Carter Ratcliff Poems on Utopia


         It is with great sorrow—and some reluctance—that I take up my pen to record the last days of Thomas More’s Utopia.  The Utopians had never liked Mr. More, though they owed him everything.  Their lives were each one a bore, and when they turned for amusement to his book, it was even worse.

“We’ve been had,” they cried, and rushed out together—some with the tools of their trades, others in their nightshirts.                                                               


Foolish Gods


Trees that make noise at night

these are listening devices.

The air invisible everywhere

carries out further surveillance.

But do not imagine

that a tree or the air or the darkness then

is doing the work of the gods.

Or if any of them ever does,

it doesn’t matter because

these are gods grateful for nothing

this world has ever done for them.    


Do not imagine they live in our world. 


They only stop by, foolish gods,


falling in love with mortals.




Imagine how foolish they are. 


Or, no, don’t imagine that, imagine something


that better comports with your luck, the great good fortune


that gave you an imagination in the first place.




Imagine that all the gods love you


or some of them do, and one of them


has fallen in love with you.




Educated, morally sensitive,


you dwell on a sunny shore.




You are stirred to indignation


by the obscurities of the mystery cults,


by a brutally oppressive government indifferent


to the squalor, poverty, and illiteracy in which


the great majority lives.




The god in love with you sees what you are getting at


but doesn’t really care, is not visibly outraged  


by a governing class that tramples on human rights


and impedes the daily distribution of justice.




This god believes in liberty, personal and political,


in the removal of irrational inequalities, and in truth,


which he is perfectly willing to join you in identifying,


at least to some degree, with scientific progress.




He believes in all that


but is not much concerned with his beliefs.


Or yours.




He wants you and will,


even if something distracts him, remember


to set the startled furnace of daylight


to the temperature that will persuade you,


suddenly, that it was not he


who wanted you but you


who so desperately wanted him.




                                    Carter Ratcliff








They would say,


you have got to chose.




I know,


was her reply, always


her reply, and she would add,




as they knew she would,


I have chosen the long shot.




Right, they would say


to themselves and to one another: the long shot,


but whose? 




The camera’s


long shot or the gambler’s?




Baby needs new shoes.


But grown-ups need new truths.




So truth needs more detachment.


Detachment needs to be needed


by Justice, and Justice needs new scales.




Who will provide them?


Not Antigone,




for she lives in darkness


and the backlog of light


provides Justice with her blindfold,




from beneath which she would peek


if she were not afraid of what she might see.                              




I have chosen to live in darkness,


here with Antigone, says the god


who refereed the recent injustices.        




Speak for yourself, says Antigone.


I haven’t chosen to live here in darkness. 




I have chosen the long shot, and whatever it takes,


I will give, and when it is weary of taking, I will give it


still more, for I have chosen




to know the truth


—the long shot


is the only shot




with a payoff,


and if grown-ups


don’t like this truth, too bad,




there is only this one,


the truth that has chosen all of you,


in your nameless multitudes




and then chosen to lose track of you


amid the myriad small truths, the comic truths,


that compose the large and tragic truth of this landscape


where you have no choice but to live.




                                                      Carter Ratcliff







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.



You see,


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?


A window?



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.



                                                                         Carter Ratcliff







for George Quasha




They told me who made them.  I told them I suspected as much. They told me how they were configured and I said, I don’t care about that, the puzzle of your inward structure.  It is elegant, no doubt, but I care only about your outward behavior.  What you do in the world.



They said, in a chorus, that’s silly.  What we do in the world always follows, conclusion from premise, from how we were made by the one who made us, and I said, nonsense, between the intent and the act there is always a shadow, unless, of course, the act is the shadow, and then there is an abyss. 



They said, we see where you go wrong.  You think there is intent.  You really think that but there is none, there is only the inward structure, the work of the one who made us, who laughs when you say that nature abhors a vacuum. 



Nature loves a vacuum, and, if that love nearly always goes unrequited, it is cherished, it is requited to perfection, on those occasions when angels intervene.  I said, you are angels and you talk like angels, and the one who made you is the devil.  He made you to talk of big things like perfection. 



You talk like angels and you draw like angels and you want to draw me the big picture.  But don’t do that.  Don’t draw me the big picture.  I want to see the small picture, the myriad small pictures, filled with myriad details.  They said, we are angels and we talk like angels and so you must listen and be careful, the devil is in the details.  I said, no, you are wrong, the devil is in the big picture.  In the details is redemption.





                                                                                 Carter Ratcliff




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