Here is the 26th poem in my 52-poem sequence (one a week) for 2013, followed by some illumination and reflection:
Wake up America, to Rodney King and the LA riots, to the trial of OJ Simpson, racial discord.
Wake up, walk up the Las Vegas strip, rent a room inside a pyramid, watch cabs roll up under a concrete sphinx, get welcomed by a talking robotic camel. Wake up to sixty channels of shit and conclude that this is a nation of children.
Walk around, take the wrong turn in San Francisco, find yourself in Tenderloin, the Civic Centre: like a scene from Batman. Cripples, “punks”, society’s outcasts are all colour-coded black for ease of alienation. Here is the Town Hall and the Municipal Library boarded up and their public gardens peopled by disfigured monsters. The very heart of town given up to the undead. Don’t drive there, don’t think about there. Keep smiling and having nice days, thank you, you’re welcome.
Look at the Prairie dolls houses in a shop window: each one the height of a man. The American Dream in perfect miniature. Or the Christmas villages on display in the big department stores: with tiny skating figures circling on winter ponds, as tiny lights flicker on and off around tiny plastic inns and plastic shops.
Look at the people sleeping rough in the rain in every doorway on Sutter Street. Woody Guthrie’s music still ringing in your ears long after the Great Depression: Buddy can you spare a dime?
The dime has two faces. I see in my mind’s eye: a tramp sleeping inside a doll’s house in a shop window at night. America’s dream and nightmare cancel each other out. Short circuit. Neutrality reigns and the tyranny of ordinary life continues. Clark Kent turns up his collar in Metropolis and heads home late and tired. Paranoid now, seeing an analyst twice a week, he steers clear of telephone boxes…
(first published in Sein Und Werden Magazine October 2012)
In November 1997, Rona and I were booked up for a two week holiday in Luxor, Egypt, somewhere Rona had always wanted to visit. Less than a week before we were due to fly out, the appalling “Luxor Massacre” took place, in which 62 innocent tourists were murdered with automatic weapons and machetes, including a five-year-old British child and four Japanese couples on their honeymoons. Quite literally, this could have been us, had it happened a few days later.
Tourism, and travel generally, are a force for good in our world, in that they counteract xenophobia and propagate cultural exchange and understanding. One can scarcely imagine any softer target, nor anything more evil than such a crime. Sadly, I’ve not tried to visit Egypt since, and probably never will. Perhaps subconsciously, I feel that one close shave is enough. The event coloured my view of tourism, in that I would hate to be hated in that way by anyone, even religious madmen disowned by their countrymen. I take some comfort from wikipedia’s verdict that the event was a disaster for the militant groups involved, in that it united sane Egyptians against them.
Our tour company kindly offered to change our holiday for free to anywhere else in the world, at short notice. We could even have gone to Australia. We opted to fly to Las Vegas instead, and then get an internal flight over to San Francisco, my first, and so far my only, visit to America. It was fantastic, despite the socially-critical tone of my poem/prose piece above. But hey, that’s just me, always griping away! It’s interesting to reflect that this was a “pre-9/11” America I was critiquing. As I remarked to a historically-dressed lady of the American equivalent of the National Trust as she ushered me into a landmark house in San Francisco: “I think this is a great idea for a country”. Her question had been what did I think of America, and I think I gave her a bit more than she was bargaining for. My point was that America has some wonderful ideals in its written constitution (Britain, nor Scotland, have any written constitution of that kind) about the unity and freedom of all humanity regardless of race and background, but the reality on the streets for a lot of people is a shameful travesty of those principles. America is still not over slavery, in my opinion, and that sin leaves a long shadow that stretches into the present. But Britain made itself rich on the slave trade, and the Scots played a full part in that disgrace, so I am neither smug nor complacent on the issue. History stinks for all of us. Or as James Joyce has one of his characters remark in Ulysses: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake up.” Here, here. And as Leonard Cohen sings optimistically: “Democracy is coming, to the USA.”
Anyway, to end on a more up-beat note, I have included images of three paintings by an artist I discovered in San Francisco: Stephen Hopkins. I think there’s more to these than meet the eye. The detail with which he records what most of us regard as the boring everyday, raises it to the level of something beautiful and revelatory. In that respect, one might even see him as a natural successor to Edward Hopper. Some of Robert Cottingham‘s work is also worth checking out, in a similar vein.