The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®

 

Mark Williams

 Stripping Down to Fundamentalists

 

     It’s because I know the world is absurd that I’m not going to kill you. 
     But if I somehow figure out that the world has meaning, I can kill you
     in the name of that meaning.

                       —Kamel Daoud, author of The Meursault Investigation,
                           a retelling of The Stranger by Albert Camus

           
Dear Kamel,

Today as I was driving—with Bodhi Day, Pancha Ganapati,
Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas around the corner—
I remembered your interview on NPR. You might be right.
The best of all possible worlds would be one without meaning:
no one ready to defend their beliefs at the drop of a turban,
yarmulke or kufi. Still, some of us have to get out of bed every morning.
Might it be a good thing to have something to get out of bed for—
a meaning, if you will? Yes, I know this is where the trouble starts.
Take publisher, Larry Flynt, secure in his belief to make money, 
only to spend lots of money ($3,000,000)
to protect his right to parody Reverend Jerry Falwell 
in a Hustler issue I don’t feel comfortable discussing.
But Jerry Falwell had some beliefs, too. Let’s just say
that his beliefs and Larry Flynt’s beliefs
had about as much in common as Christmas and April Fools
(not that Larry is one). Did they kill each other? No.
Did they travel around the country debating 1st Amendment rights issues 
while agreeing to agree they’d never agree on anything?
Yes. “I am a Christian,” said Reverend Falwell.
“Smut is my vocation,” said Larry Flynt. The thing is, Kamel,
if an evangelist and a smut peddler can become friends—
exchange dieting tips, share pictures of their grandchildren,
talk about the days Jerry’s father bootlegged in Virginia
(a trade Larry once practiced in Kentucky)—
maybe the rest of us can, too. Get along, I mean.
My favorite part of The Meursault Investigation
is when Musa puts his little brother, Harun, on his shoulders,
and Harun grabs Musa’s ears, steering his head
while Musa rolls a tire down the street and makes a sound like a motor.
They could be brothers anywhere. Anyway,
good luck with your book. And if you ever leave Algeria
for Southern Indiana, look me up. Don’t be a stranger.

 

 

Mark Williams

Lord Byron at the Punch Bowl

 

Do you think your marriage will last? foolishly I say
to the nice man who told me he’s been married for sixty-three years. 

DeeGee and I are two of several hundred people
at the Nicole Irving / Luke Oliver wedding reception,
where we know no one except for Nicole, her mother, 
her sister, and her two dads—biological and step—
who flanked Nicole down the aisle. Bart AND Joe? 
I thought as the organ boomed. Though, for all I know, 
multiple dads give their daughters away all the time. 

I better ask my wife, the nice man says
with a face as straight as his tie, turning to a stern,
prim woman wearing a single strand of pearls—her hair,
a curly gray helmet—who doesn’t seem all that happy to be here.
Or maybe in her marriage. What do I know?
I told this man we’ve been married for sixty-three years.
He wants to know if we think it’ll last
,
the man who has been nice up to now says, grimly,
as if he and his wife had discussed alimony
on their way from the church to Nicole’s reception.

Time will tell, his stern wife says, 
glaring through me toward the punch bowl.

                                         *
                                           
Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance,
Confucius said. If that’s true, I was smart by fifty,
very smart by sixty, near genius now.
The only difference between my friend Gib’s friend
who slipped and flung a cup of coffee against the wall 
before Gib said, That looks like a Jackson Pollack
and Gib’s friend said, What’s a Jackson Pollack?
is that I have some idea of what’s a Jackson Pollack.

I bet you’re from the Midwest, Ezra Pound’s son, Omar,
said to me at a writers’ conference in New England.

Indiana. How’d you know? I said. 
                                                   Because 
people from the Midwest aren’t afraid to ask questions,
said Omar, his way of saying, Because people from the Midwest 
aren’t afraid to admit they don’t know anything.


Or take the other day when I was thinking about Luddites
and I honest-to-God forgot what they demolished. 
Cotton gins? Sewing machines? Steam engines?  
According to Confucius, I’d be even more knowledgeable 
if I did not know George Gordon Byron 
defended the Luddites in the House of Lords
for breaking whatever it was they broke,
the same Lord Byron who wrote:

     Sorrow is knowledge: those that know the most 
     Must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth,
     The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.


As if to say maybe we would be happier if we didn’t know
anything or ask any questions to learn anything

like the time I was at The Porter Wagoner Show 
and Porter and Dolly had just finished singing
“The Last Thing On My Mind” when I asked Porter
if he and Dolly were married, and the entire audience
turned toward me in my bleacher seat and laughed 

or the time I was trying to sell a house to a woman
and I asked her son, What grade are you in? 
and the woman said, Grade? He’s only two years old.

Or when I ask a man who asks his wife
if their marriage will last after sixty-three years
and the woman says, Time will tell, and after
an interminable length of time the man and his wife
turn to one another, smile, and laugh so hard that I laugh hard.
Why, if Lord Byron was drinking at the punch bowl,
he’d think we don’t know anything at all.

 

 

 

MARK WILLIAMS's poems have appeared in The Reaper, The Hudson Review, The Southern Review, Able Muse, Open 24 Hours, Rattle, Nimrod, and the anthology, New Poetry From the Midwest. Finishing Line Press published his poem, “Happiness,” as a chapbook in 2015. His fiction has appeared in Indiana Review and the anthology, American Fiction. He is retired from the real estate business in Evansville, Indiana.

 

 

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