disgrace"—bullseye—"evil"—bullseye


3.  

Winter, an overcast sky, a gray turmoil not ready to clear or to snow:  

I am like that tonight, neither the one nor the other, 

Burdened by shame and angry at the powerless choices, 

Because I want order in society and I know that cannot happen, 

Because I want peace and I know that cannot happen, 

Because I want peace for us all and peace for myself, which cannot happen, 

Because there cannot be peace without order, personal order, 

And that must come first in our families, our houses, our hearts, 

And then move outward from us to others, 

To all whom we love, to this country that we love…. 

But there is no peace and no order in our country 

Or in ourselves or in our hearts, 

Because for any of these to exist 

We must know our hearts, and we do not know our hearts. 


History

1.  

Once before I stumbled into this square

Drunk or alive and howling at the moon with Virgil, 

Fallen resplendent angel and defrocked priest.  


Near the stacked coffins in the corner sagged a man I knew, 

A stogie crumpled in his broken mouth, three days beard 

On his smeared alcoholic face, repeating over and over, 

Make sure you're right, then go ahead!  Make sure you're right…


—And that's history, Virgil the Tempter said to me:  

All the ash, pearl and sunlight of it, and most of the rest also:  

History the collapsing wall, 

History the crossing-place for memory and value, 

History the sense of personal incompleteness or evil that limits all we think or do.  





2.

Look how the shadow of the airplane glides low over the rapids, 

The shadow we always mistake for peace, love, or absence of war, 

How it hovers above the watershed 

Of the arterial blood-river that feeds the brain, 


How it crests with the howls of the press-mobs and the leader-mobs 

And the special mobs composed wholly of fanatical professors of comparative literature; 

Now the warheads appear like bats escaped from some bad novel, 

Now the secret banner of the power-elites appears—Artillery For Artillery's Sake

And the bombs named for poets; 

Now begins another war that no one wants 

Conducted to save us from what everyone fears and will never admit.  


You've heard the same radio reports I have.  

You know World War III started two decades ago, 

And though the rules of engagement in this century permit no permanent victor, 

You know how we are flooded by the rhetorics of strategy, 

You know how the crowds cheer the occasional tactical win.  

War is the condition of civilization in this our bloody New Millennium.  


3.  

What is history? asks his grizzled eminence, 

The Inspector of Facts and Motorcycle Cop of Mental Processes.  

I answer:  the shadowy passenger glimpsed on the life-raft 

Just before we board and launch into the high seas.  

Grave tolerance in his eyes, I am ordered to the front.  


4.

Beneath the daily bombardments of billboards, social workers, and stopwatches, 

The memories come with the speed of machine-gun bullets:  

I remember quite clearly setting forth on this journey 

And the aluminum-like taste of panic when I asked the captain my father 

Where are we going and he said, "Down,"  


And I remember the moment I first saw the fear-doorway I must pass 

Every time I get this close to another human being, 

The day I first learned of the substance the waves attach to, 

The core which as damaged, drowning men we cannot change, 

And here I see Joby Freitas emerging from a cloud of dust at the construction site 

With that foolish half-cocked American smile, yelling hoarsely, 

“C'mon girls,” driving us all night, for the work, and the pleasure of it, 

And here is John Bowie calling in a late hour to read the latest chapter

Of his great American novel, Rosebud and M. Dick Mudwrestle on Mars, 

Or something like that, so happy and joking with the making, a happiness 

Filling each word spoken, even the pauses, so we could not stop laughing, 


And here is the million-hour blood-battle fought one afternoon 

With Colie Kane on the football field, all suited up in CBA gold and teenaged crazy, 

When I lost half a tooth and dug down this deep 

- no break -


Into the earth like a dog for the pain before they stopped me, 

I remember you, all of you who never saw if our generation succeeded, who died too soon, 

I remember and do not forgive— 


And I remember also the jet and anemone color of certain other nights, 

Nights filled with the sudden taste of half-awakened beauty, 

The candied, teary rose-taste of Sandy in the rent-by-the-hour hotel room in New York, 

The long-legged languages invented by Christine in a candlelit room 

Where I learned the best of what I would learn in college, 

The transparence of Betsy's blond pubis under the naked 20-watt bulb 

That dangled on its cord among the cobwebs in her father's unfinished attic, 

Sheila with the cancer who wept at the poverty and greed of strangers met in books 

And died with another in the speeding car— 


5.

And deep in this personal confused history that resembles nothing so much 

As one of the thousand heaps of lime, blood and dust 

That make up the unexplored areas of any remorse 

Virgil and I pass four empty wheelbarrows grinning in a ragged line 

At the construction site:  That's how time works, he says, 


And I see the raw cunning of the rusted chains 

That twist for miles through rotted planking at the shipyard, 

I see the work-gloves of yet another family member lying nearby, 

I am ashamed:  Did I even know you?

Blackened fingers still touching 

Where the prayer stopped in the dying agony of black lung, 

Wait, I say, please wait… 


6.  

I still think of Davy Crockett in that square at Boston, 

Congressman and tool of the special interests 

Completing his triumphant tour through the East attacking Jackson, 

A legend adrift in the long valley 

Between the heroisms of the back-woods and the final death-cockiness of the Alamo— 

Here was the dead-waste part of his life, 

Crackerbarrel rhetoric and self-parody of fool and writer substituting for virtue….  


But perhaps even this shame and waste of spirit 

Prepared him for the gunpowder cloud of his end: 

I imagine him brought to Santa Anna, the blood raging again, as it once did, 

Before politics, before the songs and all the lies, before he became a name, 

All that dropped away, gone under the intense pressure of this moment— 

Remembering now who he was, 

Who he had once thought himself destined to be, 

Then lunging against all odds for a final desperate feel of the enemy's neck, 

Revenge against the ignominious end of his story, 

Against the enormous loss, against death— 


Yes against death, his death and death itself, seeking redemption there, 

Shot then, dumped into the common grave,

—Did he expect it?  Did he know how it would end?—

Perhaps wondering as he fell at the memory of this same howled-at moon, 

Perhaps guided by this same drunken sense of history, 

History the defrocked priest walking with us, arranging our lives, 

Kind eyes staring as we approach the gallows, seeing it even if we do not, 

The long horizon, the distant focus, 

Out there where everything ends in the vast blur, 

Mumbling through the outrages, Pax ... pax.  


7. 

It is late.  The rain has ended.  A partial moon, a furtive breeze, 

Chitter of small animals under attack by owl and fox, 

By the night-fliers and predators of darkness.  

What do they know?  How did they think it would end?  


I hear their cries even later echoing down the valley, of hurt and hunt, 

And then the coyotes, those ugly animals, 

Calling out over their stolen rewards, their savage thefts; 

And I put down the book:  a long read, official history, 

Composed by the victors, 

Where the haloed clouds pass like ground-up pearls....  

And I think, nothing stays, nothing lasts; old things 

Receive new names, 

Everything lives, everything is forgotten.  


8. 

But I know that there is another history that drives this country 

And shapes our lives, 

Unwritten, barely spoken, or spoken only in nods and gestures, 

Spoken in the way a man drives a car or a truck, the way 

He carries himself even in doing the smallest things, 

The way he sits alone after midnight, one light on above the old kitchen table, 

Leaning forward, the shot and the beer set to the side and barely touched, 

The window open above the sink, to night-sky, to partial moon, 

To the cries of the hunters and the hunted—


And he could tell you every word said against or for him, 

Every mile walked, every bit of pain taken or given, 

A whole life there in the eloquence of his silence, 

In the gestures he does not make, 

Even in the look he does not give you, that secret face that no one sees, 

And if he would talk to you about it, he would tell you 

That it has the color of rusted automobiles and busted TV screens, 

Of a company jacket and a woman's crazed heart and hungry eyes, 

And that it comes 15 minutes staring at the sky in the morning, 

15 minutes at night, 

Until the lights go out at the Memory Hotel 

And this night's Queen of Love says, "Come to bed”— 

And all becomes a memory now, nothing more, a lost history 

Plunging into the unsorted empyrean.... 

My Red Cliff Poem

1. 

In SuShi’s great poem “Rhyme Prose on a Red Cliff,” 

The guest laments:  We are like mayflies thrown between 

Heaven and earth, one grain in a boundless unforgiving sea 


And in my dream that night I saw you as a large furtive monarch 

Imprinted with violent shapes against its hard orange wings, 

That is, as the idea of something lost, floating against a moon 


That had failed, and against the green banks of the river of death, 

And the towers that straddled each side of the river where it flows 

Without obstruction into death’s blank and open sea. 


2. 

The paralyzing sadness of that day of your death 

Tainted all our best thoughts and actions, even 

The love that had always held us to each other, 


As we told ourselves that to honor you we had to take 

Your death into our souls and hearts and make it our own:  

Make the memory of that injustice our shield and strength 


Against the injustice of this world, and the antidote 

For our own felt incompleteness; for we were desperate 

To find a way to live our lives again, as they had been, 


As they would have been if nothing had changed; 

We were willing to take even death’s prescription as cure.    


3. 

We believed that the war that began then, in our dreams 

And in the dreams of our leaders, would reclaim on the battlefield 

The honor and love we had lost in our lives; but what we learned 


Surprised us:  For our lives became a cascading biography of sorrow, 

Starting here and going everywhere in ways and for reasons 

We did not understand, and could not stop, and then after a time, 


When we spoke to each other, our words carried a terrifying realization:  

That everything had begun to seem normal and even ordinary, 

How we lived under this vast cruel shadow, and how much we hurt.  


4. 

But this is America, we said to each other, numbed after 

So many years by our losses, and amazed at who and where we were 

And what we had become:  We are not lost, we said, 


But we do not know where we are; and though we do not fear death, 

We are terrified of dying, and of living among things that are dying; 

And there was no solace in these thoughts, only the terrible fear 


That this journey that had begun in death and retribution would end 

In death: death of love, death of the spirit, and that the terrible lies 

We had told ourselves would end in still more lies that could not be


Undone or forgiven, for too much had been destroyed in their name.  


5. 

Some have said that something good may come of this.  

I do not agree.  It is not not because of the blood on our hands 

Or this taint of death that we have admitted into our souls: 


These are hard things, but they can be overcome, reversed, 

Changed, atoned for, as others have done, in other times; 

But because something else dwells within us now, an animal 


Of disillusion that speaks before we speak, that acts for us, 

That changes each act and word into something hateful, a new

Language of loss and blame and anger, birthed on how much 


Of ourselves we traded away for this false dream of goodness, 

This promise of national greatness and revenge, and the disappointment 

We must live with now at how little we have left to show for it—


Not wealth or wisdom or poetry to share among ourselves 

Or to give our children, or anyone….


6. 

Sometimes I dream that we are drifting as in the great poem, 

In a small boat out past the red cliffs, without compass or pilot, 

Singing hopeless angry songs of mortality and failure; 


In the dream, the sea is our history, large, beautiful, and pointless; 

The sun is at the horizon, and we see three or four birds circling back

Toward us, dim shapes against the clouds, moving quickly, 


Like the beginning of judgment. The song of the water against 

The prow is soothing as the land falls away behind us, 

And as hours pass, even the brilliant cliffs become almost invisible, 


Until suddenly we realize that there are no more arguments left to us 

About mortality or beauty; they have all been decided or abandoned 

Without anyone saying anything, and so we drift on endlessly, 


Through our lifetime, without maps or direction, knowing only 

That there is no place left on this vast sea for us to call home, 

And no place where we can hope to arrive safely anymore.  


Bob Herz is publisher/editor of Nine Mile Magazine and Books, with his colleagues Steve Kuusisto and Andrea Scarpino.  An MFA graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, he is author of two books of poetry, former editor of Seneca Review and the Hobart & William Smith College Press. He worked for some years for the New York State Legislature, where he authored the Arts & Cultural Affairs Law, the NYS Poet and NYS Fiction awards, the Elderlaw, the Albany Writers Institute, many human services and economic development programs and credits, and many other laws. He is president of inSourcing, an incubator in Syracuse, NY, a board member of the Business Incubator Association of NYS, a business consultant, and former president of the Syracuse International Film festival. He is married and lives in LaFayette, NY.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter