More excerpts from Joe Milford’s poem cycle: Exiles
Exile Poem IX.
Miguel de Unamuno
Your philosophy of immortality, our irrational self
In battle with our mortality—we know we will die
Yet still fight for everlasting life. You taught that consciousness
Was a disease, and the Fascists’ greatest enemy was intelligence.
Exiled to the Canary Islands, and then under permanent house
Arrest for ruffling the lapel of a Nationalist in public. Great men
Of the word always under the thumb of great men of the empire suppressing
their ideas lest the people uniformly become great men one and all.
Copperhead from Ohio during the Civil War—a northern supporter
of the Confederacy. You touted “King Lincoln,” as you called him, saying
of those pro-war: “Defeat, debt, taxation, and sepulchers—these are your trophies.”
Habeas corpus denied and tried but left by blockade runner exiled
To Bermuda and then Canada. Anti-slavery and pro states’ rights;
Like the rest of your ilk, agrarian, you never had a chance. Died
By accidentally shooting yourself to prove a point for a court of law; your last words
stating your undying belief in “that good old Presbyterian doctrine of predestination.”
You were called “the man without a country.”
How dare you lobby for peace so then you got solitary. Walked out
With a book of poems into the Nigerian sun. The foot inside of the oppressive
Boot can be any color, as you said, and you had to exile yourself to survive,
To teach and to write. How is it that we always exile the saviors of the Third World
To the First World where their work falls on the ears of the privileged college
Student and not into the hearts of the starving and brutalized at the end of a rifle’s barrel?
Exile Poem X.
Born with a club foot and described as “dangerous to know”
As he mixed your tonics and observed your sodomies, Polidori
Must have acquired a lexicon of scandals. He fled England
Based on the history of his sordid bed and in Armenia translated
The Bible. Off to Greece to fight in a revolution but died instead
Of a fever. The irony of the Byronic Hero, born of Milton, you
Were refused burial at Westminster Abbey, as if, even in death,
Don Juan could corrupt the young men and women with lyric.
Torn between what was German and what was Jewish,
Two fronts battling in the heart of a Romantic, all you wanted
Was a lectureship in your homeland. You wrote, “Once
I had a lovely fatherland/ The oak /Grew there so high, the violets
Gently swayed/ It was a dream.” Exiled yourself, like so many
To Paris, Mecca of the outcast aesthete, in 1935 as your poems
Were banned by that insidious regime. Your chilling words prophetic;
“Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn humans too.”
Marxist dramaturge—you believed that the play should educate
And this epic theatre is dangerous, even as cabaret. Your work
Fled the Nazis on an American visa just to arrive in the land
Of the free and McCarthy—you wore overalls and smoked a cigar
During the committee’s proceedings. Collaborations with Chaplin,
Your epic hero, and a prolific career to change the stage and screen
Forever. Your will asked that you be buried with a knife in your heart
In a steel coffin to keep the worms out—dramatic to the end and beyond.
Exile Poem XI.
St. Thomas Becket
Killed in Canterbury Cathedral because a King loved him too much?
Wearing a hairshirt under his courtier clothes as the hagiographers record
While priests chanted vespers in the crypt, a knight, striking three blows
Took your halo clean off. You divided a kingdom for personal reasons,
Subsequently voted Britain’s worst villain of the 12th century in a BBC poll.
Chaucer’s pilgrims and all their follies infinitely to thy shrine.
Once you were asked if you were Catholic, replying, “No.
A Freethinker.” “Religions pass away, but God remains,” you said.
Writing in exile via Napoleon III, you would pen Les Miserables, your masterpiece.
Escaping again after your return to France, Paris under siege, in a hot air balloon.
How it must have been for you, Romantic one, watching from the clouds your city burn.
Nazi-exiled to America, the home of Whitman who you quoted in your socialism.
An old professor of mine once quoted you to me: “A writer is somebody for whom
writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” I never forgot that—and later,
while researching you and your aesthetic theories, your genius became described
by a critic as a continual cycle of “repeated puberty.” This worried me—I saw similarities.
Exile Poem XII.
Exiled and died in exile and threatened with exile always
For writing your auroras, your theories of the transverted orb
A state of existence greater than man before the Fall from grace
An alchemical manifestation not of god or human but homo lumens
The being not enlightened, no—the being of pure light itself.
Vegetarian octave-smith mathematician cult-leader sophist
Attempting to reform government on top of all of this and thus
Forced by threat on your life to flee with your mathematikoi
And akosmatikoi with their figures and symbols following you
Into the Grecian hills to continue the rituals of music and the pentagram.
Zodiac engraver, keeper of the secret names of angels, travelling miner
Your arrogance forced you from the city and university and into a mystical
Pilgrimage across three continents in search of esoterica. “All things
Are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose permits something
Not to be poisonous”—you rejected the humours as the cause of all evil.
Blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile to be regulated by dose of metals.
Joe Milford is still a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s workshop and a professor of English. His first collection of poetry, Cracked Altimeter, was published by BlazeVox Press in 2010 and his second is still forthcoming from Hydeout Press.