[In 1932 four Black graduate students (medicine, engineering, German, literature) from prominent families drive to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C. to attend the Olympic Summer Games. They have disguised themselves as Ethiopian princes. The poet uses the trip as the occasion for a poem that will capture the age.]
I carried my carelessness alone along the deserted waterfront. Though there were ships bulked beneath them, the cranes were still, not a bird crossed the invariant sky. I heard a squeak and a man came out from the immaculate shadow of a viaduct. He was pushing a hand cart. It was an affair like a sled on iron wheels, lacking sides, and with nothing on the wooden bed. He was slight and in the blasting light looked ageless and eternal. He was determined only to shove the cart forward, looking ahead, from an unknown origin to an unknown destination. While watching the carter, I came up behind another man who I had not known was there. Unaware of me, we formed a little detachment of fools and marched under the hard shadow of a bridge. At once he bent down and crouched. I halted and kept silent. The knapsacked figure was crumpled in the darkness, unrecognizable as a human being. Like an animal he instinctively tied one shoe and then slowly looped a bow in the lace of the other shoe. At last he stood upright and went out into the daylight, heading for the shoreline where he knew of a grassy pleasance under a young tree petaled in fire.
ah, the unfinished utopia of the port, the burnished ships held up to the lips of famished wharves—the untried alliances of grain and oil…,
—here and there across the globe a poet puts down a book of theories and absently fingers a scar—where he has been welded, tongue to imagination.
The cities loud with the bleating of lambs. And the broken people fermenting in angers and misleadings at the margins of their precinct. As if ships have smashed and cast them up on cruel basalt and impaled them on the promises of rescue. No one leaves home to come to the littered strand. The gray ropes are coiled in attics and the swimmers flail in the bubbling surf of debt and the grim tides of foreclosure failing the prismatic laughter of oxygen.
I am keeping to myself the sacrosanct soldering together of the traceries of charges and potentials in the alkaloid hulls of the clouds. Again and again the dirigibles of desires flex their young welds. By eye and by finger I route the intelligence of axis and angel. The fine circuits are ruthless and reliable — they pierce the reddening night, they lead the machine of the heart through the reticent warnings.
The claxons, like hoofs of water, startle and amaze. I want to forget and to panic:
3. Ask the Answer Man—Photoplay
Dear Answer Man,
I will be driving from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, California. Please, can you tell me the techno-psycho-socio-historico-physiological-specifications for the USA?
Be glad to do that for you, Citizen.
Take the area of the U.S. land mass and divide by the number of sons of bitches to determine the likelihood that the people you meet are sons of bitches.
Continue factoring with the relevant categories: retarded, car thief, fugitive from a chain gang, forgotten man, hebephrenic, Klansman, loose woman, teetotaler, glad-handing celebrity, scapegoat, yerk, alias, Bible puncher, sod buster, mill hand, union organizer, private eye, anarcho-syndicalist, taxi dancer, house wife, chorine.
—She was bored in the nightclub. The troupe in satin tap pants came out of the wings lined up, kicking in unison, then shuffled back, and she raised her untouched arms, went into a shimmy, stepping subito, and sinuously approaching with a smile--
—She was bored in the jungle. Girls from the Bundu tribe danced before the prince, smeared thickly with kaolin and tallow.—
"…I was bored in the palace…"
The routed suitors were run through at the finish line. Intestinated halse. …Factor in the epidemiology for the common diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid and paratyphoid fever, smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, whooping cough, diphtheria, influenza and pneumonia, acute poliomyelitis and acute polioencephalitis, lethargic or epidemic encephalitis, rare infectious and parasitic diseases.
…correlate to the average use of electric power: Between the turn of the century and the 1930s, electric utility capacity and generation grew at average rates of about 12% annually, doubling roughly every six years, despite a 14% drop in generation between 1929 and 1932.
The efficiency of generators and transformers improved and transmission voltages increased. Residential prices fell dramatically, from an average of about $4.30 per kWh at the turn of the century to $0.88 per kWh in 1932.
Electricity is not yet universally available in 1932, but two-thirds of all homes already use it.
…During the regular school session of 1931-32 there were enrolled in the city public day schools 13,454,582 pupils. Of this number 6,820,000 were boys and 6,634,582 were girls.
—the solid world, the reeky, yark, rooky, or-rack, raca, heroic, ragg cosmos a hay rick. As if. The positron (antiparticle of the electron) is discovered by Carl D. Anderson.
Collisions between particles and antiparticles lead to the annihilation of both, giving rise to variable proportions of intense photons (gamma rays), neutrinos, and less massive particle-antiparticle pairs.
It's no joke, this discovery of antimatter—how else to explain the nigger heaven, the colored waiting room, the separate entrance, the color bar, the hotel with a colored staff and no colored patrons, ad infinitum—
Reys just unjust imps of hearsay.
(Like the Negro: Dirac acknowledged that the proton having a much greater mass than the electron was a problem, but expressed "hope" that a future theory would resolve the issue.)
Much of the highway is gravel or graded dirt.
The U.S. Highway 66 Association also placed its first advertisement in the July 16, 1932, issue of the Saturday Evening Post. ("Can you afford to miss this?") Alas whereby.
Traffic grew thrillingly on the araby highway…hales, haulage, reeved, areek with rogue. Extolled because of the eyeless geography through which it passed. Hark. Much of the warhoop roadway was essentially flat whereof this made the highway a popular truck route. The route lined with wrecks passed through numerous oleous towns and, with the growling traffic on the highway, helped create the rapee of, mom-and-pop rooks such as service stations, restaurants, and motor courts, all readily accessible to passing motorists.
The ploughed eparches prate of danger. Opetides of flame-corpses hide twisted like wicks in the hebraic after image. Flame alphabet. The people are tribal, low, conniving, sacrosanct, homespun, vengeful, happy-go-lucky, open-handed, allochthonous, armed to the teeth.
"It was agreed that this was the most barbaric and outlandish people that they had passed through on the whole expedition...doing in a crowd precisely what other people would prefer to do in solitude, and when alone behaving exactly as others would behave in company."
"I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E." (—suicide note of Peg Entwhistle who flung herself from the Hollywood sign.)
"He accomplished flying (overcoming gravity) by an external intellectual articulation, i.e. a machine, which need not physically encumber the human, when not flying — as would wings…."
In America the distance of 2,500 miles is flown daily on a passenger schedule between the East and West Coasts in 31 ½ hours east to west, and 28 hours west to east, and 3 hours 15 minutes on the ground.
…decline. air maneuvers cancelled. the single air activity of note for the entire fiscal year was the January emergency re-supply of Navajo and Hopi Indians stranded by a blizzard in Arizona…
The sky is not the cosmos.
he who makes it his business to contemplate a green stone
Before Nininger actively pursued his meteorite hunting endeavors, many scientists regarded it as a folly to spend one's time doing so, believing meteorites to be so uncommon as to render searching for them a complete waste of time.
"…and the clap of thunder, the heavenly bellow of the bursting clouds, and the shining comet, and the flame of meteors…" (Nonnus), and for all that Apollonius Rhodius relates that the ball which Aphrodite promises to Eros, is described as if it were the Cosmos: "its zones are golden, and two circular joins curve around each of them; the seams are concealed, as a twisting dark blue pattern plays over them. If you throw it up with your hands, it sends a flaming meteor through the sky."
'Mr. G. W. Weseman, 2 miles east and 14 miles north of Archie, was in his yard and was attracted by what seemed to be a heavy clap of thunder. He was astonished by this, for the day was clear. Shortly after, he felt a number of small particles strike his shirt and hat and heard them falling like small hail. His little boy, who was playing alone, ran into the house and told his mother that it was hailing. An older son, Francis, a senior in high school, was hunting on the creek one-half mile to the southwest. The "boom" startled him, and then he heard "buck shot" falling among the trees, accompanied by a splash in the creek, of a chunk the size of his fist. He became uneasy and left for home.
Mr. Harry Christiansen, 11 miles east of Archie, was working at the windmill some 30 paces from his house, when the noise drew his attention to the small, angry-looking cloud high in the western sky. He walked to the edge of the east porch and called his sister, who stood in the doorway as he discussed the peculiar phenomenon, still watching it over the comb of the house. Suddenly there came a whizzing noise and a half-pound stone landed about 5 or 6 feet to the east and a little to the south of the spot where he stood. This stone sank half its depth into the compact soil. He started for the door, then turned, and picked the missile up. He found it cold. As he went into the house, he heard another stone strike by the corner of the house and still another one fall, farther out in the yard. The second stone was found later, but the third one was not.
Mr. George Morris was 34 miles east and one mile north of Archie. He was doing some decorating in the cemetery and had an unobstructed view. As he watched the cloud, he was attracted to what he first thought was a swallow flying…
A remarkable thing in connection with this fall is that nearly every one of the stones recovered was seen to fall near some person.
"…they had intercourse in a ploughed furrow in Crete…"
A pregnant man stands, his hands and head emitting currents of wind, cloud or smoke. Within his belly we see a child beginning to form.
"the aerolites became stained brown with rust that made them very hard to find"
Wonder cures—insanity cured by the removal of infected teeth tonsils sinuses testicles ovaries gall bladders stomachs spleens cervixes…radio fevers used to cure rheumatism
—the new universal architecture of a physical-intellectual-scientific external machine holds promise of accomplishing the life balance…
—based on the rhythm of natural cycles of astronomical relationship, will have high faith of a reasonably immediate dawn of synchronization…
—have faith in the progressive intellectual revelations of the unity of truth, of the truth of unity, and of the unity and truth of the eternal now!
"the inclined towers the oblique skies"
Matter and spirit—deep reverie all night, hour after hour the rungs and mounting angels of the ashamed crank, oddball, deviant, loner…
The twisters tear up the outskirt towns—who has the dream to switch them off, build the cosmic architecture, open the door to the root cellar, beckoning…
come up into the light now calmed, into the intangible kingdom of forces…
You know me. Neighbor. Friendly radiotrician. (at the center is the dark turning ecstatic dynamo, mine the thrilling superheterodyne, the smashing adventure of fresh days and thoughts)
In filling stations…Socony-Vacuum, Esso, Standard, Chevron, Gulf, Shell, Texaco…votive wire racks dispense charts of the nation for free.
The crisp guides unfurl platonic routes, veined regions. Abounding in names of jumbled myths and confused histories. Gavels, shotguns, nooses, mobs, stills, grudges, fires, the photographer with a wagon leaving you with a portrait of the garrison. The small towns conquered by charlatans and mountebanks…ghost towns wall papered with certificates of promise.
Let us take them out of the wires and hold them like doves. They unfold and escape, startling and fluttering into a fantastic flight that we are not free to follow.
We unfold the giveaways like crisp table linens of latitudes and distances—a finger guides across the tables of towns and populations, alexandrine distances betwixt granges and deserts.
Go down that highway to be lost, stalled, waylaid by fugitives, stunned by psychopaths, converted by the hollow-eyed tyro of a scientist chasing galactic shrapnel across Kansas.
Highways that run inside—as the car drives through tree, mountain, city—ha, the roads of emotion and self-regard. Mr. Entertainment wants to know, "Is everybody a multitude?" Are you that cool type…virile, ponderous—what sort of creature? Or a stretch winnowing between cynicism and sentimentality? A victim or a culprit?
Do you want to stand tall, wear a mask, hide in the shadows, take revenge, Fantomas, energy…some new type of being? Lion, Prince of Ethiopia. The sinister voice, the power to cloud men's minds—the somnambulist radio beside you glowing like a city on a far horizon…
What maps of the beyond do you unfold in your desire?
Don't ask me for light— I have only the scrimp of a hand— Something is ebbing, dwindling, running out, it is my patience, it is my hostility, it is my rolling away of the stone of dilemma—
don't ask me for loyalty, I am only comforter to the unvanquished—
don't ask me for blood, I am only a flash of coexistence—
don't ask me for substance, I have only the gravity of a speedometer—
I want a car of lust and agony. I want a car with the form of a young woman. I want a car with the turbines of nightmare. The thighs and flanks of the car magnetize the emotions, the rush of the wind in the grilles is a blazing scream. The wanton car, the car of the remotest zealot, accelerating—renunciation. I want the car of nonchalance.
I cross the capsized night, giving in to the seductive distance of the continent.
The damaged moon is a beacon at the end of the road, life is my hunger, the voice droning from the beyond is the phantom voice of my muse.
I climb in the elevator of the long river of night, through the atmosphere, through the roiling clouds of emotions to another coast, to a foreign destiny.
I can't memorize or remember or regret in the darkness where I thunder my youth—
Out there is the sacredness of the ditch the murderer dreams about, my trumped up calling for danger, the racist with hope in his clamorous lure, the flat law of general melodrama.
I have weapons that are sharper than fear, green fabulist, teeming continents, give over, luxurious acme, blissful contour of falchion and roller. The old vocabulary does not serve, does not stand up, says only loquacious morass beside the citadel, made stupid by the testatrix of tide pools, curvets, inlets, grease.
In the clean desert, where the radio sings about the dispossession of law and mercy, about the unraveled code, here is the atlas of cynicism, the planet held aloft by roaring, the comedy that will not settle for an ending up in debt.
In the time of disassembly, the fields are being disassembled, …the wind is doing the work of armies of regrets—the long wide rivers are being disassembled,
—what dreams are damned up by the thorax of a fallen colossus?—
the unfailing forests are being disassembled, the unmanaged factories are being disassembled, — and the shrugged-off men run wild in the courtyards and smash the fences and windows— too tired to look into the horoscope of a promise…
the grumbling villages are being disassembled, all of the overestimations of the land are being disassembled by the assemblies of the disassemblers. Wealth is being disassembled by the vampire moneychangers, peace is being disassembled by the feral profiteers, stability is being disassembled by the amoral engineers, truth is being disassembled by the self-reliant philosophers, society is being disassembled by the inhuman reformers—
In the time of disassembly rage before the oracles, fly in front of the blades and razors of the nights and days of starvation. The lightning dances on the hills, the hills fall into the sea, the sea rages and tears itself to pieces.
Atoms of rage fall into dust and angels. We are overawed by the moon's mesmeric ice, the powerful fall of the moon perplexes the heart, dust surpasses the moon, dust and ashes overcome the tides, the mind is divided and weary, the tongue is corrupt;—
we want to fall like milkweed and be as plausible children,
but our lives are disassembled and we are in this age awake forever.
6. The Lover of Horses
Bloodthirsty Atalanta wanted to butcher the suitors herself; guards had to be charged to watch them in the night unless she eked upon their pallets with an edge and unmanned them.
On the day of the betrothal contest, they brought the princess out to the starting line raving. They bound her to a post, where she snarled and rolled her feral head.
Then the suitors were hedgered next to her, so the race would start evenly. Her stink was in their noses, piercing and acid, and her reek made them fear her and the outcome all the more.
Had a better account of her been tattled to them instead of the high halels they heard, the girl would be unwooed, untried-for—no vain unwed runners would be entombed in unknown mounds.
The slant slender witch gnashed and called out to the executioner at the finish, "When I arrive soonest, hand me the flay, and I will turn about and run them down."
Then a novice priest razored the rope halter from her, and Atalanta's feet kicked away from the track, her fingers tore alarmingly at the wind, her trailing hair overwinged her neck. She gained ground… defeat clenched the hearts of the suitors, as they lumbered, veering uncertainly, tripping one another, twittering and accusing, as the ruing demon pattered on way-faring silver slippers, fraying their mettle.
Then Hippomenes fostered the venerean plan, — using sleight he tossed a scraw before the currying lithe, a jayet that she gilded in her glee. She stopped and picked it up, losing ground,
then ran on pit-a-pat missing that she had been betrayed.
Another delaying taw was flicked, and Atalanta picked it up, while the cheat moved nearer her heels; right on them he abetted his fiction,
…and she saw the nugget and stood transfixed.
Now the fallax filcher led the hebdomad, so that when the fairy saw into the hoax she was far behind,
…and though she ran herself giddy it was Hippomenes who crossed the wively furrow and demanded the dead talion to be wed.
Summer is when the countryside is most munificent. The rimless reality of rural America terrifies me and tears up my courage like a coupon.
I am ramshackle, riddled, canaille. My precautions are shadow puppets and nursery songs burbled in my wakefulness as if the blank window were a canal floating sacks of darkness.
The unspeakable tinkling law makes me a weakling, so that the lawless gather in their numbers and chime righteously in the corners of the room. Come on, comrades, take up your bravado.
Put on insouciance, arrogance, foolishness, derring-do, piracy, pricelessness. Tell your families that youth propels you to your fate. Distract yourselves with the legend about Atalanta:
You are going out to the sacred games held in the name of Zeus and Hera. La, Ethiopians—who see through the veil, call them Amun and Isis if you must, the one who hides and the star of the rising waters. You will witness the heralds calling the names of the victors and the tying on of red ribbons.
Infernal Zeus summons you, so you must cross the roads of summer, infernal roads to an infernal summons. Zeus, hoarder of storms and dispenser of bolts, mirages in the night that no one sees…. Surpass all limits—cross rivers, thread nights with a spool, sleep through calamity, drive against a sky of dust or acetylene. Where, then, is the sea?—fata morgana of your passions….
The coast is a chimera —pink air, blue shadow, amethystine fields—foreshortened mountains…the distant piacho that cannot be reached…counterfeit lava trails that elude the wheels…that never arrive…the sea that looms and hovers like a razor—ho!
Now you are larger, part of history—modern and demoted; if not properly a suitor, then at least a voyager and a spectator.
But why not a suitor?
What will I say in a quicksilver telegram? —and the most excellent of birds didst thou make the messenger of thy sings—
Atalanta. You who cross the sky like a golden sphere—unapproachable, forbidden, demure, …I put away the mountains between us…I have every trick at my command…the goddess favors me—this strip of my heart…for thou are forever….nymph, war dance—
8. Key to the Highway
From the platitudes of the radio The Shadow reaches out to struggle with the anima: Artaud, "the abject needs to burn." Tell him for me, No, the burning needs to cease. The abject needs to transmute, …mercury,… love, death…. in the hot frozen depths I turn away from the shadow, chaos, race record, revolution, class war, fratricide, guilt, …. In the underworld look up—
In a roundabout way the goddess provided me with three golden apples; she said—Here is a hint, take up alchemy. Make your own gold. Gold does not live to make gold. Take yourself seriously…the black substrate, flint, that eludes the initiates down the ages,—
your substrate heart, your souvenir minstrel heart, blue coal;
ventricle, auricle, …aurum, bright, reddish, dense, soft—symmetry, mania, —lift your eyes to the cosmos…come out of the roustabout body….
Paranoid highway, out of KECA Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Will Rogers implore, Come to the Olympics….hellhound—
"Some sinister fate has dogged the heels of every American Negro who has been a member of the Olympic teams and but one has ever succeeded in shaking it aside…the only [black man] whose name stands in the book of the records is De Hart Hubbard."
"today the big moment is here!"
"sportsmen can recognize no color line…"
Atalanta frets, "All the other girls had private rooms, went to the banquets, were interviewed and I shared a room
in the attic
and ate dinners
upstairs on trays"
(she was bored in the palace, bored in the jungle, bored in the ghetto) — go to the woman who washes the sheets and do as she does, some lyricism that conveys her discontent, some truant song,
follow her example, so that you will not fail in your art:
…for the water washes the precipitation of the black body away.
—I am coming to watch you run like Atalanta,….beside the Pacific, lo!— Across the continent, a raft of words, half-savage, half-saved,
Across the plains of murdered herds and devastated flocks, ranged, fenced. harrowed, mined,—stripped, settled, citified and vigilant, towns in the night trembling with wind, fear, desire…
Across the continent—give a secret name to what you suspect—, to whom you have cast out, with hanging tongue you take in the clasp of scratched fighters and seek to touch….
"What are you on about, Atalanta, who is that?
Atlanta do you mean?"
when we could view from the summit
of Theches the blue stretched out to abuttals of lid and pot,
a great cry went up from the oddments, rabble,
("for the country was all aflame…passing on the joyful word")
The baggage animals ran past, and then the troop ransacked and ate honey intoxicating and poisonous.
O, harsh age, o pseudepigrapha, "once more it is the mysterious power of the soil" — what is it?
The road was long and a straightaway infected with heat-haze, fake ochres, not entirely burnt sienna, muted blots of inauthentic cerulean. Jutting up from the flat, blasted desert the rebarbative buttes amateurishly made of chicken wire and paper mâché.
Come on, the sideshow runs coast-to-coast, you never seen anything—You seen Schlitzie?—that's nothing, a nation of geeks at the wheel, you ask yourself, I'd of stayed home…hitchhiking kids…pointing and sniggering….
And who gets out of the car but four Ethiopian princes,
looking like a marching band, with all these gold buttons and braid
and they couldn't make themselves understood because nobody at the hotdog stand could speak French. We figured it was some heathen lingo they was jawin',—
when up comes a flatbed truck and all these fellers climb off it, and one of them is a Cajun and can speak French. and he says, those darky dauphin is parley frances—
So we says to them, What is all their ruckus about?
And the royal highnesses tells him they don't like hot dogs, they was looking for some hamburgers…,
they scraped the whole thing together out of burlap and tempera, Speedy Rube and Dare-Devil-Alma ride the wall of death, Tough Titty tattooed man lifting an anvil, odditorium women without arms and legs, albino sword swallower, dog-faced, giant, plutano, baby ruth… what are you looking at?
have you looked at yourself,
since you shot your way out of prison and took to the road with a price on your head and nowhere to go,
since you drank your Ovaltine from your Orphan Annie mug and said your prayers…that decoder badge, clues to the automatic, cigarren cigarren cigarren cigarren turn off the dada radio and get to sleep, voyage,
— a mythomaniac adventurer, my personality split between a cannibal and a physicist, my love split between orgasm and murder, my personality split between the sum of two primes, 43 and 23,
gold and fire, pure spirit and pure matter, coal and acid, vapor and mountain, parapet and gravity, toad and milk, scalpel and chloroform, the human tide in waves of retreat.
— there stands the flabbergasting 10, 000-strong phalanx of door-to-door salesmen draped in Sears seersucker, flatfooted on shoals of linoleum -- trenchant with samples of goodness….
At last the zero of the stadium, a hushed surd under the truncheon of the sun.
Jon Woodson is a creative writer and independent scholar living in Providence, RI. He published Summer Games: a novel in 2016. In 2016 he also published The Esoteric Mission of Zora Neale Hurston: Essayson Literary Collaborations with Rawlings and Faulkner, Spurious Anthropology, "HistoricalDrama," and the Novel as Spiritual Alchemy.