A Selection of poems from
The History Editor

The Fifth Crusade
The Course of Empire
Lincoln and Shakespeare
A Life
A Textbook Case
The Leisure of the Theory Class


The Fifth Crusade

Pope Innocent III, who thought man
but spit, piss, and dung,
who coined the phrase persona ficta
for Christendom,
sanctioned the pilgrimage to Palestine
after condemning Magna Carta.

The crusaders reached the Fertile Crescent
late in May, 1218. In August, Saint Francis
preached to them. They took Damietta
in November. They were in no hurry.
Five years passed.

They kept expecting
Frederick II, King of the Romans,
to come to their aid. He had said he would;
he had promised Innocent;
but he was busy with his astrologer.

When the Sultan ordered the sluice gates of the Nile
opened on the pilgrims, they were nostalgic.
They’d had enough. They were trying to go home.
When the Muslims attacked,
the Christians were drunk and confused.

They staggered into the bulrushes in the dark,
coughing on the smoke of tents and flesh and loot.
They stumbled like pelicans into their ships’
remnants, and sank; or they snored,
dreaming, as the infidels cut their throats.

Some say they were trapped by the river
and the devil; some, by their own emperor.
Others say they died for the plunder.

But then, we know what it’s like
not to want to leave the wine
in the land of those who don’t drink it.



The Course of Empire

Catholic-wise and back and forth
they go between rejections,
cursing their eternal promise,
drunk as Jesus, these Italians,
these poor Italians. They move
from bella this to brutta that—
la musica, la gente—
in this inferno culturale, America.

They come to be inside you, New York.
Turin’s a grid, Milan’s too German;
Rome was never good enough,
Venice drowns and stinks;
Florence is full of Americans.

Tired of being left behind,
proprio qui is a promise
they mean to keep: New York!
Ma qui, the crushed peppers—
non sono buoni per fare
una putanesca buona,
and the oil’s imported
(probably Spanish)
and the pasta’s disgusting.

Independence loses its savor.
We know. And some horses
(remember Abyssinia)
will not be managed
after the smiling mode
of Castiglione.

But you were in Urbino then,
carving out the great future behind us;
now you come to claim
what our pure youth
took from Africa and Vespucci,
your imperial city-states,
your virgin Machiavelli.



Lincoln and Shakespeare

Our unsung heroes are better off unsung.
If you look at them in the latest book
concerning Lincoln’s last twenty-four hours,
you see them scruffy, unkempt,
their dull black hair matted down.
Tied at the neck with those ties
Lincoln himself never cared to make
appear tied, Nicolay and Hay, his biographers,
look like they’ve already spent at least
another third of Lincoln’s life
writing that life—even as, his secretaries,
they’re lean and hungry as Cassius.

None has a hairline full of hope:
not Speed, not Colfax, not Stanton
(his beard bigger than his head,
his eyes bigger than his spectacles)—
not Gideon Welles, who’s fixing
the anecdotes of a presidential age.
William Seward’s profile drowns
in a chinless, stiff-lipped sea.

Grant alone is groomed, but uncomfortable.
One of the sung, he doesn’t know what to do
with his hands, now that the war’s over.
One wants to rest in a deep pocket,
the other, to strip the uniform jacket.
Cross-eyed, pained, severe, Mrs. Grant
doesn’t want the President to attend the theater,
and Mrs. Lincoln wears her black bonnet
like a winter of discontent.

Her husband knows that speech by heart,
how glorious summers are made.
He thinks it doesn’t matter how well or ill
Shakespeare is acted, “since with that writer
the thought suffices.” And where thought’s
concerned, Lincoln prefers in Hamlet the brother’s
“O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven”
to the nephew’s more famous soliloquy.

“A comedy is best played; a tragedy is best read at home,”
he wrote, and never applauded with his hands, though he always
waited for the farce that followed the main event, and laughed.



A Life

Disposed to like it when I began,
I found it in the end an also-ran.
For being so long, it’s far too bitty.
Inside every good book is a shitty.



A Textbook Case

The history editor pukes in the urinal
every day at lunch, then brushes his teeth
and hair. The tongue of his belt hangs out,

the sloven. He speaks at volume
but never at length, and saves his vacation
(sixty days and running) against the day when—

but all thinking is fuzzy, isn’t it?
How clarity got to be a modern virtue,
why there are no degrees of uniqueness,

what word isn’t equivocal.
Love is the main force.
And narrative won’t clear it up.

And the thinker will speak very patiently,
and very slowly, often saying things
depressing, boring, off the wall;

but “mail carrier” is better than “letter carrier,”
isn’t it, and one comes down in the end
against the semicolon, for continuity’s sake.



The Leisure of the Theory Class

There went Professor Veblen,
the last man who knew everything—
the high gloss on a patent-leather shoe,
the same high gloss on a thread-bare sleeve,
twenty-six languages.

He did his dishes with the hose.
He gave everything a C.

He went to his wife’s house in the woods
with a black stocking in his hand.
When she answered the door, he said,
“Does this garment belong to you, Madam?”





Paperback: 86 pages
Publisher: Lumen Books
(June 1, 2007)
ISBN: 0930829646


Paperback: 86 pages
New Issues Pr
Poetry Series
ISBN: 0932826911

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