Saturday, May 31, 2014

Marching on the Potomac (1971)


m a r c h i n g  o n  t h e  p o t o m a c,  1 9 7 1

Music videos, I admit, do hurt my eyes. They seem
like moments that have been seized by those who believe

they are young, and also believe that history is only words
and also believe that with images, words can be left behind

forever, words and the history that is made with words, and death,
which is made up of history, and pain that rehearses for death, and the memories

of shame the pain is built on – but the shame and pain
are images, yes? and history, yes? your history, your story

you tell yourself in pictures, is your music video
sung to self-loathing; and the one way, short of becoming

a filmmaker, of spitting it out, is to trade in words, the
the betrayer words that lie as soon as the ink is dry.

While I, so suddenly crone, thinking on mortality,
walking off small ounces along the winter river,

remember seizing a moment, standing with three hundred young
such others in our vision of moral progress around the entrance 

to the dark abysmal cave: National Selective Service Headquarters. 
We begged them to come out, the denizens of the cave, 

and took up collections for their families if only they would come out. 
Some did, and even took the money, perhaps to return 

to work next day with a laugh. Provocateurs circulated
among us, trying to hand out bad acid, but we stood firm,

singing our power songs learned from those who had come
here before us: Oh Freedom; We Shall Overcome;

so then the men in blue, with their sunglasses and their long
sticks, moved in and carried us away, one by

one, to the buses. D.C. Central Precinct Station,
in case you're curious, is, or was, thirty years

ago, like this: a corridor long and grey, with few
lights, and rows of animal cages, dark, with broken

bulbs recessed in peeled ceilings. Each
cage has two iron shelves hung from the wall

on chains, and no mattresses on the shelves; on the rear wall
a strange porcelain thing, both sink (not working) and toilet

(not working either); both filled with horrors, and running
onto the floor. Distance from front to back: eight feet.

From side to side, six feet. Someone is screaming contin-
ually; another starts the ancient chant, AUM.

It catches on, a hundred and fifty short-time nuns
in retreat, and the screamer settles down to a comforted

whimper. All day, half the night. At two in the morning,
arraignments. Fifty people standing in an empty room,

hungry. A judge passes the door, returns, converses
through the slot. You weren't read your rights? You don't

know the charges? No phone calls? Nothing? He goes away,
returns, passes fifteen candies through the mail

slot. All I can do right now, he says, I'll see what I
can do about this. We never see him again. We

are processed in groups of four. An old black woman comes.
She is our lawyer. Have you seen the charges? No?

Hey, you, go and get the charges so they can plead;
is this a court or a pool hall? They read us the charges.

False, from beginning to end, and they know it! You can hear it
in their shamed voices. They're young, like us, and got these jobs

for the sake of Kennedy, their dead god; they aren't used to
shitting on the people. I hear that I was seen by witnesses

(in blue, with their sunglasses and their long sticks) committing
unspeakable violence and destroying Property. Hearing

the shame in their trembling voices, I am brought to tears
of a new kind, deep grief for my country, which I had somehow

believed in, a little, until that moment, and for my now
forever lost innocence in these things. The judge leans forward.

Young lady, if you will plead guilty, I can let you go
right now with a ten dollar fine. If you plead not guilty, you

will be held in jail and your trial will not come up for two
months yet. I want you to know that the Central Precinct 

is clean and uncrowded compared to the City Jail. How
do you plead? Tears are drying; I tremble with sorrow and anger.

Someone, a stranger, steps up and sets a flower in the lapel
of my coat. Not guilty. All four of us say, not guilty as charged;

our old lawyer's eyes are wet with pride. The judge
hesitates; says that for twenty-five dollars each, we

can go bail. I'm eight hundred miles from home, with ten cents to
my name. Someone, another stranger, hands over twenty-

five dollars for me; I leave the courtroom dazed and hungry.
I have nowhere to go. It is three o'clock in the morning.

The demonstrations have been going on all week, and I
haven't eaten in maybe three days, or four. I'm not

sure I can make it to the Friends Meeting House where I know
I can sleep. There is a voice from above: Hey, you! I look up. It is 

a middle-aged woman in curlers and a robe, in a third-floor window
of, for God's sake, the D.C. Hilton Hotel. Are you

one of the people that just got out of that kangaroo court?
I heard about it on the radio! Wait right there, says she,

and disappears. A moment later, she's in the window
again, and a can of Coca-cola, two orders of fries,

and a half-eaten burger fall from the sky. She looks over
Her shoulder, afraid of someone. Gotta run! So

it goes; wars and rumors of wars are for the rich;
it is left to the trapped, the owned and the poor to feed one another.

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