This is an updated and expanded version of a post I put up recently on my tumblr.
"Easter 2003", is not a good poem, but it was an important one to me. It was written in the desert outside Tucson that year, during our annual Easter trip out west to the Yaqui Holy Week ceremonies.
As I moved away from my Christian upbringing, the last few vestiges of spectacle that maintained any psychic hold on me resided entirely in the Easter season, from Ash Wednesday ("The Existentialist's Holiday"; also the last church service I attended completely of my own volition) to the Holy Week. Matt, another lapsed Catholic, had encountered stories of the Yaqui Easter ceremonies out in the west; and, with Tony along for the ride, started making annual Easter pilgrimages out to Tucson. I started tagging along occasionally not too long after. It became a more or less annual trip for the posse.
Ten years ago, on a Tuesday, I piled into a rented Impala with Matt and Tony to drive straight through from Louisville out to Tucson with the ostensible purpose of hanging out at those Yaqui ceremonies. After driving through the afternoon and night and ending up in
Mexico, by the light of the rising sun, I picked up a paper to
find that the US had invaded
We had, of course, seen this coming, but things are very different when
there are "boots on the ground" . . . i.e., you think that it's not
real until it really happens. Iraq
At the same time, I had chosen not to attend the funeral of my cousin Theresa, which was going on the same day. She was from southern
Indiana, down by
the White River, and she may as well have been from the hills of Kentucky, Tennessee, or . . . the
popular media image is the same. Theresa had a rough life, and she was a
victim of what many of us from more monied and/or educated backgrounds tend to
dismiss as simple ignorance instead of the collateral damage of capitalism that
it really is. Anyway, Theresa had gotten pregnant at a very young age,
but she was blessed with loving parents who not only refused to turn their
backs on her, but agreed to raise Theresa's son as their own. For her part,
Theresa, after several rough years, had started to get her life together and
become a "stable" person for the first time. West Virginia
The job she finally got, the job that she was able to hold onto and to some degree defined her, was as a prison guard. She liked the job, and she held on to it for several years. Unfortunately, old demons reared their heads: at some point, she met an inmate that she fell for. She had reservations about this man; after all, he was in for abusing his girlfriend (actually hurting her quite seriously), and had a long history of assault and abuse, quite a bit of it against women. But she was charmed; and he, for his part, apparently fell for her quite hard.
When he got out, they connected, but Theresa began to have reservations. She was trying to turn around her life and live for her son, and she knew that this guy was bad news, intellectually if not emotionally. So she tried to break it off, and what happened next was all too predictable.
They found her body in her Pontiac Sunbird, which had been lit on fire on a deserted county road in Monroe County. It was completely torched, and her body was burned to the point that dental records were needed to identify her. One of the complications early in the investigation was that they couldn't charge anyone with murder because they couldn't determine the cause of death. Eventually, the man confessed, and by all accounts showed real remorse, since he deeply "loved" Theresa.
About seven years later, I was back around Bedford for the funeral of her son. He was angry, he was always angry . . . he had been in and out of jail, and he never really got over the death of his mother, in spite of the love of his grandparents. He died of an overdose. The most memorable thing about the funeral was that one of my cousins had to grab me and one of my brothers to clear out the parking lot when some kids decided to act up. It's taking everything in me not to call them rednecks or white trash . . . but they were refuse. Capitalism's refuse. Just like my cousin and her son.
* * * * *
After hitting Roswell at sun up, we took a detour to the Anasazi ruins in New Mexico. Tony and Matt, who had been sleeping while I had been driving, walked the ruins and occasionally let out strains of melody on home made flutes they were carrying. I, who had been driving for almost 20 straight hours and was of a somewhat less spiritual bent, found a nice warm rock in the morning sun and stole a short nap. After an hour at the ruins, we grabbed some coffee and were back on the road.
The whole way, it was paranoia and weirdness, all apocalypse culture and giddy aggression. It is important to remember just how little opposition there was to the war when it started (or, for that matter, how shamefully little opposition there was up until almost the final withdrawal). Every car had flags, every truck had a "My Country, Right or Wrong" sticker, every traveler in every rest stop and gas station all giddy over war. It was a J.G. Ballard landscape come to life.
Friday was at the Yaqui compound in Tucson. It was always an intense ceremony (the one at the Yaqui camp on the outskirts of town Saturday was pastoral by comparison), and often the ceremonies had a palpable urban edge provided by sirens and police helicopters sweeping spotlights over the neighborhood. Sometimes the ceremonies were short and explosive, sometimes they ground on forever like a boot heel digging into bruised muscle and flesh. This one was a long one. The Chapayekas slogged on, all harmelodic flutes, polyrhythmic castanets, and chattering shells; many fell to be quickly surrounded and protected by a Chapayeka guard.
Everything felt like raw doom then. It doesn't now. The thing that sucks almost as much as death and war is getting used to death and war.
7 am Tucson the
sun turns the
tent to an oven the
sun bright over another deathtrip
in another desert
on a gravel road in a Pontiac he
doused her in gasoline & lit her & ran
Chillin’ in a tent in the desert
the sun barely up
biding time with Edward Albee
cowboy stories surrounded
by flags, flags, flags
everyday is flag day everywhere these days
star spangled land
on a patriotic, god-fearing bender
& the stars -n- stripes
is the geometry of war
somewhere, out there,
some George Washington crosses a Delaware
he doesn't know, and
the mother of all bombs
won't douse hate
attracted to the Tikrit triangle
like metal shavings over a magnet
the desperation of the already dead
on a gravel lane somewhere outside Bloomington
and, this is it: Theresa’s dead.
whistling past the graveyard . . .
the distant rumble in the background
the thunderhead on the horizon
always on the horizon
it's death, man,
among the flying flags
and burning cars.
the highway intersects
a Wednesday morning funeral
deep in the heart of New Mexico
Tony & Matt fluting the ruins
and going back . . .
become the darkness in Little Rock
shed your skin in the dawn of Roswell
Arkansas, Oklahoma, & Texas a howling tunnel of other
shades & delineations of nothing
Oklahoma City, Erick, Amarillo
Elletsville, Bedford, Bloomington
& how do we explain to the dead
that there was nothing there
how do we explain to the living
that there is never anything there
and that drinking tequila in the desert won't kill it
and that drinking whiskey in Louisville Kentucky won't kill it
and that drinking Bud Light in Bedford Indiana won't kill it
and that bowing to the east won't kill it
the horror creeping like a virus
exploding into murder fire jihad
& poets digging into the closets
of horrible darkness won't kill it
she was probably dead when he set her on fire
’cause you don’t just douse people in gasoline
& set them on fire
& burn them up in their cars –
he's charged with arson
’cause he burned her up
but not with murder
’cause she may have been dead already
we all die a little more every
hellbent day of this backward millennium . . .
guns in Baghdad
somewhere east of
the center of chaos
Southern Indiana deathtrip
swooping like a crow
the dead lay where they are
the living lay where they are
the flutes & drums of the Yaqui try to raise them
sacred ash and mariachi trills try to raise them
Easter Saturday on the rez by the casino
choking dust, burning masks,
purification by fire
a Pontiac burning on a Monroe County road
chapayeka drag burning under the Easter cross
a car bomb just outside the green zone,
another minister assassinated
another body for the dust
and, the choking dust of New Pascua
celebrates the resurrection
while the dead lie where they lay
. . . and there are flags, flags, everywhere flags
yellow ribbons, red bumperstickers
the highway awash with patriotism
every SUV with a petrol-drunk V-8
every broke-down Ford with Tennessee plates
a crazy fool with delusions grand
again deals the penultimate hand
death reigns in another foreign land
and, in the cactus-scarred slopes of Arizona
and, in the inbred back roads of Indiana
another flag waves
another innocent dies
and, I’m here, another shot of whiskey,
7 am Tucson the
sun turns the
tent to an oven the
sun bright over another deathtrip