(for Bernadette Panettieri, daughter of Lois Gorley)
Narrator: This poem is about relationships of unequal power. It is fairly common for there to be no one in sight less powerful than oneself, but extremely rare for there to be no one more powerful. So to show how power works, we must portray differences of relative power, keeping in mind that the more powerful in one situation may be subordinate in another, and that the less powerful may have someone to dominate.
Half of the 24 speakers in this poem are less powerful than the people they speak about, and so speak from the lower positions; the half who are more powerful stand in the higher positions.
Of the relatively powerless, half see no alternative but to accept their lot as if it were natural; they sit in distant positions. The other half of the relatively powerless seek to confront their oppressors; they sit in the
positions closer to you.
Of the relatively powerful, the half who delight in their power, and seek to extend and benefit from it, are in the far positions, where they have no trouble lording it over those who accept domination. The other half of the powerful, those who seek to benefit others, to free them from some of the bonds of power, or at least to refrain from injuring them, are in positions closer to you.
For each of these four basic attitudes towards power, there are six speakers scattered through time and space, two concerned primarily with economic forms of power, two with political forms, and two with social forms. The 24 monologues correspond to the 24 fortnights of the traditional Chinese calendar.
1. The End of the Rain Water (29 February, 1988)
Machilipatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India: a Mala postgraduate student:
In Andhra Pradesh, India, the two largest ex-Untouchable castes are the Mala and the Madiga. Together they form the lowest strata of Andhra society, and since the abolition of Untouchability upon Indian independence, have felt the obligation to their posterity to "come up" in society. The Mala consider themselves superior to the Madiga, so when a young man from an elite Mala family elopes with a young Madiga woman, Sobha, (whose name means "Beauty,") in a "love marriage," an unfilial act, the groom's father disowns him. On the last night of his life, the groom, Shanti, whose name means "Peace," speaks:
(From the lower back position):
"I couldn't live without Beauty. She promised
she felt the same. Parents desert love marriages, so
we lived alone. I studied for the civil service exam.
I got high marks. The interview went well.
My friend had inside news. Without a one lakh bribe,
they refuse to give positions. I asked my wealthy father.
He said my life is refuse while I live with a Madiga.
She was pregnant. We'd never argued. We wasted
nothing. Reboiled rice scrapings were our food.
She refuses to ask her father. She insists he won't give.
We fight. I hit her. I'm sorry. She refuses to forgive.
She spends this night angry in our landlord's house.
I drink. I find a rope, make a noose, move a chair, and use
the ceiling fan."
Narrator: Thus, on the last night of the month of the gods of the underworld
on the Roman calendar, Peace destroys himself. Beauty remains, but full of
guilt. After the interviewing committee learned of the suicide, they
prudently sent an appointment letter.
2. The Time of the Excited Insects (1 March, 2002)
Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India: a Muslim community activist:
On February 27, 2002, in Ahmedabad, some 58 fundamentalist Hindus died in a
fire allegedly set by Muslim fundamentalists. The Hindus were on a train car
bound for Ayodhya, where they had intended to begin building a Hindu temple
on the site of the Babri Masjid, which fundamentalist Hindus had destroyed
ten years earlier. The next day, in retaliation, right-wing Hindu mobs began
a week-long riot, burning Muslim homes and shops, killing some 2,000 Muslims
and leaving a half million homeless. An agnostic journalist of Muslim
background, feeling as if his brain is burning, and unable to post a
detailed account to his newspaper, talks into his miniature tape recorder:
(From the lower front position)
"Yesterday began our Languedoc, our St. Bartholomew's Day,
our Kristalnacht. Christian-haters mimic Jesus-hating Christians
imagining Satan and killing Cathars, Huguenots, Jews, now us again.
Babur built his Masjid at Ram Janmabhoomi replacing stupas
Ashoka built to honor Gautama. The Dalit Valmiki called Ram perfect
though innocent Sita killed herself because Ram imagined Ravana raped her.
RSS drape saffron over their khaki and scream they love Ram.
They love him so well that because he was born at Ayodhya
they have to torch Ahmedabad shops and homes with people locked inside,
gang rape women in front of their husbands and children, chop babies
from wombs (their machetes and lingams they think must be
the left hands of god) under police supervision, to unite the nation."
3. The Vernal Equinox (22 March, 1523)
Muhlhausen in Thuringen (now Germany): a peasant:
According the Chaucer, on the Vernal Equinox heaven opens its doors. But
Germany is colder than Britain, and in 1523, looking forward to a month or
more of starvation, a peasant uses Luther's words to commit himself to a
friend who has decided to follow Thomas Munzer in rebellion against the
Church and aristocracy:
(From the lower front position):
"The last sheaf bound, one week remained
to yield the Earl his portion and to Tithe.
Threshing should be four days' labor, milling two,
but eighteen bushels must go up the long road
and five are due the Bishop for the poor.
The boy could work no more, the mill seized
for the creek ran low, the wife stood obliged
to aid her folk. The year's just measure exceeded
my strength. Of our share, thirty, unthreshed till last,
rain spoiled most. It lies mildewed, not fit for rats.
By Februar all we could eat was gone.
I could ask sustenance, and pardon
For my fault. But I have not begged before
and would not now. Tell Brother Thomas
I will stand by him. I have no other."
Narrator: With hundreds of others, the peasant burned his Earl's manor,
then, when the others went towards the next manor, left and tried to return
home alone, but arriving horsemen killed him on the road.
4. The Clear and Bright (7 April, 2002)
Cheltenham (near Philadephia), Pennsylvania, USA: a toy salesman:
In 2002, as federal income tax day in the US approaches, a young father
decides he has no alternative but to write to his own father:
From the lower back position:
"Dad, video games and CD's push toy sales down.
Marge splurged to keep the kids' spirits up.
So, maybe it was me too-that one third discount
sucks you in-her folks always made Christmas
the prime time of the year. Well, I didn't want
to see the writing on the wall. Then it appeared
on the pink slip-five p.m., New Year's Eve.
I know toys, but I've looked for retail sales
of damned near any kind in all the malls.
After New Year's, nothing. What can I say?
Microsoft has captured the whole market?
Accounts didn't set withholding high enough.
They never do. The guys don't want them to.
What do you think the interest will be by the time
I get work?-after the Feds slap on the penalty?
Bankruptcy will hit the mortgage and car.
Yeah, your income's fixed, and your account's low,
But your house is your own. If anyone
gives me a chance, you know I work like a dog."
Narrator: Unlike the peasant's, the young man's disaster can be cushioned by
his father, so he never turned to confront his own oppressors-his boss, his
corporation, or the government.
5. The Grain Rains Fall (20 April, 1948)
Huazi, near Mukden (now again Shen-yang) Liaoning, China: a civil servant:
In the Spring of 1948, after 16 years of avoiding the Japanese, local war
lords, and the Communists, in the hope of eventually being able to return to
his former work, a one-time government official decides to back Mao:
From the lower front position:
" 'The way of heaven is to make empty what is full
and increase what is modest.' This harassed century,
Britain forced opium on us, Japan slavery,
Americans slept till struck. Mao brays like a mule
against Kung. Chiang honors ancestors but only his own.
Millet is deaf to both. Sixteen war years, fields bare,
still no planting. Young men in mountains, young women whored.
One learns I Ching to serve, but without grain, rule is a hull.
Our debts make me depend on men who melt our coins down
and pour them into one solid mass beneath their floor.
We lack cash for broken rice. From this day I will not care
what Mao says if he knows even that one way of heaven."
Narrator: Because he joined the Party only at the very end of the
Revolution, the official is never given any responsibility and, in his old
age, is re-educated during the Cultural Revolution.
6. The Summer Begins (15 May, 1953)
Leipzig, (then East) Germany: Ernst Bloch:
In 1953, Ernst Bloch, having been hounded out of Germany by the Nazis, then
being harassed by HUAC in the US, finally gets a teaching post in East
Germany only to find that the East German government suspects him of being a
capitalist stooge. Late one night, after reading Robert Tressell's 1906
novel, Philanthropists in Ragged Trousers, as he is working on the outline
for The Principle of Hope, he says this to his wife:
From upper front position:
"In the current of history, to stay afloat
one must serve property, command, and pride,
so the weight of insight must always sink.
But we can dredge the river for dreams.
Philanthropists in ragged trousers
still gild the houses of the leisured
while their children lie on mottled rags
in tenements they can't afford,
and they bring them up to slavery
with the delusion that they cannot dream.
The work of dreams they leave to Morris,
Bakunin, Tressell, Marx, and Blake.
Let's pledge ourselves against exhaustion.
Though fear of dread makes them will to die,
we'll gently reach beneath their pillows
to touch their dreams before they thought to lie,
and draw the replicating thread of hope-
like Crick and Watson pipetting DNA-
from the colloid of fear, sigh by broken sigh."
Narrator: Despite the fact that his work was repeatedly interrupted and
destroyed, and that he often had no income, Bloch managed to preserve his
thinking in the most extensive Anarchist interpretation of history ever
written. But preserving one's thought can face even greater obstacles than
7. When the Grain is to Fill (29 May, 1943)
Bhubaneshwar, Orissa, India: a Shudra tenant farmer:
During the Great Bengal Famine, a Shudra tenant farmer charged with the
care of a Brahmin's cow finds himself unable to explain his innocence when
the cow dies of starvation and sun stroke. His traditional Brahmin master is
so offended by any implication that a once-born man can share any of the
experience of a twice-born man, that the farmer can barely find an
opportunity to report that the cow is dead:
From the lower back position:
"Cows die in Rohini, Sir, they don't give milk.
Krishna requires ghee, you must give, and we-
yes, it is our duty, yes, I do admit it Sir-
must give ghee-no, it is not arrogance,
begging your pardon, Sir, that I disagreed-
I am a humble man, I remain in my place,
forgive me for denying you, I did not mean
to put ignorance before knowledge, Sir-
surely the slokas are right-it is a mere
matter of fact I came this way to tell you,
please, someone else must provide-
I cannot buy ghee, Sir, the cow is dead,
the well is dry; like you, we wait for rain-
Sorry, Sir, for comparing, please forgive."
Narrator: The Shudra, unlike many of his caste in his town, escapes
starvation because the Brahmin allows him to sell his son into bonded labor
to repay the debt of the cow, "leniently" allowing the debt to be increased
to cover the cost of rice and dhal for the Shudra family until the famine
8. The Grain in Ear (7 June, 1984)
Sept-Iles, Quebec, Canada: a Quebecois bush pilot:
Forty-one years later, at the time of the son's death, on the North shore
of the St. Lawrence, a Quebecois bush pilot who used to make his living
flying executives daily to the Knob Lake Iron Mine but now only gets
business flying them to lakes in Quebec and Labrador for fishing and moose
hunting, runs into an American in a bar. When someone plays a Leonard Cohen
song on the juke box, the pilot quotes a parallel verse from Villon, and is
surprised to find the American knows the poem. In the ensuing conversation,
the American asks him why he has stopped writing poetry. He closes his eyes,
leans back, and says:
Still from the lower back position:
"Two hundred forty years ago, coming from Halifax,
Sept Iles and Baie-Comeau were Acadia again. Ten years later
the Cajun swamps of Lake Pontchartrain got our kin,
the damned, to sing "Louisiana, the child that walks
just waits." Eight generations we knitted, fished, and loved.
Thirty years ago we boomed. Then Brian Mulroney,
our own native son, got the bright idea he could be P. M.
if he just shut Knob Lake Mine down and bought
cheap iron ore from Brazil, where people die digging.
Campaign contributions came in tens of millions.
I've always wished I'd known Goethe. If I had,
he'd have asked me to write him a verse about a town
without naming it. If I did my best, he couldn't have said
if it was Sept-Iles, a New Orleans drain, or Rio Doce.
I've got no more to say about local poetry."
Narrator: Canada at least has a working social security system to buffer the
impact of catastrophic economic change.
843 years before, an Anasazi woman had to leave her home in what is now
known as Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. A predatory wandering tribe that later
established themselves as the Aztecs in what is now Mexico City has been
attacking the settled Anasazis and sometimes devouring them. In a typical
propagandistic move, the Aztecs call the Anasazis "tzitzimime," "skeleton
people," the idea being that since they're really skeletons, they don't need
their flesh, so it's all right to eat them. Some Anasazi men have become so
demoralized that they too threaten cannibalism. The entire society has
disintegrated. The only hope is a guerilla fighter, Kokopelli, who helps
beleaguered women and children find refuge in the mountains. The apparently
hunch-backed figure of Kokopelli is carved on rocks throughout the American
Southwest, and is known as far south as the Andes as a flute-playing man
Spoken from bottom back:
9. The Summer Solstice (22 June, 1141)
Aztlan (now Chaco Canyon, New Mexico): an Anasazi woman:
"Only today dawn strikes our door. They call us tzitzimime
because they want to eat our hearts. At night Kachinas come
but cannot protect us. Though water flows through the sluices
I will not add my children's blood and tears. Their eyes
are worth more than these walls. We will follow Kokopelli.
He always keeps the needful on his back. The song
of his flute carries further than the hummingbird can fly.
By nemontemi of One Rabbit this place will be Mictlan."
Narrator: Nemontemi is the five-day intercalary period, when chaos breaks
out; One Rabbit is the last year of the 60 year cycle, due to arrive in
1142; Mictlan is the land of the dead.
10. The Slight Heat (6 July, 1286)
Carcassonne, France: Jean Galand:
The Spanish Inquisition began with the persecution of the Cathars, "The
Pure," a communal egalitarian group (at least in that it esteemed women),
disparagingly known in southern France as the "Bulgari," (whence "vulgar")
because their sect began in Bulgaria. The first prominent inquisitor in
Carcassonne, Jean Galand, eventually went too far even for the Catholic
hierarchy to back him against popular revulsion. But here, at the height of
his power, in mid-summer of 1286 he tries to extract a confession:
From the higher back position:
"You, Bulgari, your soul is a scar on the perfect face
of God. Look into His Face. See what you have done.
He who gave His Life for you weeps at the sight of you.
He hangs here even now in infinite sorrow and pain
seeing Satan has reached into your heart when you needed
only to cry out to Him, your Savior, who knows pain
you cannot imagine even now. I beseech you too,
cleanse yourself now, recant, go to your Maker pure,
beg His forgiveness before Satan drags you
into Misery Everlasting.
Is it not clear to you yet?
Pray that the weakness of your flesh is greater
than the hardness of your heart. Tell Christ now,
when did Satan seduce you? You need not fear,
He is waiting, and He Knows, you have only to confess.
Did you not realize that this frail vessel that snaps
at the mere turn of a wheel was but the bearer
of the infinitely precious Soul vouchsafed to you?
Hear his sword strike now to free you of your chains.
Hear Him plead for your salvation, hear His Love cry out.
For His sake, for the Love of God, abjure your sin, My Son."
11. The Great Heat, (July 21, 1848)
On board the brig Hope, near Lagos, now in Nigeria: Cornelius Driscoll:
If a priest can convince himself he is serving God by slowly torturing
people to death, how difficult was it for an Irish immigrant to persuade
himself that his tough bargaining practices were forced upon him because his
slave supplier plotted to cheat him? Talking to his First Mate off the coast
of Lagos, on board his brig "Hope," Cornelius Driscoll succeeds in rendering
the fate of the captives utterly irrelevant to himself by focussing totally
on his supplier:
From higher rear position:
"Get ready. He's Filatah. Styles himself Aladdin.
Blathers on about the Stagirite, got it from Averroes,
as if Grotius weren't good enough. Bargains over a hookah.
Says he can bring me anything. Can't say what language
he told me in. His Portuguese and Spanish are two peas in a pod,
his French is Limberger. He brings the Azanaghi, Ibo,
and Yoruba together-he'd rather lose a few than all-
then trades to mix in bucks of a dozen tongues.
Delivers Kabbazahs house courtesy, but if you take one,
he'll jack up by half the prices for Ham's poor bastards,
so keep your saltpeter dry. Might be of the Greek persuasion;
when I refused one he asked, "You like peonies?" and grinned.
He's canny; he'll pick up any flick of your eyes. Use bored
contempt. Pretend he's a fruit vendor. He'll try to sneak
his rotten apples into your barrel, so use your nose more
than your eyes. He's made some village someplace think
he's Napoleon himself by buggering guys like us."
Narrator: When he eventually returns to New York, Driscoll pays the routine
$1000 bribe to squelch all charges against himself and his crew. Like
hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other Yankees, he leaves in his
wake a legacy of collective guilt in collusion with slavery and murder.
12. The Autumn Begins (6 August, 1966)
Silver Pavilion, Kyoto, Japan: a monk and an American poet:
118 years later, during the height of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights
Movement, one American poet, feeling ashamed that he too bears some of that
guilt, and trying to understand and disentangle himself from it, is on leave
from a ship docked in Tokyo. He visits a monastery in Kyoto on the 21st
anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Perceiving his awkwardness, the
head monk, giving no sign of his own status, begins a conversation with in
English. More individuated than the young poet, the monk has no belief in
Monk in the higher front,
Poet in the lower front:
The Monk: "If you want to be
happy for one night, get drunk;
one week, marry; your
lifetime, be a gardener.
Wanderers see wayside grass."
The Poet: "Wayside grass is real,
not imaginary names
families dream in."
The Monk: "Families give names face. Face
is war, outside to inside."
The Poet: "Inside to outside
attention seeks quiet flow.
We hang from weak thread."
The Monk: "The thread is the silk of care.
Only care can strengthen it."
Narrator: The poet feels the monk has accepted him without accepting the
self-doubt he cherishes. .
13. The Limit of Heat (20 August, 1984)
YMCA Challenge Program, Dorchester, Massachusetts, USA: a head teacher:
In Boston, which is to the US what Kyoto is to Japan, the head teacher in a
lock-up hires a new teacher. She knows no teacher with academic expectations
can survive there. Knowing that nothing she can say can actually prepare him
for the world of intense confrontation he's entering, she nevertheless tries
to inform him that the only thing that will actually count in his work is
the creation of trust:
Speaker, from upper front:
"Yeah, these kids can teach you things."
wire mesh inside the windows stops thrown chairs
from the war inside from breaking glass. Her eyes open wide.
Speaker, from upper front:
"They want to too. Take Carlton. He never talked.
Took everything in. After he was here three months,
he found me alone. He told me how the social worker
took him from his mother when he was six. He cried.
His whole tactician mask dissolved. I got maternal.
A few months later he saw me trapped in a dilemma
and just said, "How does it feel to need?" He saw I understood.
Since then we've always been honest with each other."
14. The White Dew (6 September, 1737)
Nutimus' Town, Crown Colony of Pennsylvania (now USA): Papunehang:
In the settlement of the American colonies, the two men most trustworthy to
the Native Americans were Roger Williams and William Penn. Yet neither of
them were able to inspire their successors to keep their promises. In 1737
Penn's son, Thomas, forged a deed purporting to be 50 years old. The deed
claimed that the Delaware had ceded to Penn all of land a man could walk
around in one day. Thomas arranged for three men with horses to traverse the
boundary of the grant. At top speed they travelled 36 hours around the
southeast of Pennsylvania, circumscribing the homeland of the Delaware. John
Logan, the chief judge of Pennsylvania, ruled they had acted properly. A few
days later, Papunehang, a Delaware Sachem, spoke in tribal council:
From lower front:
"Lenni Lenape, the sweet grass bids me say, had we studied
the British tribe well before we dealt with Sachem Fenwick
we'd have known he was their stalking horse. They have no
longhouse, so they neither know nor care for each other, but
live alone in their hearts like bears and so threaten each other's
children and wives. Too childish to share, each one thinks
he needs his own land. They drive each other to the wall, and despair.
We thought Penn and Fenwick knew manitto, but we gave foothold
to their need to exclude. Penn's slavish father murdered Spaniards
for rum and black slaves only because a bigger Sachem wanted them.
The British prevent their wise women from choosing their Sachems.
Instead they conspire against women, value them at less wampum,
keep them like the slaves even Penn kept, and will not let them
set catchers for the childrens' evil dreams or teach the children visions.
So Penn and Hannah did not know how to raise their own son.
This is why Penn's men, his fraud son Thomas, and puffed-up Logan
cheat us, using three men and horse for what one man must walk."
Narrator: Forced onto Iroquois territory, a few years later Papunehang and
his group were killed by Iroquois raiders. Though for more than 3 centuries
White settlers talked continuously of Native American depredations,
historical record shows that, with exceedingly rare exceptions like Little
Big Horn, loss of White life was virtually nil. The purpose of the talk was
to justify the extermination of Native Americans. By September 11, 2001,
more than 10 years of embargo and bombing had impressed a similar lesson on
15. The Autumn Equinox (23 September, 2001)
Baghdad, Iraq: a high school teacher of mechanical drafting:
Twelve days after September 11, a 40-year-old mechanical drawing teacher in
a Baghdad high school sits with friends in a tea shop talking about Bush's
use of the word "crusade." He tires of political talk, closes his eyes, and
a decade of images pass through his mind:
Spoken from lower back position:
"Here we knew the Twin Towers would fall on us too. Already
umber sewage swamps streets as if awaiting mangrove seedlings.
Staccato sprays of ochre water spurt from pipes like projectile vomiting.
Synthetic diamond needles stick in grooves on 45 disks of military marches.
Dead phones fail to dial themselves through wire loops tangled on scorched
Concrete chunks hang on reinforcement rods from smashed shelter ceilings,
crippled teenagers clinging to exhausted parents.
A truck tire projects on an axle toward a universal joint,
a lecturer's staff pointing at a remembered blackboard diagram.
Craters are zeros aligned in tic-tac-toe winning triplets across runways.
Midspans of bridges jut above lapping waves, broken legs licked by old brown
Train tracks swing sideways in woozy loops, the circling shadows of
Diarrhea shrivels babies too dried out to cry for soft clean cloths,
their mothers whisper to doctors with empty black bags, then wail.
Measles blotch children's cheeks, chickenpox, and again smallpox pock them,
zinc-white calamine, like baklava crust, flakes off soft pink skin swelling
Teachers thumb magazines in front of blank grey television screens
waiting for the principal to call while wives water down tea and scrape
Coffin carpenters order lumber from idle sawmills, generators melted by
Grave diggers trade shovels, the tinker turns the peddle of his emery wheel,
Sparks fly like white phosphorous, but harmless, except to on-looking eyes-
that know not to look up in the Thousand and One Nights of Stealth."
16. The Cold Dew (8 October, 2001)
Watson Research Labs, Yorktown Heights, New York, USA: an IBMer:
Soon afterwards, in New York, an IBM researcher too brilliant even for 15
years of downsizing to have touched, unaccountably finds himself beginning
to panic. Not knowing whether it is the WTC crashes, Bush's response, hints
he hears in the voices of managers, or his deteriorating relationship with
his wife, he believes he's about to be manoeuvred out of work. Late at night
he writes this on his laptop:
Spoken from higher back position:
"Somebody had to not be afraid of Big Blue.
Watson downsized in 85 leaving only PhD's,
trouble shooters shifted to Stamford to help Sales,
in 90 more support staff, in 96, secretaries..
Gates is untouchable, better than Morgan Guarantee.
World income grows at 1.1%, his at 34.27. By 2032
their projected lines will cross. Tiberius pales
before him, Wang wanks, Big Blue turns chartreuse.
I'm going to send him an email now: how's this:
"Aladdin, rub your lamp. Hire me. I made the first
nanotechnological electron photomicrograph.
I'm pissed at your competitors. I can make you
a god, every screen a shrine. Your devout flock
will be watched around the clock. Poor Bill Hearst
had to hide in Hart's Island, but you'll get the last laugh.
I'll bring you patents that will put the world in hock."
Narrator: The IBMer is, of course, far too late to apply to Microsoft. Gates
had concluded nearly a decade earlier that any IBM researcher with a daring
imagination had already left, and was not vulnerable to the delusions of
grandeur the researcher attributed to him.
17. The Hoar Frost Descends (23 October, 237 B.C.)
Pataliputra, Bharat (now Patna, Bihar, India): Ashoka:
Twenty-two centuries earlier, coming too late on knowledge had a different
impact on a man of genuine authority, Ashoka, the last of the effective
Mauryan emperors. After conquering the Kalingas, he toured their prostrate
kingdom. He was so stricken with remorse for the violence he'd unleashed
that he converted to Buddhism, became a pacifist, and spent the rest of his
life ruling as non-violently as possible and spreading Buddhism, even as far
as Sri Lanka. In his last year he said:
From top front:
"What little effort I make-what is it for?-that I may be free
from debt to the creatures. The Kalingas taught me this
as though they took the heart from my body. The Sangha taught me
only how to try to put it back. That I am beloved of the gods
shows me only their mercy, for the Sakyas bore a king
who did not need a lesson like mine. For him knowing that
old age, disease, and death existed was enough, but for me,
I had to be the cause of agony for lakhs of innocents. When
it was already known, why was my real duty not taught to me?
I was a terror even to my own brothers: this was the guidance
we Mauryas gave each other. Our sovereignty was murder.
But still I have not done what I needed to be done for me."
Narrator: Attacked from many sides, the Mauryan Empire collapsed shortly
after Ashoka's death.
18. The Winter Begins (7 November, 1588)
London, Britain (now United Kingdom): Frances Drake:
Building an empire requires an entirely different breed of certitude. In
1588 Frances Drake destroyed the ability of the Spanish Armada to challenge
Britain. Elizabeth duly rewarded him. Feeling himself on a permanently
rising tide of power, Drake felt that God was in his heaven and all was
right with the world. The apparent order of the world was then expressed as
"The Great Chain of Being." I imagine Drake one night deciding to write his
conception of it in a sonnet:
Spoken from upper back:
"Her Majesty wants men of sundry deeds:
philosophers to prove why God rehearsed
the world in measures fit to Kingdom's needs;
poets to convert court gossip into verse
so groundlings can learn whom to love the most;
the armless men for carts too small for horse;
the legless to teach Service in one's Post;
the dull to show why Duty bows to force,
Knowledge being weak, stripped of Noble frame;
the blind to prove the Good let others lead;
the mad to know God's Justice fixes blame
in sinners' souls when they conceal their deed.
Wherefore let fractious villains, cloaked in stealth,
be pounded to mummy to restore Her health."
Narrator: Drake knew the sonnet was not presentable. He did not invest his
ego in poetic accomplishment, so he threw it away and went to sleep, never
to think of it again.
19. The Little Snow (22 November, 1963)
Plymouth Whitemarsh Township High School, Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania,
USA: a ninth grade student:
375 years later a high school freshman tried to write his first sonnet, but
he got it backwards, using ten lines of fourteen syllables each. It was the
night JFK was assassinated, and it had been a rough week. He'd seen his
first corpse, and a girl in his class had been "gang-banged" after Saturday'
s football game. Writing let him get a little distance from it all:
Spoken from the lower front position:
"Last assembly, Mr. Marlowe said we were all disgraced.
After the game the football team destroyed something precious
Dale had. Her Dad came to see him say the right thing to us.
This was different. This time Kennedy was being replaced
by Johnson because he'd been shot in the head. That snotty
Beth ran around screaming "Oh my God! What will Jackie do?"
Her Mom had had tea with Jackie, and they were best friends too.
A bum died. Dead leaves covered him. Dogs smelled out his body.
They say even all Tokyo cries now. Everyone is sure
they love people-but they mean those who give them a future."
Narrator: If we only love those who give us a future, we don't love those
who most need love. This doesn't bother many people who run the world, who,
if they know of Ashoka, think he proved the unviability of a non-violent
order just as they think the demise of the Soviet Union proved the
unviability of socialism.
20. The Heavy Snow (7 December, 1949)
Huntington, Long Island, New York, USA: Henry Stimson:
FDR appointed Henry Stimson Secretary of War in 1940 because Stimson was the
leading member of The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies.
Stimson's diary for November 30, 1941, actually says, "Now all they have to
do is take the bait." Eight years later, at the age of 82, in his home in
Huntington, Long Island, Stimson is writing his autobiography, On Active
Service in Peace and War, when he looks back at that page:
Spoken from higher back position:
"In 41 Churchill told Franklin the Neutrality Law
could go the way of the munitions on the Lusitania.
Carriers made battleships and cruisers obsolete.
We ordered the carriers out of Pearl. My diary says,
"Now all they have to do is take the bait."
When the line pulled, I struck Kyoto off the target list.
Nice place. Uncle Joe never mentioned the bomb
at Yalta so we signalled him from Hiroshima.
At Bretton Woods we pinned the money down
while he couldn't talk, a fait accompli; so tacking on the UN
for cover was easy. That young fella Nixon says we can bypass
the whole labor caboodle by shipping plants abroad
and taking profits out through currency exchange
once things settle down. Commies from Manila to Managua
will be pissed because our unions won't support them,
but they never get their act together as fast as we can."
21. The Winter Solstice (21 December, 2002)
Glasgow, Scotland, UK: an American academic:
It is easier for the middle class to escape from cynicism than for the upper
class because the middle class never ultimately succeeds in its most
oppressive intentions, so the futility of its cruelties becomes evident. An
American academic comes to terms with his life by going to live in India,
where he learns how American he is. In a country where ascribed status
overwhelms achieved status, he comes to perceive ethnicity as Indians
perceive caste. He entirely despises empire, yet he finds himself a pawn of
it because decades of CIA activity have made the Indian Home Ministry so
suspicious of any American who wants to stay in India that it deports him.
He goes to Scotland because he'll experience less culture shock there than
in the US. There he finds himself bound to the lower class Scots some of his
emigrating ancestors left behind. He speaks in his imagination to his former
Spoken from top front:
"The grey-suited WASP horde, feeding paternal will
to conquer, drove me through confused explorations
of aspirations to mate, first with a girl affecting
British accent, then with one from a Samurai family,
then a genius from Vienna, in my sad Cook's Tour of
Weiblichkeit, before the gist of my father's goals began
to dawn on me. Only frequent defeat made me aware
of my Redneck, Canuck, Kraut, and Mick forebears. I married
a Polish French Midwesterner to share ambitions,
but competition supplants affection. Slow soft nudging
at the doors of my heart opened them to my Italian love.
The heart, I learned, hates ambition. Her death brought agony
but no regret. A Latino woman propped me up, then
I left that Rome that stole my soul. A Madiga home
taught me what my ancestors knew.
I come back now to find
my Sutpen, Snopes, and McCaslin cousins, going by
presumed names, littered on sidewalks, in algid pea-green flats,
under Home Relief blankets, cut out of the competition
by the likes of my family, as we'd been cut out of Europe,
as Wall Street cuts out everyone to make investors fat.
My Ithaca's 10,000 years back, too far to find; my Penelope
has long forgotten me, yet I'm no worse off than you."
22. The Little Cold (5 January, 1613).
Kanazawa, Ishikawa-ken, Nihon (Japan): a silk weaver:
The cruelties of empire do not need great geographic scope to flourish. The
Tokugawa Shogunate consolidated power in 1603, immediately commanding that
all Samurai (7% of the population) carry two swords and that no one else
bear any weapon. The Shogunate then monopolized economic power by commanding
that the entire rice harvest be brought to local Daimyos as tax and
redistributed as stipends so that anyone who did not please the Daimyos
could not eat. To monopolize social power, the Shogunate commanded that all
families be incorporated in the "gonan gumi," or "five-family" system. That
system required that each family report any breach by any of four other
families of an elaborate etiquette of status on the premise that a faux pas
indicated disloyalty. In Kanazawa the Maeda Daimyos used the system to
enrich themselves by gathering as many silk weavers, goldsmiths, and
jewellers as possible. Here a weaver prides himself on the correctness of
his treatment of his daughter-in-law:
Spoken from higher rear position:
"Rice is tax and stipend. Fearful daimyos seek rice
to pay their samurai. Their farmers must be frugal
or face twin swords. The clever Maeda want gold and silk.
All our five families weave. We must maintain our place.
Warmed by the brazier, household heads discuss fates.
Kneeling women seek to pour tea the moment before
thirst arises; a bad wife lets her husband feel thirst.
Women entreat, apologize, implore, and distract,
but we are not diverted long. The sense is among us
of how we must act. Going her own way, my son's wife
lost his first child, embarrassing us all by running,
acting like a farmer's girl, falling down, unable even
to keep her own feet in order. Will our drawlooms
in twenty years be idle when samurai come? We refuse
to let her serve us. In the corridor she weeps.
But my son's mind moves steadily as the shuttle.
I need not fear, our spirit will find another birth.
If she learns, we will keep her. How can she learn
unless we treat her like Eta? She must know tea
can be poured without her. Weavers too have face."
Narrator: Frozen out, the young wife, candid, cheerful, and affectionate, is
now on her way to becoming a resentful and embittered woman void of
spontaneity, full of secrets, and given to gossip. At the bottom of the
social ladder, she has no hope of reprieve, and, as she ages, can only take
her anger out on her children and, much later, on servants.
23. The Severe Cold (20 January, 1972)
VA Hospital, Phoenix, Arizona, USA: a Vietnam veteran:
But even long-term rigid oppression is subject to break-down when its
victims face the daily threat of death. A Black GI returns from Vietnam at
the height of the counter-culture movement. He has enough cash to spend
months roving around the country with veteran friends, taking drugs and
chilling out, relieved he's still alive. But, while sharing an acid trip,
one of his friends becomes convinced he's having a fit of paranoia and has
him taken to a V.A. hospital. The shrink has seen this before, and is
beginning to call it "post-traumatic stress syndrome." The vet talks to his
shrink, at first trustfully, then building into a rage:
Spoken from bottom front:
".that shit was good, Doc. So we get the munchies. This dude
I know from Nam is eating chips talking Anasazis this
and Anastasis that. Then he calls me a shit. I know he means
he wants to eat me to turn me into one. I keep seeing his teeth.
He says he sees my brain. Just now Nixon comes on T.V.
I see his teeth. It's the same thing, Man. That's why I scream.
It shakes people up so they laugh. They show their teeth.
Same damned thing. You don't want me to upset the ward?
The Aztecs made buildings out of skulls. You're no different.
You change and I will. Look in the mirror, Man. Tell me what you see.
You hoard all the money so nobody can do anything without you.
The Frogs enslave the Vietnamese. They try to get free.
You want to keep them enslaved. You use your own old slaves.
You don't let us work and treat us like dirt so just to eat
we'll kill Vietcong. If we try to free ourselves you stick us in here
and gum up our brains with thorazine chains. You a slave trader Man."
Narrator: Because he is shaken, the analyst realizes he cannot use the Vet's
state of mind to discount the accusations entirely. In a society whose
facile egalitarian social doctrine has entirely obscured the nature of
economic class and political oppression, oppression is conceived as a matter
of social history and style. But to sort out such matters requires
detachment from the power system as a whole. This the analyst's employment
prevents him from doing.
24. The Spring Begins (15 February, 1985)
The Boston Public Library, Boston, Massachusetts, USA: a homeless man:
To extract one's commitment from the system of oppression is not an
intellectual, but an emotional task. The life of a middle-class man, who in
the 1960's was much like the toy salesman we met at tax time, fell apart in
the last '70's. By 1985 he has completely lost the desire to return to his
old way of life and prefers the company of his fellow homeless people to the
family, neighbors, and associates he used to have. Down-and-outers respect
him. He's called "Mr. Coffee" because he's always willing to share a cup
with anyone who wants to talk to him. He sits on the steps of the Boston
Spoken from top front:
"You like the library too? It's warm today. Sun's out.
Look down the street. I was one of them. Rushing for cabs.
Being on time. Sizing things up. Had a family.
Wife. Dog. Kids. House. Car. Seemed o.k. All gone now.
Wife hooked up with another guy. Kids like those people.
She kept the house. Smashed the car. The dog?
Don't know about the dog. And she was better
than the rest of them. We keep track of the wrong things.
Guess it's because we love the wrong things.
Look at them all. They love the wrong people."
Narrator: If we were willing to love those who need love, and could allow
ourselves to receive it, peace would be possible. Beauty can still arise to
make us aspire toward the reconciling ideals of truth and goodness that
would make justice possible. But peace depends on justice, and justice on
the actuality of truth and goodness, not their mere presence in our minds as
ideals. So long as we impoverish, suppress, and humiliate others in pursuit
of wealth, power, and esteem, peace can only be momentary.
For the understanding of power relationships this poem dramatizes, see
"Differential Social Power" on this site.
- Richard Z. Duffee