The Poor Empress
July 12th

You work on paper which is smooth, supple and offers no opposition to your imagination or pen. But I, a poor Empress, work on human skin which is rather irritable and sensitive.
— Catherine the Great to Diderot

Pity the poor Empress
who must contend with human frailty
while seeking to weave, almost against nature,
a far-flung and discordant empire together.

Pity the Party Secretary
who has reason to fear
the duplicity of his rivals
and the resistance of an exhausted populace
to promises of a glorious tomorrow.

Pity Presidents and Prime Ministers
who must sacrifice their privacy
to the full glare of prying eyes
and the pursuit of personal gains
(or so they claim)
to the blandishments of power.

Pity the poor subjects
whose skin and bones so often pay the price
for what those who wield dominion over them
determine to be their fate.

On a Passage in Dante
July 13th

Rejoice, Florence, since you are so great that you beat your wings over sea and land, and your fame spreads throughout hell.
— Inferno, xxvi, 1–3

America, the beautiful,
the free, the powerful,
the most envied state on earth,
unflappable in its self-confidence,
a league or two above its would-be rivals
in technological prowess, in material abundance,
in its approximation to El Dorado.
Florence had been no backwater in its day,
its commerce spreading far and wide,
its artisans justly esteemed,
its architects, painters, sculptors, literati
setting the gold standard for the Renaissance.
But the exiled Dante in visiting the Inferno
noted how many of its illustrious denizens
had ended up down there,
their self-preening the flip side of the disaster
which endless conflicts between Guelfs and Ghibellines
and factions within each could not allay.
So with America in the year of the pandemic,
its failures too conspicuous to conceal,
its racial tensions, its venal rulers,
its overweening rich
amidst a sea of hapless losers,
its divisions even more bitter
than Dante had ever had reason to record.

In Illo Tempore
July 23rd

It doesn’t matter if you’re stupid or smart, if you’ve got money or not, if you’re handsome or ugly. The earth swallows us all.
— Miguel Braga, São Paulo gravedigger

Some lock themselves
behind concrete walls and gardened villas,
others throwing caution to the wind,
party as though there were no tomorrow,
a few seek solace in jogging for hours,
others in yoga or stern meditation,
myriads suffer from hunger, others from gorging,
some from solitude, others from crowding,
experts declaim on the need for strict measures,
white coats compete for a miracle cure,
tensions show no signs of abating
as infections keep surging and reprieves prove hollow,
and despite the bromides one hears from one’s leaders
the gravediggers prove the wisest of all.

A Global Age
August 17

Crafty inventions, subtle beyond believing, now onto evil bring them, now onto good.
— Antigone, 364–5

It seemed a global age had dawned,
consumer goods to adorn the shopping malls,
connectivity reducing the barriers of space and time,
air travel for a song, exotic holidays,
a burgeoning middle class’s dreams fulfilled.
Multinational corporations had proven more powerful than states,
wooing politicians with the glitter of high tech,
promises of jobs in droves,
tax havens with their pots of gold.
Journalists and academics, the paparazzi of the age,
made the rounds of global entrepôts,
touting a fail-proof economic model,
a perpetual motion machine,
destined, in the ripeness of time,
to lift les misérables from the planetary slums.
Like a Sunday sermon to the faithful,
globalization had become a generation’s credo.
Yet nature held a trick or two in store,
ice sheets melting in the polar regions,
the atmosphere overheating,
ever fiercer tornadoes, floods, desertification, droughts,
with zoonotic interlopers driving markets to a halt.
Only for a brief intermission, to be sure,
for the push to economic growth and global domination
would inevitably resume,
with continuing rivalry between contending powers,
the intrepid lifting themselves off the ground
as they had always done,
convinced that they too could become
masters of the universe
and put the lie to doomsayers of old
warning that overarching ambition
heralds an ignominious fall.

Shedding
September 17

Slowly we have learned to shed
simple verities we took for granted,
easy intercourse with strangers, friends
now that the very air had become a lethal conduit,
venues where we had turned for simple satisfactions –
restaurants, bars, gyms, cinemas or sports arenas –
the workplace with its endless bustle,
subway lines, airport hubs,
vacation getaways, family celebrations.

We have come to face
new trials and tribulations,
clouds of locusts,
wildfires of surreal proportions,
surging seas with cyclone after cyclone,
diluvial downpours from the pages of Gilgamesh.

Peeling away layer after layer,
we have discovered how little we had progressed
from civilization’s earlier foundations,
from the Cro-Magnons who had preceded us,
from when sheer survival as a species
sweeps away all sundry preoccupations.

The Second Wave
September 24

It was tough enough adjusting
to incessant calls to wash your hands with soap,
avoid touching your face,
remember to mask up,
stay as far away from strangers in your path
as safe distancing dictates,
work from inside your domicile when possible,
help your kids negotiate
the bargain basement classes on the screen,
and keep your sanity intact.
Now comes a second wave,
perhaps less lethal than the first, perhaps not,
where congregating together, eating out in groups,
rallying in numbers for some cause,
praying communally to some god,
are once again taboo.
This time the young, or young at heart,
are designated as the carrier group,
as overstretched hospitals and staff
prepare for yet another round of testing sites,
improvised wards and ICUs,
the mood out there darkening with the autumn sky
as folks who thought the virus was a one-season pest
learn that visitors like this
have come to call our species home.

One Million
September 29

The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.
— Stalin

COVID-19 has passed the official one million mark,
though we know it is a good deal higher,
for statistics are lacking or suppressed in scores of countries,
and many who die outside of hospitals and nursing homes
will not be properly reported.
Those who have lost a loved one
can pin a face, a life story,
a tragic turn of fate,
to their disappearance.
As for the millions who may be lost
in the carnage still underway
 – the little father of the people was an expert in such matters –
we struggle to think of them
as more than a statistic,
given the challenge to our constricted human minds
to grasp the full significance of seven-digit numbers.

Masks
October 1

An uninvited stranger masked in red,
crashing the survivalists’ retreat
in Poe’s macabre tale,
Verdi’s masked ball,
where jealous rivalry
does in a reigning king,
a geriatric on a Kyoto bus,
spine contorted,
face masked from hostile gaze,
Halloween revelry
as squealing kids, suitably disguised,
weave their way
along toffee-dappled streets,
and now a universal presence,
bedecking rich and poor alike
in one bold planetary sweep.

Hermit Crabs
October 7

You must catch the October sun between 10 and 2,
before it begins to wane
as fog descends on the beach once again
and a breeze off the sea
sends shivers through the spine,
forcing you to hurry along.
For if temperatures are surprisingly mellow
for this time of the year,
you sense this is but a side-effect
of climate change,
even as the virus continues to eat away
at familiar things,
turning us into hermit crabs,
self-absorbed in the only world we still know,
the one contained within our shells.

M
October 17

You wake as the infection rate or R
ticks up another notch,
even as the morale index or M
incrementally continues to collapse.

The Horror, the Horror (For Samuel Paty)
October 16

Like a scene out of the Reign of Terror,
a decapitation in broad daylight
in a quiet suburban town
of a high school teacher who had dared to show
a caricature of the prophet Muhammad
as part of a classroom discussion of free speech
in what passes for a secular republic.
Knowing what had preceded
 – the Charlie Hebdo massacre,
the rampages of ISIS and its associates
through Africa and the Fertile Crescent,
9/11 and its aftermath –
should we be in shock?
Intolerance seems to be the mantra of our era,
not only of the religious sort,
but political, ethnic and racial as well,
and one more horrific martyr
will do little to stem the spiral.

Pandemics
November 5

Violence pandemic like a new disease.
— W.H. Auden, “Sonnets from China,” XIX

For leaders right and left
we are at war with a pandemic
which unchecked would put our hallowed civilization
– GDP, consumer goods, jobs,
health care and vaunted pension plans –
into meltdown mode.
And well it might,
for who but a few Cassandras on the battlements
might have foretold
what zoonotic transfers might unleash?
What of the other kinds of war,
the ones that marked the century now passed,
with their mangled corpses in the muddy fields,
their incarcerated bodies,
their starving masses and burned-out towns
or closer to our age
the civil wars that rage
from the sands of the Sahel to the Afghani hills?
And what of the lies
with which puppet-masters
with their fake blond hair, military swagger,
wooden sloganeering Maoist-style,
arrogance of Sultans from yesteryear
hold populations in their sway?
So many pandemics to endure.

Covid-19
February 28th

Plague has always had a fascination
for those who map the subterranean, the macabre,
black bile overflowing, feverish gaze,
bloated corpses, tumbrels rolling through medieval towns,
death in Venice,
love in the age of cholera.
So it is with the conoravirus,
spreading its bat-like wings across the planet,
transforming species that had become our prey
into avenging angels,
hugging the elderly to their chests,
surfacing where least expected,
turning the global economy topsy-turvy
and the best-laid plans of empire builders
into crumbling sand.

The End of Time
March 19th

For centuries, apocalyptical and Old Believers prostrated themselves,
lacerating flesh and entrails,
convinced the great upheaval around them
had some higher purpose,
that out of chaos and destruction a New Jerusalem,
for those who had abjured their sins,
would ultimately emerge.

Subsequently, as traditional beliefs were cast aside,
new credos arose with their adherents,
having beheaded kings and overthrown czars,
certain a new age could begin
and humanity shed the vices
that ignorance and accumulated privileges
had instilled and petrified.

Now that such beliefs have also bitten the dust,
and a new globalist disposition come to the fore,
seers amongst us and myriads suddenly living in fear,
sense climate wars, droughts, and unleashed pestilence
foreshadowing the end of time.

Globalization’s Children
March 23rd

We later civilizations – we too know that we are mortal.
— Paul Valéry, 1919

It seemed obvious enough,
for those who had bloodied themselves in the trenches,
seen the swath of carnage
bell-towers and market squares had endured,
millions dying from the accursed flu,
as though a vengeful god
were calling in a sinful continent’s debts.
What about us, globalization’s children,
spared the previous century’s major wars,
wearing our affluence like a fashion statement
from a new-age couturier,
convinced the arrow would always point in one direction, upwards,
and the merry-go-round would never stop
for us lucky ones who’d managed to embark?

On a Passage in Lenin
March 25th

There are decades when nothing happens,
and there are weeks when decades happen.
— Lenin

True enough where revolutions are concerned,
the French, the Russian for starters.
No less true for financial crises,
1929, 2008, to name two of the biggies.
Plagues too have had their cataclysmic high points,
the Black Death, the Columbian Exchange, the Spanish flu.

Still early days for the coronavirus,
no seers at the city gates or on distant Judaean hilltops
able to foretell
just how or when it will evolve or peak,
or how much of the societal carapace will crumble underneath.

But we sense,
much like animals before a hurricane or tsunami,
that sometime in mid-March
the earth turned on its axis
and that those living through it
will never knowingly efface the moment.

Contagion
March 26th

Into the notable city of Florence there came the death-dealing pestilence
which had some years before appeared in parts of the East.
— Boccaccio, The Decameron

“Of what use is the past?” the moderns asked,
secure in the comforts of the present day
and the promise of a future still at hand.

“Of what use the aged,” the millennials chimed in,
“they who have enjoyed the earth’s fruits these many years,
and refuse to clear the way for those now come of age?”

“Of what use the homeless and the poor,” the well-off complained,
“they who spread vermin in their clothes and hair
while we must take shelter behind the ramparts of our homes?”

“Of what use your pristine beaches and winter holidays” the ascetics railed,
“when the pillars of your temples and pleasure palaces
have come crashing down?”

“Of what use your lamentations?” the sybarites replied,
“let us drink and eat and copulate our fill
while we party through the night.”

Fear
March 27th

You see it in their faces,
in the quick manoeuvres to step aside
on sidewalks and on trails,
in the panicked emails,
the endless stories in the papers
or posted on the Web.

Pandora’s box has been pried open,
spectres one had thought wrestled to the ground
by scientific research, biotech,
haunt the deserted boardrooms and chancelleries
from one OECD capital to the next.

Half the planet has gone into hibernation,
even as the other half, the poorer half,
awaits its turn,
hospital wards already overflowing
with the prostrate, the skeletal, the short of breath.

Through the ages fear has worn many masks,
conquering armies, devastating famines,
despots doing in their subjects with a mere flick of the wrist,
but its most primal form as always
remains the fear of death.

Nemesis
March 28th

There had been intonations of a bubbly stock exchange,
target cities – Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam –
besieged by tourist crowds,
cruise ships too big to dock,
real estate markets too frothy for mere proles.

The game seemed so humongous it would never cease,
the moneyed folks too powerful to fail,
their chains of command spanning continents and seas,
dwarfing nation-states along the way.

True, climate change frayed at the edges,
a host of civil wars raged on,
fraught refugees and asylum seekers
vying for a brief fifteen minutes in the sun.

So when the virus made its first appearance
in the then little-known city of Wuhan,
it seemed a minor nuisance,
a freakish zoonotic passage from bats to humankind.

The rest is history
as the global skein unravelled,
country after country falling prey
to a long forgotten scourge, the plague.

Nemesis, vengeful goddess,
through a tiny agent
was stirring from the depths,
sending the global circus careening to a close.

The Lucky Generation
April 4th

We called ourselves the lucky generation,
in many ways we were,
spared the wars, the dole,
the diseases, the back-breaking toil,
that has been our predecessors’ lot
and that of the myriads who had come before them.

There was comfort in knowing we could choose
which college to enrol in,
which profession we might enter,
what city or country to put roots down in,
where we might holiday winter or summer
or retire to when our working lives were over.

There were passing clouds in the sky,
Islamic disruptions here and there,
the occasional economic downturn,
hints of glaciers melting or sea levels rising,
but for the large part problems
the millennials and their offspring would have to bear.

And suddenly we learned how quickly the script could be rewritten,
carefully constructed stage sets taken down,
the myths of exponential growth,
globalization as some kind of magic key,
affluence as a guarantee of personal immunity,
reduced to tatters.

The old Greek precept which Solon had first uttered
had stood the test of time:
“Do not count yourself fortunate until your final day.” 

Confinement
April 14th

Half the planet, including its perennial high-flyers,
courtesy of the spiked intruder,
has discovered the fine points of social distancing,
of living in a closed space, 23/24 on 7,
even as the sun is warming up the earth,
the trees and shrubs are burgeoning,
and normality of a sort
will eventually reemerge from its cocoon.
A mere facsimile
for what the unjustly imprisoned
would have taken to be their lot,
zeks with their infected lungs in the Gulag’s frigid wastes,
les damnés de la terre the Internationale had once extolled.
For a brief moment,
the Gatsby set has met the lower depths.

In the Season of the Plague
April 20th

In the season of the plague
a global assembly was convened
with eminent philosophers, theologians
and assorted illuminati
to guide humanity out of its downward spiral.

Sitting a row apart from one another,
the first intervenor held up The Qur’an
with cries of Allahu Akbar reverberating through the hall,
the second The New Testament
with echoes of the Matthäus-Passion as a refrain,
next an angry tribune, abjuring hedge funds
and rapacious bankers, waved a copy of Das Kapital,
with a more smartly dressed opponent
preaching the gospel according to Adam Smith,
followed by a poker-faced emissary extolling The Prince
along with choice bits from Kongfuzi’s Analects,
even as a dissident freshly released
trumpeted The Social Contract’s enduring beliefs.

So the debate raged on for days,
ecologists, virologists,
semiologists, psychologists joining the fray,
until the assembly by now much depleted,
having reached no agreement, was duly disbanded,
as a lowly cleaner, a Dalit by birth,
disinfecting the cavernous hall and latrines,
scattered herbs from her village and chanted full-throated
mantras to exorcise the abominable plague.

A Litany of Plagues
April 22nd

The Athenian plague 430 BCE.  100,000 dead
that did Pericles in
The Justinian plague 541–2 CE.   25–100 million dead
that helped do the Roman Empire in
The Bubonic plague 1347–51
that did 25–50 million Europeans in
The Cocoliziti plague – perhaps TB – 1545–8
that did 15 million indigenous Mexicans in
The great plague of London. 1665–6. 100,000 dead
The plague of Marseille.  1720–3.  120,000 dead
The Russian plague.  1889–90. 1 million dead
The Spanish flu. 1918–19. 20–50 million dead
The Asian flu. 1956–8. 1–3 million dead
AIDS. since 1981. 32 million dead
SARS, MERS, EBOLA – tiny numbers as their toll
COVID-19
Humanity has had a long-time fling
with lice, rats, marmots, pigs, and bats
and the bugs always win.

(Inspired by an article and chart in Le Point, “Et les puces precipitèrent la chute de l’empire romain,” April 16, 2020)

Checks and Balances
June 2nd

In the ideal republic,
quoth Polybius, Montesquieu or Madison,
power must check power.

The kingly one is too dangerous
to entrust to an unchecked figure
all too quick to trample
over both sacred and profane
with a praetorian guard at his command.
The legislative, with too weak an authority in control,
can quickly overswell its banks
and divvy up within its own encrusted ranks
the spoils of office.

Judges for their part,
given too free a rein,
can use the instruments of self-interested interpretation
to impose rules
where lawmakers never deigned to venture.

A fine doctrine for fair-weather times.
But when the times are rife
with strife, pestilence, and fear,
and citizens too bitter and divided
to recall the underlying need
to show a minimum of regard for one another,
how easy for the demagogue, the providential leader,
to overwhelm the forces of restraint
and impose an iron rule
from which republics cannot easily recover.

At the Imperial Court

The emissaries had been warned
to watch their tongues
for what was said in jest
during a visit to the countryside
or to the stables
where the imperial thoroughbreds were kept
would soon enough be relayed back.
Now word had leaked
that an emissary from a distant province
had spoken lightly of the imperial line
and even hinted that the emperor
might not be divine.
His tongue had been ripped out,
his body flayed,
and he had been sent home
with an order to his province
to double its tribute in rice and in wine.
Ever since the emissaries eye each other warily
whenever they congregate in the court
or lift a glass in drinking
to the emperor’s eternal health.

Auctoritas

If kings of yore were prone
to adorn their courts with ceremonial rites,
what is one to make of the lot
who have since taken their place?
They seem so much in love
with the ornate trappings of Versailles,
the Kremlin’s dizzying spires,
military parades,
assembled press corps waiting on their every word,
one half expects the skies to open
and a voice to cry out,
“All hail, these earthly gods!”
Puppeteers are hard at work
pulling at the strings,
and as before mere mortals
are meant to marvel at their craft.

The Mayan Route

(Banampak, Yaxchilan and Palenque)

To wander amidst these ruins,
grandiose each in its own way –
stelae sketched in the immortal ink of stone,
the ruler of a city-state,
his lineage in hieroglyphic script,
frescoes rescued from the elements,
trumpets, drums marking a ritual event,
blood offering to the gods
with spirits from the underworld
speaking through a serpent’s mouth,
mighty walls and endless hewn steps
that meld into the mountaintops,
a playing field
where mastery of a rubber ball
determines life or death,
captives prostrate at a ruler’s feet,
the head of a beheaded king –
is to recall old lessons
regarding rise and fall,
antiquity’s hubris that ends in cruel defeats,
the jungle ever-ready to reclaim its own,
vicissitudes of fate that weigh us down.

Port of Call

What do we know about each other,
the British tourists on a yacht
who stop to swim in the cove,
briefly step on shore,
and then take off to their next Aegean mooring;
the French couple here for a week
to consummate their vows;
the Serbs who like Damouchari
because it isn’t Croat
and the fault line between Orthodoxy and Rome
runs deeper than the postmodern set might suppose;
Israelis who come in droves
because Greece is close
and there aren’t places in their immediate neighbourhood
to feel at ease;
northerners who love the beaches
and the pace of life of the Mediterranean south
but would not trade in their GDP
and ordered lives
at any price;
the restaurant staff,
mostly Albanians here for the season
with the odd African
who has slipped in between the cracks;
disco jockeys and hotel operators on the make,
local fishermen and cultivators of olive groves,
the gypsy vendor with his fruit,
kayakers churning the waters of the coast
like would-be Argonauts
in search of the golden fleece;
and you, unofficial scribe,
treating this port of call
as a writer’s retreat?

Desert Camp, Merzouga

The Bedouin in you stirred
at the sight of undulating dunes
and camel caravans waiting
to take their charges across the sands.

The guttural sounds of a Semitic tongue
drifted across the compound where you sat
wondering whether this evening
a voice might yet resound.

You had come in search of something more
than a swanky desert camp
or a glimpse of one more sunset
atop an ochre-coloured land.

You hankered for a message
from across the pale of time,
a fragmentary image
to reconnect the dotted lines.

Sahara Nocturne

If you come to the desert with longing
the longing will pull you in
for you carry deep within you
the cold swooshing of the wind
and the memory of distant soundings
from an ancient threnody
along with words once uttered
which you never scribbled down
doubting that you’d been chosen
to return from whence it began
if but for the briefest of moments
before the desert turned longing to sand.

Messengers

Messengers who flash warnings
of what the end of time portends,
messengers who whisper cryptic lines
of life’s mysteries and the great beyond,
messengers who ride off on a camel’s back
in search of a holy land,
messengers who lose their footing in the dunes
and cross sanity’s fatal bounds.

She’s been a friend of many years,
loyal and steadfast almost to a fault,
but when the subject turns to Macedonia
and the faltering attempt to resolve
a lingering dispute about a country’s name
all measure disappears.

The Macedonians given half an inch
would soon claim the whole of northern Greece,
the Bulgarians would join in
gobbling up both bits
and only the greatest vigilance by patriotic Greeks
can forestall a catastrophe foretold.

Naively you had thought the Balkan Wars
had ended a century ago.

— Philip Resnick

Atavisms

Everywhere you look, they’re sprouting,
Shiites, Sunnis
rekindling the prophet’s spirit,
Orthodox in countries which had abjured religion
rediscovering connections long forgotten
which their autocratic rulers nourish,
retro-Catholics in Poland
merging the Black Virgin of Czestochowa
with intolerance for their opponents,
Hinduvistas dreaming of a purified  homeland,
Jewish zealots of a reconsecrated Temple Mount,
Buddhist incendiaries in Myanmar,
evangelicals in the New World,
a veritable smorgasbord of beliefs
which a scientific age
had prematurely dismissed.

The Minders

Her talk is fluid/fluent,
the ups and downs of relations between Europe and the Porte
over two centuries,
a Sultan journeying to the West,
wars, atrocities,
mirror images and stereotypes to this day.
And through it all
– though the speaker is careful
how she weaves her tale
to not dwell overtly on the new Sultan,
his prisons overflowing,
the bleak Islamic turn his regime now takes –
three figures in sober attire from the Consulate
noting carefully every word she states,
lest she cross the invisible boundary
that spells dissent.

One part of us knows all too well
the risks of doubling tanker traffic through the port
and what an oil spill like the Exxon Valdez
would represent.

The other part knows equally well
just how dependent we have all become
on the bloodstream of an industrial age
and how quickly we would feel the pinch
without a drop of oil.

The valiant and romantic part,
NIMBYish in its way,
dreams of a green-red pact, a pristine coast,
and unadulterated ocean views.

The pragmatic part
feels a larger national vision is at stake
and tradeoffs the price
of keeping two quarrelling provinces aligned.

And so the kettle-drums beat on,
waiting for a prince to lay down the law.

Sesquicentenary

You would have been more acerbic
in your salad years,
convinced as you were back then
that our somnolent dominion of the north
had missed a historical beat or two,
spurning revolutions,
holding on for dear life to the apron-strings
of two empires in rapid succession,
our leaders always reaching for the middle,
no clear goals to lift the spirits
or excite the imagination.

Now that you’re a senior
and Canada’s even more so,
your former disdain has given way
to a spirit of reconciliation.
It isn’t easy managing a country
with awkward platelets that see themselves as distinct nations,
with far-flung regions
and a macédoine of peoples
which elsewhere might incite internecine hatreds.

We have fended off the worst traits
of the giant to the south,
while coexisting reasonably amicably beside it.
Our social compass resembles that of Europe,
and our vision of the world order
combines a Boy Scout’s earnestness for alliances
with peacekeeping missions and UN-sanctioned conventions.

We have had our share of failings
– the excessive influence of corporations, foreign and domestic,
politicians on the take,
policies which haven’t really helped to integrate First Nations,
closed doors to refugees fleeing Europe in the ’30s,
wartime deportation of innocent Japanese-Canadian civilians –
but in the larger scheme of things
we haven’t screwed up too badly,
neither plumbing the depths of failed or fragile states
nor suffering under despotic rulers,
though we’ve sometimes come quite close,
with autocratic Premiers and nepotistic tribal chiefs.

Still, you don’t feel out of place
lifting a glass to Canada’s sesquicentenary,
much as you might wish there was a bit more drama
to a country which has learned to live in peace.

On a passage in Kant

The starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.
— Kant

The stars with their pointillistic luminescence
dot the night sky over Damoukhari
underlying our glaring insignificance
in the cosmic scheme.
But what about the moral law within
which Kant extolled,
has it fared any better
in the two centuries that have elapsed
since he walked Königsberg’s tree-lined streets?
One contemplates the Anthropocene,
the deep inequities that continue to creep in,
a ruthless quest for ends over means,
a population bomb rivalling the ballistic ones,
our sapping the finite resources of Mother Earth,
and one wishes the stars above
would somehow wipe our muddied escutcheon clean.

Vergina

You came to visit these royal tombs,
most probably those of Philip II of Macedon
and his consort,
and the wrought gold jewellery and silver vessels
are truly regal,
as are the size and scale of the portico
and columns where they lay buried.
Yet something rankles
in this glorification of Macedon,
of Philip and of Alexander
and of the Hellenistic age which was to follow.
No mention of the king’s archfoe, Demosthenes,
who had rightly seen in him the undoing of the polis,
and of the freedom which Athens had enjoyed
in the two centuries when the civilization
which we so venerate had flowered.
Instead, it is the force of arms,
the lust for power,
the perks and privileges of rulers,
that in this underground museum/mausoleum
are given the celebratory status
befitting tyrants.

The Demos

The demos can be so fickle,
excoriating the first honest politician they’ve ever seen
– an Alfonsin in Argentina,
a Gorbachev in the ex-USSR –
because economically times were tough,
or a rotten old regime had finally bitten the dust,
embracing the most loathsome and corrupt
– a Berlusconi or a Trump –
who know how to traffic notoriety and pilfered wealth
for naked power.
It makes one almost despair
of the larger creed we Westerners so earnestly profess,
forgetting how democracy among the ancients
had its share of assemblies easily swayed
by demagogues and knaves
for every Pericles or Demosthenes that came along.

Canada at 150

       We don’t need any kaiser.
       — Heinrich Heine, A Winter’s Tale

What courage, back in 1843,
for the bard to give voice
to what was still a faint stirring
somewhere in the forest depths
of a Germany still asleep
to the longing for a springtime of the people.
And we,
in this Dominion of the North,
who have been sleeping for a full 150 years,
putting up with regal flummery,
with all the trappings of Old World monarchy,
have yet to break the bonds of a mentality
that ties us to our colonial dregs.

Modernism

Modernism came at a stroke
amidst the carnage and the cold
that swept muddy battlefields,
leaving the old order fractured in its wake.
Scales fell from a generation’s eyes,
becoming an atonal twelve,
bodies on canvases disengaged,
squares, cubes and asymmetric blobs
displacing classic harmony for good.
We were growing up,
or so it seemed,
learning to live with bold designs,
urban centrefolds that swelled until they reached the sky,
movement at a speed
foretelling the eclipse of linear time.
Some say the world has become a better place,
that the multitude has never thrived as it now does,
despite the lapses of major wars and minor ones,
and regimes no less repressive than those that came before.
Perhaps the data point to sunnier days,
but in our gut we kind of sense
the breakdown which the modernists sketched
has become the lethal norm.

 

Cementario del Norte – La Recoleta

July 26, 1991

Past chiselled tombs,
crypts of publishers, cardiologists and rectors
ministering to the soul or body,
along the alleyways of a deserted city,
no blade of grass to disturb the grey cement and marble,
you wander.
A cat or two has made a home
in amongst these necro-villas with their coffins,
guardians tending to the flowers and the dust,
sweeping the portals clean,
much as concierges might do in the world of the living.
Suddenly around the bend TV cameras whir,
a whole cortège of mourners
– wreaths of the finest roses, orchids, passion flowers at their feet –
has gathered around the Duarte tomb
to mark the 39th year since her passing.
A balding trumpeter, out of a’30s movie,
plays in her honour,
as a sea of hands, each with two fingers held aloft,
salutes to the cry “Viva Perón!” “Viva Eva Perón!” “Viva la patria!”
Many of the women are in furs,
a few in simpler cloth or woollens,
their eyes moistening to the power of a legend.
Which is the real Evita,
the stricken saint they mourn,
Madonna to the decamisados,
heroine of Broadway musicals?
Or the spider-lady behind a fickle venturer
who for decades kept a country in his thrall?

Making America Great Again

Once again the pollsters,
those diviners of auspices and entrails,
have been proven wrong,
and a wave of Nativist disenchantment
with the Beltway, the urbane elites,
the icons of Wall Street
rolls from the Deep South to the Rust Belt
and across the Plains,
upsetting the political applecart
and giving a new Magus carte blanche
to tear up trade deals
that hollow out factories and towns,
to keep foreign riffraff
from infiltrating liberty’s domain,
to turn the clock back to a time
when the Constitution in all its Second Amendment splendor
held full rein.
Where all this will end
only historians of the future will know,
but for the moment irresistible forces bubble up
from the subterranean layers
and ressentiment becomes the flavour of our era.

Europa after the rain

In its own inimitable way,
Europe undoes the stitches that bind its wounds,
north against south,
the frugal ones against the party-goers,
mistrust the flavour of the month,
disenchantment seeping through the corridors
where emissaries meet for negotiations without end,
Penelope’s thread unable to withstand
the constant fraying, the weatherbeaten elements,
for the continent has too many mountain ranges, verdant islands,
rivers pursing through its veins
to be a single integrated space,
and already the ghosts of Holy Roman Empires past,
Napoleonic conceits, and Congresses to spell an end to war
remind the chastened eavesdropper at the door
that dreams and nightmares are really twins
and fir trees and olive groves
splintered witnesses to all that came before.