Jim Chapson was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1944. Unaccountably, he has been living in Milwaukee since 1976. Kent Johnson has said of him, "He is our Cavafy, completely unknown." He is served, along with Jeff Poniewaz, as 2013-2015 Poet Laureate of Milwaukee.
Skepticism - Six Demonstrations
"We admit the apparent fact," say they, "without admitting that it really is what it appears to be.". . .[I]n his work On the Senses, [Timon says,] "I do not lay it down that honey is sweet, but I admit that it appears to be so."
Diogenes Laertius, Lives,IX.105
It was a warm day, or so it seemed,
and the sea was calm, but it might have been
snowing, in reality, and the sea rising in towering waves.
Who knows what anything is, really,
when solid rock becomes molten
lava becoming solid rock again?
It had all the appearances of a criminal war,
unjustifiable on any grounds, but
it may have been necessary and honorable,
as it seemed to those who started it.
In the fog-wrapped, golden city,
the young were discovering sex and drugs,
but whether this was a model of the angelic life,
or a trap set by demons, is pure speculation.
Though the bomb apparently vaporized
tens of thousands of innocents, perhaps
they had merely left for a picnic on the beach.
I will admit we sat beneath the willow tree,
practically in one another's arms,
but I could not say that his lips were sweet,
only that they appeared to be so.
When the Ming dynasty collapsed
riven by dissension, bankruptcy, famine,
scheming eunuchs, finally traitors
opening the gates to Manchu invaders,
in the imperial garden the Chóngzhén Emperor
hanged himself, followed by hundreds
of scholars and courtiers,
but many others retired to seclusion,
some in remote mountains, some
staying where they were but retreating
to a private life, revealing,
through recondite allusions in paintings and poems,
their loyalty to the old virtues.
A few gained fame as recluses,
admirers crowding their gates,
and some were constrained
to make accommodation to the new rulers.
Realism is not hypocrisy.
The emperor was dead. The Manchu ruled.
You can't eat virtue.
Of course, the next generation was loyal
to the new regime, and the old loyalists died off,
so their integrity meant nothing in the end,
though their paintings hold a curious appeal:
pavilions concealed in valleys, trails
climbing precipitous mountains,
temples obscured by mist.
Oh, look! It is the head
of the princesse de Lamballe
bobbing through the crowd
impaled on a pike
just back from the hairdresser
who has washed out the blood
and arranged the coiffure
so she will look her best
when she visits Marie Antoinette.
Helpfully, the people
will hoist the head
up to the balcony of the room
where the queen is imprisoned
so she may the kiss the lips,
the people insist, of her dear friend.
By this the people show
their feeling for the queen
and their understanding
of the sensibilities of her heart.
But, alas! something is wrong!
Word has reached the people
that the queen, informed
of their solicitous gesture,
has fainted. She will not
appear at the balcony to kiss
her dear friend's lips,
perhaps rather cold now.
She has rejected the people's
gesture; she is a bad queen,
unworthy of their affection.
If that is how she treats her people,
how can she expect them
to take her head to the hairdresser
when its hair is stained with blood?