Robert Pinsky

III. Local Politics

And so the things the country wants to see
are like a nest made out of circumstance;
And when, as in the great old sermon “The Eagle
Stirreth Her Nest,” God like a nesting eagle
Pulls out a little of the plush around us
And lets the thorns of trial, and the bramble,
Stick through and scrape and threaten the fledgling soul,
We see that that construction of thorn and bramble
Is like a cage: the tight and sheltering cage
Of Law and circumstance, scraping through the plush
Like death—whenever the eagle stirreth her nest,
The body with its bony cage of law
And politics, the thorn of death and taxes.

You, rich in rhetoric and indignation,
The jailbird-lawyer of the Hunnewell School,
Come home from some small, wicked parliament
To elaborate a new theme: forceful topics
Touching the sheeplike, piggish ways of that tyrant
And sycophantic lout, the Majority.
The two lame cheers for democracy that I
Borrow and try to pass to you (“It is
The worst of all the forms of government,
Except for all the others”—Winston Churchill)
You brush aside: Political Science bores you,
You prefer the truth, and with a Jesuit firmness
Return to your slogan: “Voting is not fair.”

I have another saw that I can scrape
For you, out of the hoard of antique hardware,
Cliches and Great Ideas, quaintly-toothed
Black ironwork that we heap about our young:
Voting is one of the “necessary evils.”
Avoid all groups and institutions, they
Are necessary evils: necessary
Unto the general Happiness and Safety,
And evil because they are deficient in being.
Such is the hardware; and somewhere in between
The avoidance and the evil necessity
We each conclude a contract with the Beast.

America is, as Malcolm X once said,
A prison. And that the world and all its parts
Are also prisons (Chile, the Hunnewell School,
One’s own deficient being, each prison after
Its own degree and kind), does not diminish
Anything that he meant about his country:
When the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago
was flooded, “Black youths” who the paper said
Pillaged the stranded motorists like beached whales
Were rioting prisoners…a weight of lead
Sealed in their hearts was lighter for some minutes
Amid the riot.
                       Living inside a prison,
Within its many other prisons, what
Should one aspire to be? a kind of chaplain?
But chaplains, I have heard, are often powers,
Political, within their prisons, patrons
And mediators between the frightened groups:
Blue People, Gray People, and their constricting fears,
The mutual circumstance of ward and warder.

No kind of chaplain ever will mediate
Among the conquering, crazed immigrants
Of El Camino and the Bergen Mall,
The Jews who dream up the cowboy films, the Blacks
Who dream the music, the people who dream the cars
And ways of voting, The Japanese and Basques
Each claiming a special sense of humor, as do
Armenian photo-engravers, and the people
Who dream the saws: “You cannot let men live
Like pigs, and make them freemen, it is not safe,”
The people who dream up the new diseases
For use in warfare, the people who design
New shoes of pants, and sandwiches sumptuous
Beyond the dreams of innocent Europe: crazed
As carpet-bombing or the Berlin Airlift—
Crazed immigrants and prisoners, rioting
Or else, alone as in the secrecy
Of a narrow bunk or cell, whittling or painting
Some desperate weapon or crude work of art:
A spoon honed to a dagger or baubles,
A pistol molded from a cake of soap,
A fumbling poem or a lurid picture
Urgent and sentimental as a tattoo….
The Dorians, too, were conquering immigrants,
And hemmed in by their own anarchic spirits
And new peninsula, they too resorted
To invented institutions, and the vote,
With a spirit nearly comic, and in fear.

The plural-headed Empire, manifold
Beyond my outrage or my admiration,
Is like a prison which I leave to you
(And like a shelter)—where the people vote,
And where the threats of riot and oppression
Inspire the inmates as they whittle, scribble,
Jockey for places in the choir, or smile
Passing out books on weekdays.
                                                    On the radio,
The FM station that plays “All Country and Western”
Startled me, when I hit its button one day,
With a voice—inexplicable and earnest—
In Vietnamese or Chinese, lecturing
Or selling, or something someone wanted broadcast,
A paid political announcement, perhaps….
“All politics is local politics”
Said Mayor Daley (in pentameter):
And this then is the locus where we vote,
Prisonyard fulcrum of knowledge, fear and work—
Nest where an Eagle balances and screams,
The wild bird with its hardware in its claws.