The Grave Face of Spring
It was that irritating narrative—
One hates being classified
As if all inner fires have died—
That would not let spontaneity live,
Would set all smugness cock-a-hoop,
Let one’s very dignity bleed away
Into the swirling gruel of the day,
Damning heart to a coldly-sentenced loop
From which those empty eyes let none escape.
Why not rebel, rebel, and force a fight
Here and now, to die in a daylight
Gambit, a bloody, messy runaway scrape?
Why, hope is the answer. Its seductive song
Placates the mind but still feels somewhat wrong.
The Wobbly Pendulum Threatens to Strike
The pendulum roughly marks the phases
Of the domination of brutality,
When the mind twists unnaturally
To savagery, the envious eye gazes
Hungrily at others’ prosperity,
And bitter greed drives the fools it crazes.
So now that villain over there may not
Wear a Nazi uniform or salute
A maniac as master, but surely he’s got
The vicious attitude that would suit
A goose-stepping idiot from Hitler’s men,
And his good Frau, whose crazy face would stare
The paint off a Russian tank, deserves to win
An Iron Cross to decorate her hair.
The nurse of philosophy, external disdain,
Washes off accretions of pretentious grime
The impulse of ignorance acquires over time
And clears away shame with its clarifying rain.
Its cousin Experience may silently approve
This process, but don’t trust her shifty eyes:
Experience tells you experience sometimes lies
Just to feed itself and make things move.
So welcome here, O contemptuous sneer,
Fast-averted eye and painful grin,
For here comes mortal leprosy again,
Dragging a contagious poverty near.
Is repetition lightning and thunder, too?
Will you forget how this small storm rolled through?
Regeneration of Love
The backslid Baptist read Gospel commands
On the telephone in the dying Jesuit’s ear,
“Take no thought,” he said, as the nurse’s hands
Held the telephone so the old man could hear,
And then “Behold the fowls of the air,”
And his friend tried to reply to him then,
But at the end no word was there
Except the original, and it may have been
A thoughtful joke that the homeward priest
Thought to deliver to his student then
When that conversation ceased
And the winged silence of friendship spoke
Of the promised promise that neither broke.
Somebody Run Them Chickens Out of the Circles of Purgatory
Circles of interest, casually tangential
Or overlapping, perhaps overbold,
Nervously jitterbug, mindful of essential
Discretion, that necessity to withhold
Enough information to deserve respect,
Even if empty, with all the white space
(Negative capability to connect)
Gleaming forth both from page and face.
And that dance goes on; here, however,
The circle has been squared, my dancing shoes
Sent off to the Goodwill forever,
No more romantic than the match-box blues.
And what’s to touch, now, and what’s to see. . .
Don’t bother, and I won’t, no longer me.
Sweet Rage in Athens
If you thought breaking that mask
Was all you needed to do
And that relocation would erase everything
You were almost right. Almost.
Because nothing erases everything.
Not that it always matters
Or that always mattering always matters
Or that we don’t sort of live by erasures
One hopes will do the job.
It’s like music, right? So what you hear
In well-timed silence always does matter
When you are listening hard enough—
Or at least well enough.
I do agree about that mask, though,
Even if it was a fine piece of work.
How you had hovered over it!
Thinking of Santorini,
The island of explosion.
The Mexican Border, An Eight-Minute Narrative
Ruth and I returned late one Sunday night from Florida, where I had given a talk about a 1973 London performance of a musical based on Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. The main point of my paper was that the man who wrote the script for that program had a kind of bias against the glorification of the ante-bellum South. That writer was the Texan Horton Foote, who had a decade earlier been awarded an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
Think about it. Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee. And Foote was old-family Texas, a descendant of the 6’8” frontier cavalryman and planter Albert C. Horton, who had, before being elected as the new state’s first lieutenant governor, narrowly escaped the massacre of Colonel Fannin’s troops at Goliad. Horton Foote’s adaptations of the novels of Mitchell and Lee, each having its own historic implications for understanding of the South, put him in a unique literary position, one complicated further by his own distant kinship to another woman novelist whose influence was even greater than that of the authors of GWTW and Mockingbird, Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose mother was a Foote.
While Horton Foote was chosen to write the text for the London show because he was a Southerner and an Academy Award winning screenwriter, there was an unrecognized disparity between what the musical and its publicity program celebrated and his own understanding that the truth about Southern plantations was largely ignored in such programs. Foote did need the money, as his family of five had to be fed and clothed, but all indications are that his emotional engagement with the London program went against his own inclinations. As a top-notch professional, he did the job expected of him, but, like most Southerners in that year, he took care of business and, when it came to Confederate nostalgia, looked the other way. It should be noted here that he would soon reveal his own vision of the plantation in his play Convicts, which shows the brutality and ignorance that shaped life under the agricultural tyranny of a post-bellum Texas in which slavery had been replaced by an equivalent system of convict labor.
Upon our return to Laredo, we rose Monday morning to pick up our two dogs from the pet motel we use, and, to their delight, we took them immediately to Father McNaboe Park, which is on the Rio Grande a mile from our house. This park is their favorite place to walk, and, after several days in confinement, they were ecstatic to return there. In the park, we had a choice of turning right to park and walk northward to the basketball courts and back south along the riverbank to the car or to turn left and walk the newly paved trails at the south end of the park. For days previously to our conference trip, we had gone to the south end of the park and walked, thanks to the shade of the trees there. This time, without any reflection, we opted to turn right, and we had our walk and returned home.
Later we would learn that at about the same time we took that seemingly insignificant right turn a man was dumping the bodies of a woman and a child by the path south of the park, right where we would have walked if we had turned that way. No very definite information is available, but media reports suggested that the woman and child were slain by the woman’s boyfriend, a Border Patrol supervisor, who may have transported the bodies in his official vehicle. The story is that he claimed to have found the woman’s body himself, but it was soon discovered that she and he had been in a relationship, and he was arrested. He has, according to the local newspaper, pled not guilty.
As word got out, the people of the neighborhood gathered to mourn the deaths, and a shrine, with flowers, crosses, and teddy bears, was manufactured near the place where the bodies were found. In the following days, Ruth and I continued to take our dogs to the park for their regular walk, but at first we avoided that particular area. Later, we resumed our normal walk, noticing the yellow crime scene tape at one spot and also noticing for a few days the absence of the usual Border Patrol vehicles.
Of course, we were interested in finding out what had happened, so we followed the rather sparse reportage in the local newspaper. At one point, for the second time since the bodies were found, the local newspaper appeared not to have mentioned the case. That was bothersome, as one suspects that a journalistic sympathy for federal law enforcement agencies, while itself understandable in terms of Laredo’s economic dependence upon the mighty flow of cash from Uncle Sam to the border, should not override the importance of the victims, one of whom was one year old. There are times for looking the other way, for not taking the world upon one’s shoulders, for letting things slide, not voting, not contributing, not caring, but at some point perhaps we need to decide whether we are for sale, whether we care, and whether we deserve being cared about ourselves.
Though schemes of political expediency often over-simplify the situation on this part of the nation’s border, and though many unthinkingly welcome a simplistic scheme in which one riverbank represents the rule of law and the other its opposite, actual circumstances call for a more sympathetic and more accurate representation. We have walked in that park for well over twenty years and have seen a few undesirable activities at intervals, but before these murders there the worst thing that had happened occurred when a large yellow Lab charged our three small dogs and bit me twice before the dust cleared. The bites barely drew blood, and the poor Lab, as I understand it, was confined for thirty days, while his owner, whose only error was to have a faulty latch on his gate, was fined.
We have also seen the normal events of family celebrations, soccer games, baseball, and people from our neighborhood jogging, walking, shooting baskets, and watching their children and grandchildren enjoy the park’s playground equipment. We have rejoiced to see new trees planted and hope to see more picnic tables and perhaps some brick-and-mortar public facilities to replace the portable ones.
We have seen deer, javelinas, raccoons, possums, and foxes in the park, and the bird population there is mixed and sometimes surprising. We have walked untold hours by the Rio Grande and often see our brothers and sisters on the far side, in a world which is both different and the same. In the summer, it is too hot for most people to walk there once the sun has taken over the sky, but early and late one can still go to this park and enjoy its special quality.
But the fading shreds of old crime-scene tape, coming to pieces now, though they are still there, if you know where to look, are not to be ignored, and the monument set up in memory of the woman and child whose lives were taken now stands by a main path. These await submersion in time, and, no doubt, in river water too, at some point. For us, though, no monument is needed. Though the woman and child were once strangers to us, they have not been strangers to us now for many days, and never will be again.
R. W. Haynes is Professor of English at Texas A&M International University. His recent publications include studies of playwright/novelist Horton Foote. In 2016, Haynes received the SCMLA Poetry prize at the Dallas conference of the South Central Modern Language Association. His book of poems titled Let the Whales Escape is forthcoming (2019) from Finishing Line Press.