The Light of the Republic

Dallas Wiebe

As you probably already know, Plato would have allowed no poets in his utopian Republic. He had his reasons for keeping them out. I should say that he had his wrong reasons for keeping them out. I think about things like that, you see, because I’m a famous poet and I’m in the Republic. Not only am I in the Republic, I am the Republic. I’ve become a “national treasure.” I’m surprised at how much I’m admired. You all know my poems. You’ve seen me on TV. My poems are quoted by politicians. You think you know what a poet is. You think you know who I am. I think I know who I am. The new President thinks he knows who I am. You’ve seen my face, which is misleading. You’ve heard of my prizes, my honors, my wisdom. Listen closely. When I die and you see my face on a first-class postage stamp and as you lick that stamp to paste it to the envelope that contains your check for your water bill, here’s what I want you to remember because I’ve been invited to Washington, D.C., to read a poem at the next Presidential inauguration.

What I want you to do is to remember all this that I’m telling you, remember it as you watch me squint into the bright sun and read my poem “The Light of the Republic” up there on the rostrum with the new President and all the other admirers. Just remember all this if I stammer and lose my place as I read. I’ll probably have to squint in order to see my text. I’ll be the old guy with the white hair with a forelock falling down over my right eye. I’ll be the guy with the thick glasses that glint in the January sun. I’ll be the little guy with the spotted hands and the bags beneath my eyes. I’ll be the guy whose face looks like that of a basset hound. You’ll recognize me and you won’t forget me.

When I was a child in the second grade in Roosevelt Grade School in Newton, Kansas, we were forced to read poetry. Even then I squinted and stammered as I read those fading lines. We were told that poetry was the highest of all arts and that poets were, as I learned a lot later, the priests or gurus of our society, the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Roosevelt Grade School was named after Theodore Roosevelt. His portrait hung at the top of the stairs that you faced as you entered the front doors. That fact seems irrelevant now because no one used the front doors. The building faced north. The schoolyard was on the south side. Everyone went in and out on the south side where there was sunshine and bicycle racks and teeter-totters and slipper-slides.

No one really cared that the building was named after Theodore Roosevelt. Had it been named after Franklin Delano Roosevelt the people of Newton might have cared because they were all Republicans. But it couldn’t have been named after FDR because the school was built before FDR became President of the U.S. The people of Newton would never have named a building after a Democrat, no matter what. You couldn’t have gotten the people there to vote for a Democrat if you threatened them with a thermonuclear device. You still can’t. They would have voted for Hitler before they would have voted for a Democrat. They said that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a Jew and that his real name was “Rosenfelt.” These same people believed in heat lightning, water witching, garlic to ward off colds. They believed that the full moon made people go crazy. They planted potatoes only when the moon was full. It was these people who said that poetry was important, that the poetical mind was the highest manifestation of our civilization.

I confess that I believed them about that poetry stuff. My second grade teacher Alma Dentalfloss encouraged us all to write poetry. I call her “Dentalfloss” now because that’s what I associate with her and because I can’t use real names here. I don’t want to destroy my image for them. Ms. Dentalfloss was always pulling something through her teeth. The stuff was like a thin strip of paper, not the thread-like stuff we have now. It looked something like the tape that you have on a tape cassette. Everyone in Newton had lots of cavities and she was probably trying to save her teeth at least until she was thirty years old or until she met a man who would marry her.

I think that what those old maid school teachers wanted was to produce a prodigy. They couldn’t be married and teach young children. Men teachers could be married, not the women. As if marriage corrupted women and made them unfit to be educators. I’m sure those celibate teachers had no lovers, no sex in their lives, no children of their own. They were sterile, vapid and poetic. Being without progeny, those female teachers, the only kind I ever had, thought of their students as their children. Especially, they wanted to produce a student who would be forever their fame. If one student could emerge to greatness, the teacher could forever take credit for having brought forth that student and could take credit for having a hand in forging the genius of, say, a great poet. I am now a “great poet,” but Ms. Dentalfloss had nothing to do with it. In fact, she retarded my poetical development by teaching me her ridiculous ideas.

I did write my first poem when I was in the second grade. It was about a lamb. That’s all I remember about the poem. But Ms. Dentalfloss sent it to a Methodist Sunday School magazine and it was published. I was paid twenty-five cents for the poem. Ms. Dentalfloss wrote the poem in large letters on brown wrapping paper and put it on an easel in front of the class. I had published my first words. I was a poet. My life was now defined. Ms. Dentalfloss followed my career for the rest of her life. She wrote me letters. Collected my books. Reminded me often of her role in my career. Until she died in 1975, aetatis sixty-five. After her death, I received a package from her estate. The package contained the copy of my first poem. I burned it.

What Ms. Dentalfloss didn’t understand was what made me a great poet. She was brainwashed by the clichés of literature. Even in the second grade I knew that poetry is a kind of lie. What did I know about lambs, sheep or shepherds. Poetry is “made up.” It’s a kind of flimflam. That’s a given nowadays. What’s not known and what Ms. Dentalfloss didn’t know is that poetry is the product of inertia. It’s something you do when you got nothing better to do. It’s a product of boredom. It keeps perverts off the streets. It keeps thieves out of jail. It keeps murderers off death row. It provides employment for helpless people. It fills up the pages of magazines and newspapers. I can’t fix the motor on my car so I write poetry. I can’t fix an electric socket so I write poetry. I can’t fix my plumbing so I write poetry. Instead of robbing banks or shooting up drugs, I write a sonnet about a snowy evening, or my boyhood, or my cats, or Ms. Dentalfloss.

After my initiation into publishing in the second grade, I went on writing poetry and I discovered very quickly what it takes to make a poet. I discovered that to write poetry well you must feel nothing. You must live in a spiritual vacuum. It’s the reader who must do the feeling. To begin with, I don’t feel any spiritual suffering. I never have, not even in the second grade. I don’t even have the slightest idea what is meant by “Angst.” All this stuff about sickness unto death and fear and trembling is just a bunch of nonsense. I don’t grieve for the dead. I don’t even think about them. I don’t worry about the suffering of this world. Starvation for me is just a word. Patriotism and family loyalty elude me. I don’t protest anything other than my own discomfort. I live a virtuous life because it’s cheaper than sin. My virtue is created by a lack of money. I may be famous, but I am poor. Because I am poor I’m forced to live a decent life. I can’t afford beer, whiskey and prostitutes, so I read books, study patience and weep over my bank account. My checkbook is spotted with tears. My own liquid smears and erases my negative balance. The seven deadly sins don’t cost me a penny. Since I lead a virtuous life, I’ll probably live a long time. I think it’s called compensation.

God and I get along just fine. He doesn’t bother me and I don’t bother him. I capitalize the word “God” because it’s the first word in the sentence. I write the “h” in “him” in lower case. God-fearing people are afraid of themselves. Religion for me is a subject for poems that will be read and admired by believers. I pretty up their religious simplicities and they all think I’m sitting on the right hand of revelation. I read the Bible because it’s a good story. I read the Bible because I got a free copy. I took it from a motel room. I don’t worry about mercy or forgiveness. Whether god exists or not has never seemed an important question to me. Whether there is a heaven or a hell never seemed like something to worry about. The only prayer I make is that god, if he exists, has a sense of humor. Sin and suffering have always been expected. Nobody has ever cared about virtue anyway. Self-righteousness is a moral circus. For me heaven is cold watermelon for breakfast. Hell is TV. I haven’t the slightest idea what it means to have a “bad conscience.”

It’s like all those stories about miracles that you can read in the Bible. They really aren’t impressive. What’s so great about turning water into wine? Wouldn’t it be a greater miracle to turn wine into water? Anyone can pollute water. It takes something special to clean up water. Then there’s the healing of the sick. Why didn’t someone make a miracle by which antibiotics would be available? Why didn’t one of those religious wizards think of inoculations? Why didn’t someone call a catering service when all those thousands of followers had to be fed? Why didn’t someone think ahead? You think it was a big deal to tear loaves and fishes into 5000 bits? I would have been impressed if they’d put them back together. Just think of how small those pieces must have been and then to reassemble them. You think it was a big deal to cast out demons and stuff them into a bunch of hogs and let them run into the lake? Psychiatrists cast out demons every day with Prozac. Biblical miracles are a spit in the wind compared to a modern medical clinic. And think of that business of raising people from the dead. Heart surgeons every day put people into death and bring them back and the surgeons don’t expect the people to leave all, sell all, and follow them into the wilderness. And I’ll bet those people who get revived look a lot better than Lazarus did when he came out of the tomb. And why didn’t some Eastern thaumaturge think of lethal injections for executions? Think of all the agony that could have been avoided.

My fans often ask me what it’s like to be a famous poet. I tell them the usual goofball stuff. What I don’t tell them is that right now I’m writing a letter to a friend, a poet. It’s a private letter. He’s a pretty good poet, but will never be great. What I’m writing him about is what the “edge” is. What I’m trying to explain to him is that to be a good poet you have to be a little sappy. You got to pretend that what you’re writing is important. You got to be a fraud, a pimp and a hypocrite. Above all, you got to be willing to go over the edge. You must get out of the system, not be part of it. I’m writing this to Jeff, who is one of fifty Jeffs I know who are poets. In fact, it could be to all the poets I know because of the Jeff label they all bear and thank goodness I’m not named Jeff because then they’d never let me read at the inauguration. Can you imagine how it would sound if someone were to introduce me and say, “Now, ladies and gentlemen, here is our great national voice to celebrate the new President, our greatest American treasure, the poet Jeff?” I want to tell Jeff that he will never be a great poet until he is willing to go over the edge into the world of light, the world of craziness. And do it without letting anyone else know that he has done it. Like Rimbaud, he must shut down the systems of conformity. He must go into that dangerous world of the other self. He must go into that world where everything is illusion, where there is no truth, where there is only the flatulence of the imagination, where the only thing that counts is who invented soup, who determined alphabetical order or why we say one hand is left and one is right.

Rightly considered, one’s parents are part of that invention. Poets like to write poems about their parents, especially the deaths of their parents. I have always thought that my parents weren’t worth writing about. When my parents died I didn’t have any feelings about it. I wouldn’t waste paper writing about them or their deaths.

My father, for instance, was the only man I ever knew who had a dishonorable discharge from the Salvation Army. He told me about it once. It seems that he used to have the duty of going out on Saturday nights and soliciting money from customers in bars. He was a corporal and he would go into bars, hold out his tambourine and say, “Care to help the Salvation Army?” He got a lot of money out of those sin-ridden drunks. Until one night he asked for money from someone named Skyblue the Badass. My father said that Skyblue the Badass was drinking beer in Arlin’s Bar and Garden. It was about 11:00 P.M. My father held out his tambourine and said, “Care to help the Salvation Army?” Skyblue introduced himself and said, “I’ll tell you what, corporal. You sit down here and have a beer with me and I’ll toss a one hundred dollar bill into your tambourine.” My father sat down and had a beer. Then two. Then three. Then four. He was sloshed when the company commander from the Salvation Army came and hauled him away, along with his empty tambourine. My father was discharged dishonorably and never worked again. No one writes a poem about that kind of nonsense.

You might be interested to know that right now I’m also secretly working on a history of the prostate. It will be called either Old Man River or Down By the Old Mill Stream. When you get as old as I am, right now sixty-six, you start to wonder what that thing called the prostate is and what it does. It’s some kind of gland that doctors say wears out. Then it turns cancerous and nobody writes poems about it for some reason. I’ve never seen a poem about the prostate. It just shows how conformist poets are. The prostate probably is considered vulgar and no subject for a poem. They wouldn’t let you write about the prostate at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. There you can write about parents dead or dying and that’s considered good subject matter. It’s like there is some kind of code in regard to what is proper subject matter in poetry and what is not. Just think how many poems would not exist without the death of parents. Certainly the prostate is just as interesting as most parents who get their fair share of poems. Let’s hear it for the prostate.

Men fear god because of the prostate because the prostate is like god. It’s not there when you’re born and it’s gone when you die. Doctors now don’t even test for prostate cancer. You’ll live just as long with it as if you treat it. Besides, cancer is a sure cure for madness. Whenever I see a picture of a baby boy I wonder where that gland is. I think now that pubic hair is grown in order to cover it up. So that when a man disrobes in a cheap motel room the woman he’s with can’t see his prostate. I’ve been told that women don’t have prostate glands. That’s probably why they live longer than men. What I want my narrative to accomplish is to encourage someone to invent a pacemaker for the prostate. If someone can invent a pacemaker for the prostate my narrative can continue for many years because I will continue for many years. I don’t rightly know if my prostate is working now. I certainly want to finish my narrative before it stops. If I can stay around a little longer I can make some more good books for my Republic.

I’m also secretly working on a history of the idea of the soul. That book, a companion to my prostate book, will be called either The Book of Lambspring or The Book of Goatleap. The book deals with how the mind creates the idea of the soul in order to extend its life. The idea of the soul is a survival technique. The mind, you see, is constantly searching for ways to outwit death, to extend its own life. So if the soul survives the body, then death is outwitted. The death of the body becomes irrelevant. The idea of the soul is a great hoax, of course, which the mind plays on a gullible mankind. Religion was invented as part of the hoax. Then came poetry and the joke was complete. Maybe I should say, then came me and the joke was complete.

I’m now also trying to learn to tell myself bedtime stories. When I was a child my mother used to tell me bedtime stories. She, like everyone else, had the idea that telling a kid a story would help that kid go to sleep. That wasn’t true. Now I’m trying to make it true. I’m searching for stories that will put me to sleep. Last night, a Sunday night, I told myself a story about a man who wants to commit suicide. He buys a gun. He writes a suicide note which is addressed to his ex-wife. He wants to send it to her but he can’t find her address. He searches for the address. He has to put out his cat, which he has forgotten under the stress of committing suicide. He realizes that the next day is trash pickup. He puts out the trash. He remembers that his car is unlocked so he goes outside and locks up his car. He tries to call his ex-wife to get her address. She doesn’t answer. He falls asleep in his chair.

Saturday night I told myself a story about a conversion experience. A man who is badly crippled with muscular dystrophy is sitting in the balcony of the Albee Theater in downtown Cincinnati. He is watching a performance of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Just as Spencer Tracy as Dr. Jekyll looks into the mirror and sees that he is Mr. Hyde, the man, who is named Erick, is struck by a blinding bolt of light. He is blinded and falls to the floor in front of his chair. The audience around him gasps. Ushers come down the aisles and pick him up. He tells them that he is all right and asks for a crucifix. A lady in the row behind him hands him her necklace which has a crucifix attached to it. Erick kisses the crucifix and says, “I just saw Jesus. I’m saved. God has come into my life. Praise the Lord.” The movie ends. The ushers help him to the door. He goes across the street to a bar where he drinks Cutty Sark Scotch until he is blistered. He falls asleep on the barstool.

Friday night I told myself a story about the chapels at airports. You’ve probably seen them. They are stuck over in a corner. No one is ever in them. There’s one at the Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport. A woman enters the chapel to pray. Her husband is leaving for Frankfurt, Germany, by a direct flight. The plane takes off. The woman prays harder. The plane crashes, of course. I make it crash so that her prayers are answered and I can go to sleep. The plane falls into the Atlantic Ocean. There are no survivors. The woman sits in the chapel and falls asleep.

Thursday night I tried to tell myself a story about the prodigal daughter. I had just got into how she was left out when the old man’s property was divided between his sons when I fell asleep. I did remember to kick the cats out of my bed before I blanked out. The next morning I decided to make sure that my stories get finished before I fall asleep. I never did find out how the story of the prodigal daughter came out.

Here are some things you and your Republic can expect from me in the future. These are my future books. I want to write a volume of pornographic haiku. I want to destroy that form of poetry once and for all. I want to put out of business all those little twerps that write that crap. I want to write a book about humor in the Bible, a repair manual for poets, a book about poetry in the grade school curriculum and celibate pedagogy. I want to write about modern miracles, parental death and grief and the bedtime story in Western civilization. I want to write a book about movies and religious rapture. I want to write my memoirs. So far all I have for my memoirs is my title, Meekness and Brutality are Handles on the Same Pot. Above all, I want to write about a new Republic, which, if it has no room for poets, will have a place for me. A Republic where I stand by the President and shine out over the boisterous crowds, where the President beams on me because I am so important for his nation. A Republic where I am acknowledged and honored for the greatness I bestow upon the people. A Republic where the President has his agenda and I have mine and mine is just as important as his.

I want you to remember all that I’ve told you when you see me up there on that rostrum, standing behind the new President as he takes his oath of office. Remember my poem that I have just read to the nation, “The Light of the Republic.” Think about Plato’s Republic and the absence of poets therein. Think about a Republic in which poets have power. Think about me and that President who is going to run the country for the next four years. Think about what I will write in the next four years. Think about both of us the next time you read a poem.

If you’ve been listening to what I want you to remember, you will realize that we poets are not voices crying in the wilderness. We’re more like voices sobbing in a swamp. We emerge occasionally to deposit something for your edification. What I will deposit is what I am going to read to the nation at the inauguration. You can judge for yourself.

The Light of the Republic
Their light shined out
as they strapped their lids
To the horses’ backs
and sang their lungs away
As they dumped their jugs
on Tennessee
That round they were
and of the hills and sang
The body of the alabaster valleys
electric in the sun’s arc
That lipped the miles up
when April was the faintest month
Of their endeavors
and hedgerows leaned across
The dandelions
and clattered their leaves
Like the pounding seas
when virtue plowed the nation
Under buffalo skies
that roamed discouraged from the temples
Of the Rockies to the clashing
Adirondacks where the false dawn
Of juvenile suns swung their coronas
to the great bridges
Over the rivers of our star-spangled
endeavors, breaking beams over
The fantasies of oppressors like
candy canes over the heads of
Santa Clauses bagging
gold in the Mississippis of the soul,
Over the Sangre de Cristos of the intrepid hearts
of pioneers swilling religious texts
For the final plunge into the Pacific
Ocean at the edge of
Diminutions of the broad swathes
of disappearing poets at the
Republic’s dim pulsing Eldorados.
Just when all hope lagged
in the sand bags of deltas
Burst forth the beams of common
dilemmas laced in the silver tongue
of John Barton Wolgamot
And bronzed the present soul
in the forms of ancient hymns.
This day our hearts are raised
on cells of moral light.
This day our Republic
ends its night.