The city’s clatter
drives you mad, say those who live in the city.
Those who live in the country say that madness is a weed,
a thistle, a sap-filled cruelty suited best to soil
stretched thin over bedrock far removed
from the sunny and permeable pavements of the city,
the magnet whose fluctuating allure we measure
by tracing shifts in the force of our desire to leave it.
On an infrequent jaunt to the countryside,
the blood-stained leader said that nothing is rotten here.
Even the earth, that cradle of decay, smells sweet.
And all agreed for the lamp of expertise,
working in the shadow of its Pinocchio-nose,
had taught even the olfactory image what to do, how to fit itself
to meaning too neatly, and so the nightmare could only fail
to qualify as madness.
And then the Revolution failed,
for expertise had liberated the people
from the very idea of history as an enemy to oppose.
recrossed his legs, the one
that supported the other being
now in its turn supported.
From the greater forms of madness,
the people must learn to oppose themselves.
They must learn to believe, he continued,
that revolutionary government is liberty’s despotism
ranged against tyranny.
Accused of playing god, he replied, I am not
playing god. I am being human.
Light from nowhere
goes nowhere. It is everywhere and forms all forms.
Every presence illuminates itself and all is darkness
for want of contrast.
Robespierre said near the end that from a certain angle
any fool could see that to be a revolutionary force the people
need not be mad. They need only love themselves.
As for the mad, if they are to be sane,
they need not love reason. They need only love themselves.
On this theorem
he built the throbbing geometry of the Terror, and from it
worked out corollaries of portico and autumn
leaf plastered wetly to newish stone and old light
at rest in the down on a nape bent archly
to the weight of the elegance of his proof
that self-love is the revolutionary lever
that wrenches open with perpetual screech the gateway
to the royal road to the rule of madness, legitimate
and eternal, if only the screeching would stop.
self-love was to be silenced by its cruelest corollary:
love of one’s interrogator, allegorical figure
of the joy of hearing one’s own voice tirelessly pacing
the length and graveled breadth of current events.
To resist in the name of one’s sanity
was to give in to what was now
our most subtly demented institution: history,
or that which had not been,
or not exactly.
In monumental falsehood,
we found a modest truth. Having come from nowhere,
we could not be said to be lost. But where,
in this rudely harvested field of data,
could we possibly be said to be going?
Agreeing to notice our dilemma,
Robespierre handed us a ring of keys.
Then we misplaced it, like altruism’s exact address
in the small and crumbling pyramid of modern manners.
Does altruism have a terrace?
In any case, the great project continues.
The mad are talked to. The city is abandoned.
So is the countryside, ensuring that both feel overcrowded
and lost to any future we might possibly want to live.