Reading: Jesse Walker, “The Man Who Finished Last”
From The Best American Poetry: 2004, eds. Lyn Hejinian and David Lehman, pp. 233ff. Just act like nothing’s going on.
I got a call from the White House, from the
President himself, asking me if I’d do him a personal
favor. I like the President, so I said, “Sure, Mr.
President, anything you like.” He said, “Just act
like nothing’s going on. Act normal. That would
mean the world to me. Can you do that, Leon?” “Why,
sure, Mr. President, you’ve got it. Normal, that’s
how I’m going to act. I won’t let on, even if I’m
tortured,” I said, immediately regretting that “tortured”
bit. He thanked me several times and hung up. I was
dying to tell someone that the President himself called
me, but I knew I couldn’t. The sudden pressure to
act normal was killing me. And what was going on
anyway. I didn’t know anything was going on. I
saw the President on TV yesterday. He was shaking
hands with a farmer. What if it wasn’t really a
farmer? I needed to buy some milk, but suddenly
I was afraid to go out. I checked what I had on.
I looked “normal” to me, but maybe I looked more
like I was trying to be normal. That’s pretty
suspicious. I opened the door and looked around.
What was going on? There was a car parked in front
of my car that I had never seen before, a car that
was trying to look normal, but I wasn’t fooled.
If you need milk, you have to get milk, otherwise
people will think something’s going on. I got into
my car and sped down the road. I could feel those
little radar guns popping behind every tree and bush,
but, apparently, they were under orders not to stop
me. I ran into Kirsten in the store. “Hey, what’s
going on, Leon?” she said. She had a very nice smile.
I hated to lie to her. “Nothing’s going on. Just
getting milk for my cat,” I said. “I didn’t know
you had a cat,” she said. “I meant to say coffee.
You’re right, I don’t have a cat. Sometimes I
refer to my coffee as my cat. It’s just a private
joke. Sorry,” I said. “Are you all right?” she
asked. “Nothing’s going on, Kirsten. I promise
you. Everything is normal. The President shook
hands with a farmer, a real farmer. Is that such
a big deal?” I said. “I saw that,” she said, “and
that man was definitely not a farmer.” “Yeah, I
know,” I said, feeling better.
— James Tate (2004).
From American Poetry Review.
The Best American Poetry: 2004, 233-234.
- (At the time this poem was published (2004), George W. Bush was President of the United States. –R.G.)↩
It’s stupid to have Presidents. And it’s stupid to have national governments. We really ought to stop doing it.
The election may go one way, or it may go another, but this much is certain: however this turns out, the winner will be the Government.
Good night, and good luck.
From The Best American Poetry: 2004, eds. Lyn Hejinian and David Lehman, pp. 136-137.
Something or someone. A feeling
among a swish of reeds. A swampy
glow haloes the Spanish moss,
& there’s a swaying at the edge
like a child’s memory of abuse
growing flesh, living on what
a screech owl recalls. Nothing
but a presence that fills up
the mind, a replenished body
singing its way into doubletalk.
In the city, Will o’ the Wisp
floats out of Miles’ trumpet,
leaning ghosts against nighttime’s
backdrop of neon. A foolish fire
can also start this way: before
you slide the key into the lock
& half-turn the knob, you know
someone has snuck into your life.
A high window, a corner of sky
spies on upturned drawers of underwear
& unanswered letters, on a tin box
of luminous buttons & subway tokens,
on books, magazines, & clothes
flung to the studio’s floor,
his sweat lingering in the air.
Years ago, you followed someone
here, in love with breath
kissing the nape of your neck,
back when it was easy to be
at least two places at once.
— Yusef Komunyakaa (2004)
from The New Republic
(Ignis fatuus is Latin for
foolish fire, meaning a will-o’-the-wisp or jack-o’-lantern — a ghost or fairy light seen on a dark night, in a bog or marsh, that seems to promise a place to rest, but really only leads the unwary traveler deeper into the mire.)