Open Letter to Mammon


A muddy touché! Ye villains
of Hong Kong and Dubai,
fork-tongued evangelists of
foreign currency!

We applaud the handing over
of our stolen goods –
May we offer you a free-of-charge
gondola ride over the holy land
a bird’s-eye view of your assets
your wives and daughters, your mothers
your pimps, your priests and pederasts
your arms traders and factory generals
your Legacy on its death march –
advancing with the Exodus
in the shadow of a thunderhead
towards the promise of absolution
in a wine dark sea

Desiccated by desert heat
the old, the weak, and the very young
and others beyond utility
shall remain eternally entombed
under a violent sun–

Still others, inhabitants of bygone ice
of the high steppes,
of the Dengue jungles,
of the sand spit nations,
by your leave they join the fate of those
dragging their feet from Bethlehem
with the taste of sea salt
on their blackened tongues

You, tiny man with the tiny screen,
spitting crimson betel juice
on the shoeshine boy
from the City of God,
on the shoeshine girl
from the City of Angels,
grinning, your bleachies glinting
as the laborers of your camps
vacate the bowels, so oozing with parasites,
of your Super Babylons
of your endless outskirts
of your suburban Irkallas
with their rent-a-Nergals
festering like a thousand boils
upon the continents

The widening gyre spins in
a kaleidoscope
of shampoo bottles

Throw a rock through
the liquor store window –
Go to Jail dot com

Yesterday, a reactor meltdown in Japan,
Tomorrow the monarch will perish
in the rain of highway shoulder poisons,
meanwhile microbeads assemble in
nearshore waters–
they are watching you like
a billion billion billion
primitive eyes in the waves

Forgetting, they abandon the stragglers
shaking breadcrumbs from their pockets
tossing silver coins for the trade rats

Some leave to wander the
emptied alleys and wind tunnels –
woodwinds of the Trades –
echoing in the lonely island temples
sinking back into the oceans
of their emergence

No one to know what the polecat ate
No one to hear the gasping
of the Vaquita and Silky Sifafka
of the Mekong Catfish
as they sink below the surface

But wait, Mammon, remember
your little chochita with
pinto bean skin?
She hides her poison darts
under her Shakira beach towel –
She is coming for you first, hombre

You and your black market organ traders
who sleep like infants and fear nothing
if not the loss of your Legacy –
you must know that It too will be buried
in the sub-sea archives

This text is classified
Your last wishes will be recorded
in the annals of the Lithosphere
lost in the subduction zones
guarded by tube worms –
great scholars of the deep


Bird Time

Marc Chagall, Paysage Bleu (1949)
Marc Chagall, Paysage Bleu (1949)

Tripping on the torn hem of an apron
the neighbor, Patron Saint of Scrub Jays,
scatters handfuls of unshelled peanuts
on the dry ground.

It is mid-December, and yet
the rains have not come;
she and the birds are taking austerity
measures, planning for deserts.

She sets her clock to ‘bird time’
as she once said that a lifetime of unwinding
ticking clocks is required to know
just one of these inquisitive creatures –

‘They are the guardians of dry Western lowlands,
spies of pinyon pine-juniper forests,
the watchers of denatured empty lots
overrun with mustard and milk thistle’  –
Flying Thieves, she calls them.

Betrayed by the years,
the burrowing lines on her face,
the milkiness of her eyes, her tremors,
have forced a hermit’s life upon her.

She works at home alone,
processing claims in the kitchen –
the place of her extradition,
the shadowy country of old age;
her friends too are taking measures,
saving copper pennies.

On sunny days the scrub jay
steals peanuts from the
the brim of her old straw hat;
she has learned
its many vocalizations –

The cat is in the field!
The bird bath is refilled!
The crows are on the light post
plotting raids on the blackbirds’ eggs!
The old lady is in the backyard!

In the amber light of her years
the rivers run thin and
salmonless through dark
tunnels in the great concrete dams –

The Damnation of the West:
sublime organelles of industry,
post-human tombs of free running water.

What plagues incubate in the depths
of the mirrors on the deserts?
A few free rivers ran when
she was a child, running wild
with her friends – free rivers
and fewer fences.

*     *     *

It is Christmas again and yet no rain has fallen
this year on the wings of the jay or the silk moth.
Yet, here, in bird time, not a day has passed
since the last storm brought floods
and mosses were draped around
the laurels’ slender necks
like emerald-sequined boas.

Under the afternoon shadow of a valley oak,
picking dry burrs from her wool socks,
the old woman dreams of summer’s return–
of the fence lizards basking
upon the pile of rocks placed at the trunk
by an ancient farmer
in the emptied field.

She will pass the year’s end
chatting with the chatterboxes
about the weather
the mast years
the gray squirrel (their shared enemy)
while the machines of the suburbs
unwrapped in the morning’s frenzy
defile the precious silence.

She waits for the black night sky
to close its sparking cape
over the paling remains
of a blue, tearless heaven;

she remembers for both bird and woman
the croaking of chorus frogs in the culverts,
the soft pattering of rain, its gentle music
lost to the anxious drone of
of so many blue sky days.

Noonday Devil


When you meet the Noonday Devil,
that spat shod snake of a spermologer,
that worm-tongued snoutfair,
you will know him by his oiled hair
his asphodelos crown
the rainforest emeralds on his fingers
the bone dice in his palm.

He wears a suit of camel hair
the ruby-lipped girls
are always at his side;
he smiles a crooked smile,
chews gum of myrrh and mint
to mask his breath of lies.

He will find you sitting in the driver’s seat
in your moment of despair
stuck in a stagnant Nile of cars
that hasn’t moved an inch in an hour
when your feeling of complacency
overwhelms you, your helplessness
staring at a new overpass
or the metal bones of a new shopping mall
the steaming ground of clear-cut forest
where, looming in the acrid haze,
the monolithic mega-dam
pins you in its gaze.

Your mocha latte grows cold in the cup holder.
What are they screaming on the radio?

This Noonday Devil will make you an offer.
His servants will bring sugar water cakes
and iced tea spiced with absolution
to your car window on the highway.

He will ridicule what remains of
your Utopian dreams,
trading them like cards
for a few thousand square feet
of floors made from the hardest woods
a verdant patch of lawn
a technicolor future for your children
a private box at War’s playhouse.

You, in your moment of despair,
when your feeling of complacency
your helplessness in the face of seven billion
faceless pins on a spinning pincushion –
you may choose a troubled sleep
on velvet pillows over this waking hell.

In the fearful hours of the night
when the cats fight
and the sirens blare
when the late night t.v.
preachers cull your dreams
when the trash cans
explode with the echoes
of city streets far, far, away,
The Noonday Devil
will sing you softly back to sleep
with the Christian hymns
he heard as a child.

He will take you in his wingéd chariot
to his Kingdom of Commerce.
You will be his Queen –
the Queen of Cannibals.

One day you find yourself
in the passenger seat of a royal coach
with velvet pillows
staring up at the flag waving proudly
on the bridge of suicides
and you will awaken with
the Noonday Devil at your side.

You see it all plainly now.
The streets of his kingdom
are paved with bees.
The child slaves weave his robes
on dark, underground looms
in the eternal night.

But what he doesn’t know
whisper the girls with ruby lips
is the women are raising an army
of wax dolls in his likeness,
and the dead will offer pins.

Against Love and Freedom

In preparation for a full-blown rant against Jonathan Franzen’s bestselling novel Freedom, I’d like to premise my attack with another book – a polemic. Polemics are sort of fun if you’re in the right state of mind. Freedom did not put me in the right state of mind. Quite a few women I’ve talked to who have read the book had similar experiences. Apparently the male literati did not share these feelings.

Michiko Kakutani of  The New York Times wrote:

“[Franzen] not only created an unforgettable family, he’s also completed his own transformation from a sharp-elbowed, apocalyptic satirist focused on sending up the socio-economic-political plight of this country into a kind of 19th-century realist concerned with the public and private lives of his characters.” Or, plainly spoken, Franzen writes about relationships – all heterosexual – between unhappy people.

Curits Sittenfeld of The Observer – whose review was more of a lengthy summary  – was a little more skeptical. Like Sittenfeld, I came to Freedom as a fan of The Corrections. Sittenfeld, however, did ultimately join the team.

“It was somewhere around page 158 of Freedom that I managed to forgive the book for not being The Corrections and begin enjoying it for what it is: an ethnography of a particular marriage; a meditation on the disappointments and compromises of approaching and then inhabiting middle age; and a long, juicy, scathing, funny and poignant indictment of contemporary American life.”

I have read a few books in the last few years in which authors have theorized about the relationship between living in an industrialized nation and the near-pandemic in depression and anxiety, not to mention a skyrocketing divorce rate among the populations of these societies. In order to back up my own “review” of Freedom, drawing some rough sketch of marriage in the era of late capitalism might be helpful, and a polemic perhaps a valid approach. Before Franzen, there was Kipnis…

In her book Against Love, Laura Kipnis makes no bones about the fact her book is a polemic, one that examines the choke hold that the American work ethic – a great source of national pride –  has on love and marriage. As a professor of Media Studies at Northwestern University, Kipnis finds plenty of reasons to theorize against “sacrosanct subjects like love.” She writes, “To begin with, who would dream of being against love? No one. Love is, as everyone knows, a mysterious and all-controlling force, with vast power over our thoughts and life decisions…But isn’t there something a bit worrisome about all this uniformity of opinion?” The polemic, Kipnis argues, is her chosen form to tackle the quasi-taboo position against love and marriage because, she writes, “Polemics exist to poke holes in cultural pieties and turn received wisdom on its head…[and are] designed to be the prose equivalent of a small, explosive device placed underneath your E-Z Boy lounger.” Kipnis’ prose is often inflammatory, provocative and, first and foremost, brutally humorous. She looks deep into the cultural and societal framework that created “modern love” and marriage in order to discover and expose possible currents of mal-contentedness she believes stem primarily from capitalist models of productivity that have infiltrated and contaminated domesticity since the Industrial Revolution. Kipnis invokes Freud, Marcuse, Marx and Foucault in what seems at first like an adulterer’s manifesto but escalates like Ravel’s Bolero into a high-pitched rallying cry to rescue LOVE itself from the clutches of discipline and repression in a single movement.

In the first part of Against Love, Kipnis proposes the work ethic and native language of the factory as culpable partners in the emotional exhaustion of coupledom, citing the failure of mechanization and technological progress to reduce overall hours spent on labor, both in and away from the office. Kipnis asks “How can you not admire a system so effective at swallowing all alternatives to itself that it can make something as abject as ‘working for love’ sound admirable?…if private life in post-industrialism now means that relationships now take work too, if love is the latest form of alienated labor,  would rereading [Marx’s] Capital as a marriage manual be the most appropriate response?”

In Rebecca Meads’s review of Against Love in the New Yorker (August 2003), she argues that Kipnis’ book proposes “the structure of contemporary marriage, with its exceptions of lifetime fidelity, belongs to the apparatus of state control. A population that willingly polices itself through the interdictions of married life…has given up any revolutionary strivings, and will submit to other repressive social orders.” Kipnis, in her chapter “Domestic Gulags” gives a laundry list of “Can’t Do’s” in coupledom, which I found both hilarious and depressing and left me in a crumpled heap on the couch.

Kipnis’ discussion on gay marriage is intriguing. In the wake of the Clinton scandals, Kipnis writes, “Congress was suddenly awash in matrimonial enthusiasm” which led to the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), supported by the likes of House Speaker Gingrich and other matrimonial hypocrites. Kipnis, in her tone of glib irony, argues, “Obviously marriage needed defending, but was it from gay weddings or from its own disaffected habitués? No, it could only be lesbians picking out silver patterns and gay men marching down the aisle to the strains of Pachelbel’s
Canon driving all those otherwise contented heterosexuals to Divorce Court.”

Overall, the book suggests adultery as a form of social protest – “adultery is the sit down strike of the love-takes-work ethic;” and likewise, Kipnis interrogates marriage as an antiquated and rigid social institution in need of a major overhaul, one from which the heterosexual citizenry is currently and will continue to flee in droves, having sought to suffocate human desire in its never-ending restrictions. Thus, Kipnis exposes the “family values” crisis for what it really might be  – the mass antipathy towards socially, politically and religiously regulated love between two individuals (or more).

In her review of Against LoveSalon’s Stephanie Zacharek writes, “The [Kipnis’] point is that marriage, which ostensibly jerks us into a lockstep of manageability that should ideally last a lifetime, serves society more than it serves the human spirit.” Kipnis doesn’t ignore the obvious dichotomy between the dearth of public money spent to alleviate poverty for the working class family along with decreasing funds available for education and the high-decibel booty call of the religious right to condemn, tar and feather divorcees and would-be transgressors.  Against Love is not ultimately against love but a book that reads against the grain of institutionalized, regulated and repressed love. Kipnis offers no solutions, just Morpheus’ proverbial “red pill” – or, like Mead says, Kipnis “throws the bomb and then she runs. Fast.” In this sense, I would argue Kipnis’ speculative stance – the liberating potential of uncertainty she locates in the moments preceding even the slightest revolutionary impulse (a place she argues we now are as a culture with regards to marriage)–makes her decidedly Romantic.

Now to Freedom