The Elements of Cohesion Must be Weakened
And there was a good way off from them
an herd of many swine feeding.
(Mark 5: 30)
In the Gospels demons hurl themselves head-long
Into a herd of swine and the swine promptly rush
Over a cliff and drown in the sea. It is easily a scene
Goya imagines quite closely in another context: when
Revolutionaries in the hours before dawn, sleepless
For several nights, walk now closely together, as if
Synchronized after a long rehearsed performance
And prepare to execute two brothers. A two-year old’s
Tantrum likewise is always preceded by a trespass
Into a country of endless exhaustion. No one present
Notices how he passes over that border. Soon he trips
And slips out of his mind, screaming and convulsing.
His eyes evidence a far away look. Cities are bombed out
Beneath them. Outside the tombs two men press
Their heads into their hands because of the demons.
Nearby, the smell of swine. With Goya it is the same:
Innocent bystanders hide their faces behind their hands
As in a game of peek-a-boo. Recall how in Kurosawa’s Dreams,
When over the decimated landscape of the hills demons wail,
It’s because their pain is too much: sharp bones protrude
Through their skulls. In Goya’s painting we cannot see the eyes
Of the revolutionaries who will do the shooting. Their backs
Are turned, their heads are cocked low to the butts of their rifles.
We see how the surviving brother pleads. And we see how the one
Holding him steady stares out of his skull as if he will never sleep again.
I can see the city roofs and the spire of a church over low hills.
Beneath the cliffs, which are not visible, the sea is inaudible.
Perhaps Christ is about. Who knows! Goya’s painting hangs
Close by on my wall. The revolutionaries locked in step, eyes unshut.
The Scene From Here
So I see near the beach beside the docked
and decommissioned ferry, a makeshift flagpole
on which hangs, half-mast, the French Tricolore.
I run past. The route I take follows
the trail beside the channel, its slow waters
flowing from lake to lake, its currents shallow,
benign, so that no danger troubles the swimmers
who recline and drink on their rubber floats before
they leap in and submerge. Nothing is hidden of summer
in the Valley where all along the shore
children build tiny sand castles, dig twisting moats
into the mud. Lone suckers feed on the lake floor.
It’s been a weird July. Every afternoon for over a week
storms break over the mountains—lightning, thunder—
the rain falls hard. Conversation turns to the weather.
What’s the worst they’ve seen (if they’ve seen it before)
those who’ve been here a long time can’t recall
or won’t say, and the weather anyhow has its own way
of doing things. It’s easy to stare at the hills and think
about nothing. As if the mountains would have you wander
into them, burrow into fallen pine needles, stay there.
Soon I turn from the trail and run up-hill on the old track
or where the railroad tracks were that once ran the span
of the valley from the coast into Alberta. History marks
landscape like a scar, like the flesh healed into woven stitches
above my right eye, so that a reddened furrow is cut close
but hardly visible except to those women who’ve pressed
their fingers there. In the evenings I’m reading Euripides
on my mother’s patio, near the lakeshore where a giant peach
is open until late; teenage girls inside serving ice cream floats
later flutter about the beach above the glow of their cell-phones.
Early in the morning last week I woke to the sound of a voice
announcing on a megaphone the names of marathon runners
as they crossed the finish line. AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, applause,
all the spent athletes like in Ovid, that story near the end
about the runner who had escaped the finale of the last age,
when iron returned to fire and fire to sand. He moved like an ant
below the gods who at that point were left with little to do;
they say Apollo caught him easily, pressed him between his finger
and thumb, squished and ground him up until he too was sand,
flicking him down to where he was left with the rest of civilization,
subject to the wind’s shifts. In the afternoon my three year old son
learns to swim. I prop him on my knees in the lake, cup my hands
underneath his arms; he does not let me relax my grip but screams
delight and terror when I throw him into the air and let him fall
again into my hands and collapse into my arms, cold water
washing over his face and hair. He cries because of his wet eyes,
all the water in his nose and mouth. Later, on the sand, he tells me
Babi, you protect me, right? I recall that version of Theseus’ myth
where he wanders without a spool of yarn stashed in his pocket.
My boy is a diamond cut into the air. My own midway inclines toward dust-
dry ponderosa bluffs, the shelter of my ear like caves carved into the clay
cliffs which rise here on either side, the trail metamorphosed into scree.
The Trojan Women all wail and wail. There is no happy conclusion.
The ships on which they sail take them elsewhere far away.
Last week in Nice a few young drunk Brits took selfies next to a family
mourning their dead. Life returns to normal quickly.
Out on the lake the boats pull skiers; above the water a man
harnessed to a parachute is pulled around awhile. The scene
from here shows him minuscule, like a dead man in an airborne pulley.
What is normal? The air I breathe is dry, dry. The mountain flowers
are yellow. No sound from the trees.
Not even birds.
The Etymology of Ideology
They didn’t know what they were doing. The train
Tracks on the hills behind their minuscule town were long
Abandoned; the last train passed through years before.
So the body they found, the horses near the pastures,
The dogs unleashed in fields, all this took on its own
Larger contour, like a collective vocation, an invisible
Order into the late afternoon, the hours before stray parents
Called one another and inquired into their children’s
Whereabouts. I have not seen them at all, not for a long
Time. Up in the bush the fires begin intentionally. Because
The hero of the story, the smallest, is bored too easily. Or
Because—it’s anyone’s guess, really—he is already insane.
Archaic Torso of Apollo
We cannot know his ordinary head
except from photographs, eyes wholly terrified.
And yet his torso, bent over his bound hands,
is like a light flickering in some empty apartment,
illuminating: a table, a cracked cup, itself. Otherwise
he’d be merely bare life, unlucky in foreign lands,
a common captured adventurer, hostage
to barbarians in a bombed city, almost a fiction.
Otherwise you could forget him. His body,
beneath vacant space, poised before collapse,
would not hesitate, tremble as if a living man:
he would not, from all the borders of his headless corpse,
burst like a dumb star: for there is no place left
where you aren’t seen. Your life will change.
On the Origins of Utopia
Many people have long felt the desire to do something
With their lives besides consuming goods. They desire
To interact and develop but for this there is no remedy
Calculable in classical economics. This gets me
Wondering. It would be a fine thing, all that flourishing,
Along with everyone else, but also decently private
So as not to burden one’s neighbors with too much noise
Or such a torrent of dumb ideas all at once. Space required
Is also allocated into the general scheme of the better life,
If not the best life, since the latter wedges its dissatisfaction
Into the minds of each of us according to our old desires,
Childhood vistas, incurable heartbreak by the age of sixteen.
It was silly then but also so totally serious that now our leaders
Wage their private warfare, their revenge, and we’re all implicated.
Such hateful things. Heiro and Simonides,
Reclining through the uninterrupted afternoon,
Contend that the tyrant cannot do better than
To immediately hang himself. This is not bad advice
Except for the tyrant’s refusal to listen to Heiro and Simonides,
Who’ve fled together into Goya’s painting, Shooting of the Third of May.
But they fail to outrun the tyrant’s many admirers—
Those armed men, bored silly, lonely, who otherwise have nothing to do.
Now they’re occupied with the At-Oneness of the tyrant’s intentions:
The execution of Heiro and his friend, the poet, Simonides, dying beside him.
Still, Heiro does not cease to give his two cents worth; he raises his arms;
If the blood-muck pooling beside his feet became a common fire
Around which those who are lonely tell stories,
Then this is Heiro’s final story before the end of all that is Heiro:
Thus he stands and raises his arms above the earth, his gestures
The size of cosmos, his complaints Promethean,
Against fickle gods, against the machinery of lust,
A Tyrant’s boredom, against those whose bodies
Are equal to mass times distance, whose ignorance
Is dense as a failed universe, hopes dismantled
Like the station wagon of a family shot dead, in cold blood,
Ill-favoured and forgotten…Heiro sees it all,
Claims the remainder for the Greatest Story Ever Told,
The incredible bulk of a husband’s failure; the noblest
Scholar on his hands and knees, barks on command,
While furtive urchins run towards the river,
Lie on the ground, cover their bodies in mud, turn into slugs.
Now Heiro sees it all so quickly, he wants to tell it all,
But he vomits as he commences—with what great fortitude!—
To utter his final dispatched breath. Such hateful things.
Darren Bifford is the author of Wedding in Fire Country (Nightwood Editions, 2012) and Hermit Crab (Baseline Press, 2014). His next book of poetry will be published with Brick Books in 2018. He lives in Montreal.