They'll chew you up
and spit you out, said Mother,
Mother said, but she was dead
before she saw the first red marks,
where the teeth bit deepest.
Praise God she never knew
that it would become patriotic
for quixotic Americans
to turn against their comet of a man
until, like wolves in dove's clothing,
they ran him down
on the steps of a white house,
the front door like that plywood door
of Reata Ranch in Giant,
opening on nothing,
though you all call it president.
In ancient times, a pharaoh
might sacrifice himself,
might through the shedding of his blood
save his subjects from drought,
disease, and other forms of tragedy,
until the ritual became
simply strapping on a panther's tail,
a symbol of renewal,
so when my falling came,
I pulled on my handlasted boots,
my spurs, Stetson,
chaps, and six-gun
and with a thunderclap
chose to ride the range
where only thorny, yellow roses grow
upon the once and future fruited plain.
Historians say that toward the end
I disengaged, even staged
my own tumble from the precipice called Vietnam.
I called her name in my sleep,
the black-haired bitch
who kept her knees together.
Whether I cursed, cried, or begged
she denied me,
and even when tied down and spread-legged,
she gave me no pleasure.
Defeat was the only treasure buried there.
Three days, I lay in Gallup's cave,
until the stonehearted populace rolled back
and I was saved by a cowboy all in black.
He gave me tobacco, hardtack,
two packhorses, and a map
and said, retrace your life,
and everywhere I set my feet,
my own face looked up at me
without a trace of recognition,
and only when I camped on the banks of this Mekong
of the mind did I find
I had not been erased.
Now I sit before the fire.
I swap tales with myself and sing
of herding human cattle endlessly
across the borders wars can always penetrate
but never quite make disappear,
while those who suffer fear, poverty,
race and class hate
are still outside barbed wire fences, iron gates,
anyplace but beside us at the table,
eating off our spotless plates.
I tried to change that
but could not break the locks
that kept me in the magic circle
known as the sovereign state.
My Great Society cavalry arrived too late
to deliver me from the calvary I had created
and only one man waited
at the foot of my rugged cross.
As I climbed down,
Bobby by caught the dice I threw him,
blew on them twice,
tossed them, and said, "Luck o' the Irish."
Before they hit the ground, his heart exploded
and showered silver coins instead of blood,
yet cost me all a second time,
for martyrs never lose.
Blame my gradual disintegration
on intellectuals too,
ungrateful Negroes and the poor,
all beating at the door, until I bade them enter,
then found myself at epicenter of an earthquake
that still shakes the foundations of this country,
because in my wake came Nixon's Watergate
and later the final betrayal of FDR's New Deal,
the ideology which now and then
to accommodate the latest twists and turns
of their crooked highways.
But I know you'll cry
who am I to condemn,
who am I to say what price should be paid
to win and not.
If somehow the ends got mixed up with the means,
well, that's not communism, that's democracy,
that's the thin red line
between the white and blue.
I hope to God that will save you
from the politician's stew
of promises impossible to keep,
but me, I'm having barbecued spareribs
this Fourth of July, 1989,
pinto beans, corn on the cob.
At last I want to celebrate the brief time
inside the walls of Camelot
when I was king of comedy,
before I abdicated.
The Collected Poems of Ai
W. W. Norton