Polemical Poetry III: A Clockwork Phoenix Epiphany

The Misfortune Teller

The Misfortune Teller
Sculpture-Painting by Michael Murry © 2014

By Michael Murry

“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray …” – Dante Alighieri, The Inferno

“Methought I sate beside a public way …” – Percy Shelly, The Triumph of Life
A Clockwork Phoenix Epiphany

(Lines 1-112 of The Triumph of Strife: an homage to Dante Alighieri and Percy Shelley)

A poet woke midway through his life’s course
Another dreamed beside a public way
But this epiphany comes as remorse

That our lost war should rise another day
A clockwork lemon, Phoenix irony,
With villages destroyed and left to lay

In their salvation’s ashes, newly free
To resurrect themselves in civil strife;
To stay and die or else to live and flee:

Westmoreland’s choice to those who “value life”
Less than we value ours while taking theirs
Computing, as we do, statistics rife

With body counts our panic-proffered wares
We sell again our sullied, soiled affairs

Our epic poets in their offspring tomes
Had muse interpreters to serve and guide
But we move like a legion of lost gnomes

As mad Macbeth sits nursing wounded pride
And Birnam’s trees converge on Dunsinane
The witches’ prophecies no longer hide

Their glaring flaws once seemingly inane;
Those honest trifles with which trust was won
Betray in deepest consequence germane.

We feel ourselves again by us undone,
By our own fearful blindness held in pawn.
Not long ago we watched this setting sun

Through windows over which some shade was drawn,
And in the twilight’s gloom we saw the dawn.

Yet long night’s tunnel lay ahead for years
With no light at the end as often spied
By those who spoke of hope but offered tears

To cover for the fact that they had lied
And squandered blood and billions on a bet
That they could “win” some thing unspecified

Their ever-promised victory: “Not yet!”
“These things take time,” they say, to stall for more;
Perhaps until some greater fool unmet

Arrives upon the tilted trading floor
And bids up prices further on a loan
So they can sidle sideways out the door

With cash in hand for selling off a moan
That leaves the kids indebted to a groan

We know this song; we’ve heard its tune before
The lying lyrics so familiar are
A rapping rhythm rotten to the core;

A withered wish upon a falling star;
A dim demented dirge of deathly porn;
A sordid saga for a glib guitar

That steals the future long before it’s born;
That grabs at now before some later comes;
That shakes its moneymaking pot unshorn

Of any pretext but to beat the drums;
Inciting riots in the angry mobs
Who steam and seethe in sorrow’s shameless slums;

A schizophrenic migraine scream that throbs
To swamp the sound of softly sighing sobs

So now we know the drill and feel the heat,
As spitted we revolve upon the grill
We hurry-up-and-wait like so much meat

Until we’re ordered once again to kill
Professionals, of course, we seldom gloat
We do it for the paycheck, not the thrill

We’re paid to down the plane and sink the boat
To amateurs at home we leave the fun
Of grabbing one another by the throat;

To squabble over loot that we have won
For them, not us, to tally up the “wins”
Accruing from the barrel of a gun,

While we must mourn our stretching line that thins:
A metric of our payment for their sins

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk
Of cabbages and kings and sealing wax;”
Before the oysters have the time to balk

And lapse into a state of mind too lax:
Some time to think of that old hoary saw
A recipe encoded in a fax

That says they taste the best when served up raw,
“All hot and bleeding,” needing only bread
And vinegar and pepper in the craw,

To go with all the butter thickly spread
To see that nothing sticks while going down;
A deal digesting us, the duped and dead;

A joke to bring a toast to their renown;
The ones who bathe in booty seldom drown.

A motive manifest in us – our fate:
A grim desire that never sleeps or rests,
Compels us like Cervantes to create

Ourselves old oysters on quixotic quests
Like Bedlam’s beggars: bald, beseeching, bold;
As ancient mariners to wedding guests,

Condemned to wander till the tale is told;
In our own land considered noisome pests;
Our Odyssey obscure we now unfold

Another encore that no one requests,
With strife again triumphant; peace reviled,
Replete with profane gestures, obscene jests,

The Walrus and the Carpenter, they smiled
To think of all the oysters they’d beguiled

For nothing did we shake our graying heads
Declining to enlist again for naught.
This time we did not leave our oyster beds,

Remembering the last windmills we fought
For faithless frauds whose feckless spending spree
Left them at home to count the coin they sought

By sending us abroad to earn the fee
For graveyard golfing greens that grimly grow
Above our friends for all eternity

Who paid to teach the only truth we know,
That we who lived have tried to pass along:
We reap the whirlwind when the storm we sow.

As earnest as the eerie, Eastern gong,
We sing our sad summation of a song . . .

Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006

2 thoughts on “Polemical Poetry III: A Clockwork Phoenix Epiphany

  1. Since The Contrary Perspective limits articles to about 1,000 words, and since the poem itself contains 890, I did not have room for much of an introduction. As well, I did not think it advisable to further tax the reader’s attention span with more words than just those contained in the poem. So I’ll add a few additional remarks of a technical nature here in the comments section.

    While looking for worthy poetic examples to emulate, I came across the following passage from Harold Bloom’s wonderful book, <i<How to Read and Why:

    “On Shelly, I will confine myself to a few passages from his superb death poem, The Triumph of Life, which seems to me as close as anyone has come to persuading us that this is how Dante would sound had the poet of The Divine Comedy composed in English. The Triumph of Life is an infernal vision, a fragment of about 550 lines in Dantesque terza rima, and in my judgement is the most despairing poem, of true eminence, in the language.”

    I took these comments by Professor Bloom as a challenge. I wanted to see if I could write 550 lines of English verse in the terza rima (i.e., “third rhyme”) stanza format employed by Shelley and invented by the medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri, whose most famous work, The Divine Comedy, breaks down structurally into three parts: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. This structure, in turn, mirrors the medieval theology of the Catholic Church. Those of us who know anything of Dante’s work, however, have usually only read the first book, since his vision of Hell seems so much more vivid than his conception of Nowhere or Heaven. “The Devil always gets the best lines,” as someone once said of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

    As a further technical note on poetic structure: in his introduction to The Inferno, John Ciardi wrote that “Dante had doubtless learned from experience how soporific a long narrative could be.” With this caution in mind, I decided to break up the long terza rima passages used by Shelley and Dante into a sequence of sonnets, i.e., 14-line groups. This afforded me the opportunity to periodically punctuate the four dominant three-line groups with a two-line couplet that could summarize, encapsulate, or complete the thoughts contained in the previous 12 lines. For his part, Shelley chose to do this in his well known poem Ode to the West Wind, composed of 5 terza rima sonnets adding up to 70 lines.

    At any rate, despairing of Peace ever breaking out in my own country, the United States of America — the world’s greatest purveyor of organized global violence — I soon had my theme and title, The Triumph of Strife. Soon I got into the rhythm of composing poems as a sequence of terza rima sonnets. One related topic would soon follow another. When I got to my original goal of 550 lines, I wondered if I could double that to 1,100 lines. When I got to that goal in its turn, I wondered if I could add another 550 lines. This I did. And so on and so forth. But after getting to 2, 743 lines, I began to lose interest in further compositions on this theme. One U.S. administration followed another but the public-relations Military Idolatry and export of corporate global violence by the United States, Inc. continued as before. So why continue adding further detailed examples once the advent of yet another “hawkish” U.S. administration now heaves into view? Does America ever produce any other kind? I can see why Shelley felt so depressed after only 550 lines. Nonetheless, I don’t think I’ll follow him out to sea for one final voyage just yet. I can at least go looking for the challenge of another verse format. The theme may never change, but perhaps the manner of excoriating it can.

  2. Pingback: Mike Murry’s Searing Poetry: Some of Its Meanings | The Contrary Perspective

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