© 2005 - 2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas.
Just think – three quarters of a century!
Born under Hoover, the year my father
lost his job and Grandpa took us in;
and then a stripling, willingly to school
with Roosevelt at the helm, term after term;
and next, in Truman’s time, a college boy,
in loden coat, rep tie, and tennis shoes,
my lean head stuffed with memorized word-gems.
4-F and married and a father, I
cast a Manhattan vote for Stevenson
but prospered under Ike, and left New York,
the seat of all my editorial hopes,
for Massachusetts where John Kennedy
was senator, and bourgeois life obtained.
Today, in Tucson, Mrs. U. and I
drove through the downtown grid, where cowboys in
white pickup trucks turn left against the light,
to Best Buy’s big box, to buy a backup laptop.
Strange world! The geeks in matching shirts
talked gigabytes to girls with blue tattoos
and nostril-studs, and guys with ropey arms
packed pixel-rich-home-entertainment screens.
Hi-def is here. Attempting to prepare
our obsolescing heads for crashing waves
of new technology, we cruised an aisle
of duplicated, twitching imagery
and came upon, as if upon an elf
asleep on forest moss, a Chinese child.
It was a girl, aged two or three, in bangs
and plastic bow and tiny shiny dress
and round-toed Velcroed shoes, supine
upon a cardboard carton, inches from
a coruscating hi-def plasma screen,
her face as close and rapt as at an udder,
motionlessly drinking something in,
an underwater scene of garish fish.
An older sister gazed her fill nearby.
At last we spotted their adoptive ma
haggling fine points several clerks away.
Exquisite in her peace, the alien child
had found a parent, bright and slightly warm,
while I, a birthday boy, was feeling lost.
In Pomeroy’s Department store, I lost
my mother’s hand three score and more than ten
long years ago. So panicky I wet
my pants a drop or two, I felt space widen;
when someone not my mother, took my hand,
I burbled, unable to cough up who
I was unforeseeably alone
amid these aisles of goods, so unlike home.
Not so this transfixed little pixie here
among the pixels, stiller than if asleep.
Electromagnetism held her fast,
secure within the infotainment web,
that sticky and spontaneous conflux
of self-advertisement and spam and porn.
Well. even Roosevelt’s sunk Depression world -
Atlantis at the bottom of a life,
descried through sliding thicknesses of time -
had radio and cinema to love,
and love we did, on fire to make the new
our own, to wield against our elders, dull
with all the useless stuff they’d had to learn
when they had been susceptible and young.
Signals beyond their ken conveyed our sparks -
Jack Benny’s stately pauses, Errol Flynn’s
half-smile, the songs we learned to smoke to, ads
in magazines called slicks, the comic strips,
realer than real, a Paradise that if
we held our breaths, we could ascend to, free.
Culture beguiles us in the beginning,
but Nature gets us in the end. My skin,
I notice now that I am seventy-five,
hangs loose in ripples like those dunes on Mars
that tell us life may have existed there -
monocelluar slime in stagnant pools.
After a Tucson movie, some man in
the men’s room mirror lunged towards me
with wild small eyes, white hair - and wattled neck -
who could he be, so hostile and so weird,
so due for disposal, like a popcorn bag
vile with its inner film of stale used grease?
Where was the freckled boy who use to peek
into the front-hall mirror, off to school?
Its cracked brown frame and coat of mercury
going thin behind the glass embodied time,
as did the fraying rugs, the kitchen chairs,
the four adults that shared the house with me.
In Pennsylvania, then, the past settled in
to be the present. Nothing greatly changed:
milk came to the door, and mail through the slot,
coal down the loud chute, and ice in crazed cakes
on the iceman’s leathern back. My grandparents
moved through the rooms in a fog of dailiness,
younger then than I am now, and my parents,
not forty – can it be? -- expressed their youth
by quarrelling. Our old clock ticked, and dust,
God’s pixels, danced in the windowlight forever.
Birthday Shopping by John Updike