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drawing by Latuff
courtesy of New York City IMC
Sestinas are the most complicated of the verse forms initiated by the troubadours. There are six stanzas of six lines, each followed by a three-line envoi. The same six end words occur in each stanza, but in a shifting order which follows a fixed pattern. All six words must also occur in the three-line envoi.


Vision of another game

We hoped for a land not dominated by a king
who would always protect the veil of his queen
so that all could be blessed by the bishops
with the violence of that enacted by knights.
All of us hid, frightened, inside the red castle
except those in the rolling fields, the pawns.
In a new game none of us would be pawns,
but each in his own way a bearded king,
with none needed to be sequestered in the castle,
every girl child would grow into her own queen
and never need of the battle of knights.
All self-souls would be their own bishop.
We paid Ruy Lopez to contest the bishop,
but found we had become the pawns.
We reacted with blood, becoming horrible knights,
fighting, warring, against each to become a king,
eclipsing, then containing, our feminine queen
leaving us each in each secluded castle.
Encapsulated, ensconced in multiple castles
the separateness yielded to yearning for a bishop
bringing us into the gambit house of the queen
and again we became eternal pawns
easily manipulated by any casual passing king
knowing at last we had lost the heart of a knight.
The spiral cycled: we found a Sicilian knight
to rescue us from the crying castles
finally to rise up to battle all the kings
pursue the priests and betray the bishops,
never, never letting us again be pawns,
chaotically battling against the queens.
That rejecting, dispatching all the queens
and the rest, left minds exhausted in the night,
tired of royalty, tired of pawns,
too tired to exhume the ruins of our castles,
soulless, spiritless, unable to be administered by bishops,
we collapsed leaving only fury against the king.
Now we rape the queen in her chapel of the castle,
all are bloody knights torturing bishops.
This, the revolt of pawns, escaping the rule of kings.
Hector Q. Mooney


Still spinning

As I write this on Thursday evening, the TV anchors are still at their desks, trying to put a comprehensible face on the events of September 11 and their aftermath. Over the past three days, their voices have risen in pitch and tempo: what was once measured and calming has become edgy and overwrought. They record the almost instantaneous appearance of American flags across the nation – 25,000 flags sold on Wednesday, 27,000 today. Their cameras move in for close-ups of tear-stained faces, as bereft friends and relatives relate their loss. Again, and again, making the horrifying familiar.

I fear that this very real disaster is being transformed into reality television.

I fear that we are all being coopted into an unreal drama.

And I choose my own words very carefully, knowing that even in happier times, truth is a slippery beast.

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Like most Americans, I experienced the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon through the medium — the lens, if you will — of television. And like most Americans, I tend to interpret the attacks through the lens of the past — or more specifically, through the lens of film or literature encountered in the past. I tend to express my responses in the rhetoric that frames this lens.

But in my case, it’s not Pearl Harbor that forms the overarching metaphor. Nor is it the Crusades, a Holy War pitting Christians against Muslims.

It’s the doomsday novels that reigned on the bestseller lists of the late 1950s and early 1960s — Earth Abides, Dr. Strangelove, On the Beach, When the Kissing Had to Stop, Fail-Safe. The causes of destruction differed from book to book, reading like the list of plagues at a seder: pestilence, nuclear accident, left-wing takeover, nuclear conflict. But the result was the same: the end of the world as we know it. And they all expressed the fear that lay beneath Cold War consciousness.

In the next decades, we learned to love the bomb. Then the Cold War ended. But not the fear.

As I watched the World Trade Center collapse in eternal replays and heard the rhetoric of retribution ring through the halls of Congress, I recalled yet another novel from that terrifying period, Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon. It’s a book that I’ve often thought of during the intervening years, simply because the catalyst for the nuclear war that forms its backdrop is “a new crisis in the Middle East” (“new,” in 1959). In it, each military confrontation slips easily into another, more intense one, until a voice on the emergency broadcast network announces, “Fellow countrymen. As all of you know by now, at dawn this morning this country, and our allies in the free world, were attacked without warning with thermonuclear and atomic weapons…. Our reprisal was swift.”

That’s only the middle of the book. At the very end, one of the survivors says, “There’s one thing more. Who won the war?”

His companion puts his hands on his hips. “You’re kidding! You mean you really don’t know?”

“No. I don’t know. Nobody knows. Nobody’s told us.”

“We won it. We really clobbered ’em!… Not that it matters.”

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Even in happier times, truth is a slippery beast. In times of crisis, wordmongers set it spinning so that it’s almost impossible to grasp. It’s far easier to cling to simplistic formulas — they hold still.

When we hang onto these old rag dolls, we hold still as well. When we bury our faces deeply in their folds — in their dresses of American exceptionalism or capitalist purity, we can’t move. Or to see anything else.

And so the crisis repeats itself. Again, and again. Until the whole world goes up in flames, as in one of those Cold War doomsday books.

It’s very difficult to discover new solutions to old problems if we don’t look the old problems directly in the face. If all we see is the somber visages of Dan Rather or Peter Jennings, endlessly interviewing the same talking heads.

It’s time to discard the rag dolls and look hard at what’s in front of us. To find some new voices to displace the old noisy ones that have been filling our heads from the mainstream media. In this issue, the Call offers a number of alternative takes on the present situation. There are of course many more out there. But perhaps this sampling will serve as a beginning.

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smoke.jpg (7643 bytes)Oh yes — the title of the book Alas, Babylon.

It’s from the Book of Revelation, as presented by the King James Bible: Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come.

Requiescant in pacem.

Betsey Culp

Photo by guardian, courtesy of New York City IMC.