Theme: The Greek letter Pi
The Body and Its Desires
For Matthew Arnold
The gods consume nectar and ambrosia on Olympus
and amuse themselves by looking down on us
dispassionately. Cool detachment is a sardonic business.
Hellenism insists we see things as they are.
For right thinking, the body and its desires are a barrier;
we are cautioned to keep the mind completely clear.
Hebraism counters that the body and its desires
are a barrier to right action. The Lord requires
clarity of thought chastened by strictness of conscience.
The principal rubric of the Law is studied obedience
to the will of God. The Lord has a vertical presence—
aloof except to chastise with corrective fires.
In the time it takes a Sierra redwood in the ageing
of two thousand rings, many gods have come
and gone in the public square. Further, we become
weary of our own fungible ground of being—
the dreary march of certainties by which we cling—
as we amble toward the dust from which we came.
More crucial over the years than definitions of the divine
are behavioral tendencies toward either thought
or action when it comes to the body and its desires.
The tension between Hellenism and Hebraism defines
every age, and will continue, like it or not,
to shape our every outcome of action or thought.
Herod the Great
A popular belief was abroad in the kingdom of Judea.
Scholars concluded that seventy-six generations
had passed since the Creation, and that the next,
the seventy-seventh, would gift to Israel the Messiah
who was destined to deliver the nation from foreign rule.
A child born in Bethlehem would be the king
of the Jews—as foretold by the prophet Micah.
The Magi spoke these words to Herod the Great.
Herod was frightened, but he feigned excitement.
He said to the Magi, “Go and search diligently
for the child; and when you find him, bring me word
so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
At the time, he was terminally ill with a hideous disease.
His career was one with many bold accomplishments;
it was also one of cruelty, vengeance, and paranoia,
traits in overdrive at the time of the birth of Jesus.
Herod was thoroughly Roman in murdering each
and every rival to his rule, including his wife
and three of his sons. He murdered hundreds more
real and perceived enemies in his final years
as he assured his lasting legacy in the line of succession.
In the end, nothing happened to the child of Bethlehem.
No one mourned for Herod, a converted Jew—
the son of an Edomite father and an Arab mother—
who did the dirty work for the hated Roman state.
“I love you and I will always be faithful to you.”
No doubt he meant it on the day and the year of the postmark.
So little time from moon to rising moon;
in his need for novelty, the eye was wandering by noon.
What is the harm, he reasoned, as he kindled a spark
by texting the identical promise to someone new.
July 15 to August 3, 1966
I entered the fictive Mall of Great Accomplishments
clutching my youth like a lottery payoff
ready to spend my years,
but there was a war going on at the time
and I needed a good place to hide.
I signed up for Officer Candidate School.
Better than being an Army private.
Fourteen months removed from the Berkeley campus
with its Free Speech Movement
and the daily rallies between Sproul Hall
and the Student Union Building,
I was stationed on an 888-foot aircraft carrier
with an admiral and a Marine general onboard.
I got to work in air-conditioned spaces
as the division officer of the radio gang.
The ride was comfortable even in a typhoon.
“If I am going to be in a war, this is a good place to be,”
I thought to myself.
Chief Van Gee managed the 42 radiomen.
I was smart enough to let him run the show.
My job was to process all the messages
that came through Main Comm.
I was there to shuffle papers.
Serving on the ship was my first real job.
The USS Princeton was a smooth operation,
a well-oiled machine.
I grew up on Dad’s stories about the FUBAR Navy
of World War II; it was nothing like that!
We entered the combat zone on July 15th.
On that day, I wore my dog tags
for the first time in months.
In case I was killed, someone could wedge the tags
between my teeth to identify my body.
Starting on day 2, I never wore my tags again.
I put them away in my Instant Ensign kit.
I was safe.
Princeton was business as usual
at the start of Operation Hastings.
But soon the real war came to the ship.
The Princeton’s team of doctors
cared for the wounded Marines.
Hueys bearing the bodies of the dead and wounded
were landing on the flight deck at all hours.
The wounded were rushed to surgery.
The dead were zipped into body bags
to be lined like cordwood on the hangar deck.
The reports of the Marines killed in action
and wounded in action trickled in at first.
Days went by without reports.
Near the end of July,
Radioman Second Class D.L. Crowley dropped
a 2-inch stack of papers on my desk:
the KIA reports for over 100 Marines.
Each red-blooded Marine was reduced
to numbers and letters on a page:
country (South Vietnam)
province (I Corps)
date of birth
I remember thinking, “Each of these young men has a mother.”
I was the intelligence officer for ship’s company.
I read the after-action reports that claimed
the NVA was pushed back to North Vietnam,
but later I learned that was not true.
The NVA continued to move around in I Corps.
The brass put a positive gloss on Operation Hastings.
What did I learn from this?
War is about killing people and blowing things up.
As a Rose Unfolds Itself
For my daughter
Stunned to hear your marriage is falling apart,
I look to see you sad, defeated, but no!
You are energized—fired up and ready to go.
The unencumbered life gladdens your heart.
As a rose unfolds itself,
there is always an exact time
when beauty is most compelling.
For you, that time is now.
I wrote these lines when you were twenty-one.
Society believes that beauty will have its say
briefly before a long denouement of decay.
Wrong. The unfolding of beauty is never done.
Unlike the athlete whose turn on the stage is short,
beauty draws from character to counter age.
A woman’s poise and wisdom keep the page
from turning; they keep the book from snapping shut.
Character powers the engine that drives the train
along a set of tracks uniquely yours.
This time belongs to you. Enjoy the years
to come as your own master of heart and brain.
Theme: Letting go
Without a Thought
without a thought,
the neighbor’s backyard
~ W.J. Higginson
Without a thought
the sea-green rhododendron
suddenly sprouts pink blossoms
in the emeraldness of May.
Hot pink fronts the green
until the gardener snips
the summer-roasted buds.
It’s a show for the higher brain.
Plants don’t know
the meaning of words
like pink and green
or note the nanosecond
when spring arrives
or understand the importance
of timely pruning.
The rhody does its thing
without a thought.
Without a thought,
the sweltering sun ambles across
Seattle’s cloudless sky
like a super slow-mo
on the silent strip overhead.
Do you like the classics?
Apollo’s wingéd car
cleaves the Ionian dome.
Still, our clueless star
knows nothing whatsoever
of chariots or charioteers,
ancient or modern.
It does its daily thing
without a thought.
Without a thought,
the uncarved block reveals itself
to the carver.
The carver, a thinker,
is keen to see
into the true nature
of the uncarved block,
though truth can only be known
without a thought.
That annoying pedagogue consciousness
is chased away
and carver and wood are one.
Carving starts when thinking stops;
thinking stops when carving starts.
and only this
without a thought.
Their lyrics sealed the promise
of August of ’59,
There goes my baby
movin’ on down the line.
I had a brown-eyed sweetheart
when I was seventeen.
Our worlds were far apart
and the Drifters fell between.
The mournful whine is silent;
the booming drum is dead;
the song has lost its power
except inside my head.
Would I be very different
from others turning gray
who marry good companions
and never rue the day
when I riffle through my files
where the dead events belong
and turn aside discretely
to touch a treasured song?