Header for Poem

-On Brueghel The Elder's "Tower of Babel"

For R.A.W.. Fnord in Peace, Brother Bob.

This is a chain poem. Within the next 55 days you will receive thirty-eleven-hundred pounds of chains.

Having conceived Babel, yet unable to build it
themselves, they had thousands to build it for them. But
those who toiled knew nothing of the dreams of those
who planned. And the minds that planned the Tower of
Babel cared nothing for the workers who built it.
--Maria (from Metropolis, 1927)

The theory seems to be that as long as a man
is a failure he is one of God's children, but that
as soon as he succeeds he is taken over by the Devil.
--H. L. Mencken

Presented in In four parts

  1. 1-Division of Labour
  2. 2-Meaninglessness
  3. 3-States
  4. 4-The Argument

1-Division of Labour

"There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds."
--Gilbert K. Chesterton

Do you speak English?

From scaffolds atop Babel I see gilded cities up
on the clouds, gorgeous gargoyles keeping watch over
the plains of Shinar, keeping watch over us, over our
humble tower of rock and mud. On another horizon,
I can see the edge of the flat world, where water falls
into I don't know. Some say "Turtles all the way
down," but that's dumb. This soldier knows an infinite
regress of reptiles is dumber than land wars in Asia.
Common sense is what tells you the world is flat, infinite.

What grand architect drafts those tortoises on gridded
paper? Who conjures them from the four elements?
Who mixes fire and wood, draws ashen stains upon
their rocky backs like rugs? Who coalesces the jade
geodesic carapaces covering soupy-soft innards?

A clever eagle picks up a turtle and drops him from
such great heights onto rocks clustered near base camp
at the foot of our tower--the eagle's meal workers envy,
and steal and devour and are happy, like the vultures
of Babylon after little ones are dashed against the stones
by the waters.

I can see the bird's belly above me, down waving
like a holy flag after battle. Are eagles allowed
to see god when his own image remains blind?

God sits in his cloudy castle, moping. Afraid
of his creation--an unknowable deity behind walls;
an ignorant deity who delays coming to see us;
an impotent deity whose status we've conquered
with rocks and muddy masonry.

I am alone up here, within sight of God's flying
buttresses and below is land and my fellow man.
Alone, against orders, I climbed up atop and away
from it all, to see all creation; I could splash like the son
of Daedalus, barely a ripple on the Aegean, arms
splayed; a plucked, panicked, clumsy albatross, flapping
against nothing. The castle would stand unmoved.

¿Usted habla español?

Near the quarry, the king no longer hears words, and we no
longer hear his or the words of our fathers and father's fathers.
Gibberish and nonsense, like the talk of animals rather
than men. Is the king mocking me? I compliment his robes
and he mocks me? Even his men look confused, like fish
getting clubbed on the pier, out of their element and facing
violence. What is this? We've labored at the bottom of this
tower for years, and no trip to the top, no possibility
of ascension. We, the many, the soldiers, the workers,
the collective hive buzzing at his needs--
though we all have our own reasons for tenderness

What is the order, sir? Nonsense! Nonsense atop taxes?
Speaking in tongues and illiterate lips? No chief of state!
No-one can respect the red robe and crown, the body
that holds them both sways in the breeze like clouds,
babbling and incoherent. The soldiers talk all at once,
no-one listening, and they do not understand either,
no coup, no conspiracies, no beyond our words.
We all speak louder, maybe volume is comprehension.

A self-perpetuating autocracy, a half-assed anarchy,
a mistaken identity, and I need to get home, south,
down the Tigris, to Ur, and see my wife and children,
nurse them with tales of woe and my small salary,
but do they know my language? Can I show them?
Can I show them my scars and tell my war stories,
exaggerated and full of meaning like my father's?

Slaves scatter like moonlight in the clouds, and last
I see of the king is a stomped-on collar, the white
of that hare is absolutely meaningless to anyone
without the words--

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

The hero is the last one on the shore at the foot
of Babel, his leg dangling off the pier, schools
of fish just below. God is behind him, a slight
glow of wisdom and practiced senses of the soldier
feels the presence. "The fire of his opal eyes
clear beacons glowing, living jewels, taking
measure, steadily." The soldier's song:

"The purpose of this is resonant and crystal,
like air in its transparency. What is your reason
for fear? What does it mean to you if we say
'let there be light?' and take your place on our
own Olympus? What is your malfunction,
imperfect creator?
And what does it say about
your creation, the strongest of the animals?
What about your disinformation?

"Who hears me among the ranked angels as I
cry out? The one with twelve wings, the snake
in our garden, our creation-right, and he helps us
break your ignorance spell, the snake is our savior,
knowledge over good and evil. Now, we ascend,
and what have you given us? New definitions
for old concepts; how contemptuous!

"Take this as prophecy: We will not end here.
This tower dwarfs you, and towers of the future
will look down in disdain at the clouds, and this
round world below will be a pale blue dot."

C^u vi parolas la Esperanto?

In the beginning was the word, struck one letter at a time
with an old typewriter, or a cheap pen so slow you can hear
the scratch of the ball-point rolling in-socket, reaching up
into the well to bring more ink to the page. This word
was composed next to thousands of others; and lined up
in neat rows like soldiers razing a village, collecting slaves
to build great works.

The sun is setting, and I stand in the penumbra of the tower,
which stretches across the world to where the sun will rise.

How many rooms are within the tower? Did you think
we made it to confuse you, Loki? We tied your daughter,
and confound her so she could not find her rightful place?
Hel, your lovely daughter, would be too great to confine in our
dungeon, to confine to shadow her blue-black face. She is not
all she seems. All who wander are not lost, as the cliché goes.
Through the roots of Yggdrasil, she found her place.

Demeter cannot search too long for her daughter;
how else can she teach us that bullshit makes the flowers
grow? That is beautiful.

Have our endless doors made you a rube? Cube after cube
separated by endless arches; there is no minotaur, scraping
his axe against the walls and sparking light into existence,
mumbling softly, ruminating,
"Let there be . . . Let there be . . . Let there be. . . "

Unazungumza Kiswahili?

"Since the flood of Noah we are all brothers again,"
I said to the man before the confusion of his tongue;
and he nodded and we worked and went to his house
in the shadow of the tower, that round ziggurat against
the sky. We laid on his roof and looked up in vertigo
as the clouds passed what was the top of the tower;
small chunks of sky were consumed by scaffolds
ladders, and levers. We enjoy the silence.

When the stars came out, he opened his mouth
and I understood as if his words were my own.
We traded those words over tea overflowed
with milk and honey. "Oh, we're not united
any more than you are." "We are united,
though; our words have fidelity to reality."

This was met with respectful pondering silence.

"Our words are the words of Adam, and he
named all things, and that makes him a kind
of god." I said all this without fear. "Eden
is our creation-right. Together, we can smash
the flaming swords that guard its entrance;
we will pass through the valley. We'll eat fruits
and taunt the serpents and claim what is our own."

When we looked up again at the stars, we drew
lines between them with our fingers and named
the constellations as if it were the first time.

And the next time he spoke, it was as if my ears
were filled with water.

Badakizu euskaraz?

There is an obelisk at the forest edge, the clump of black
combines with the trees against the dawn sky; ebon veins
flow out like the fine blue ones of my forearm. Villagers
and slaves crowd around it and tilt their heads, confused
dogs, as if they understand the tower behind them more
than the block of rock.

This is a moment of evolution; the obelisk was the first
firmament, appeared again when Cain slew Abel,
when Adam begat Eve, and when they next find
one on the moon, believe our footprints aren't alone
in the dust of that long-dead world.

Villagers and slaves see the monolith as a prize,
merchants see it is a profit; and when a stonecutter
puts his chisel against the rock and raises his hammer,
suddenly there is nothing there but the dew-wet black
forest, moist, like cake, and a heavy hammer pulled back.

Parlez-vous français?

The king of Babylon speaks to the dirt:

"Did your ancestors tell you to play with your creation
like mashed potatoes and gravy volcanoes? Disaster
is not a plaything, malevolent entity. It's beautiful
volcanoes will not create enlightenment. Giant bivalves
may be amusing, but do not necessarily create the most
valuable pearls. Let us pry them apart to inspect them,
let us pry the rocks up from the quarries, slabs of Earth
held aloft in arches by triumphant mud.

"Adam told his son, Seth, that Eve and Adam were born
of dirt, and I know when I die that I will return to dirt,
and it doesn't take a genius to know Adam and Eve
and Seth are here in the walls of this building, at the base
of all that is holy, of all the world.

"Adam had his own Babel, sowed his own confusion,
when he came from the garden, he changed the languages
of all the animals; so the cat attacks the mouse. As above,
so below."

That is what the king would have said if he had the words,
instead he says, "I should have been a mason."


A submarine sits, broken in half,
crossed akimbo on the sea floor;
the skeleton of an almost-survivor
is a floating home to fishes.

Coelacanth rests in the ribcage
of the once-man. Dinosaurs, evolution
of man: trivialities. In death
there is a use for this man;
before he just took up space,
him and all his neighbors,
lovers, parents, and siblings.
The ancient fish thought extinct
doesn't concern itself with sunrise
after winter solstice, or the white dunes
on the seafloor. The sea phoenix,
the cliché bird that violates laws
of thermodynamics and chemistry.

It is as unimportant as a president;
the artificial reef resets the hull
with colorless barnacles. The fish
will see the sun boil off the oceans,
as the sun grows larger and reddens
the sky. Then no-one will ever catch
him with a hook and lure, shoved
through the cheek.


The patient presents as a dead man,
and the police are stationed next
to the doors, and I can't treat him.

This is not quite a science; tubes arc
gracefully into nose and mouth,
and the medicine is introduced
automatically. My intravenous
fluid is a chemical bath of saline,
and it is killing him. His only son
is gone; his wife is now only myth.

Doctor, heal thyself and do not
lose objectivity over the object,
the puzzle of pain and pestilence.
Do not lose yourself in hope.

The biopsy tells us "cancer"
and a silly imaginary image
in the sky dances around in circles

4-The Argument

Você fala português?

I told my mother I didn't believe in you, reader,
and she wept for my eternal soul. That's a lie--
you know that--and I don't know why I tell them.
The lies, that is. I feel as if I failed you, dear
reader. Though I know it's not a test this time.

We will clone the first human and his name will be Adam,
and he will be perfect in every way, like all children.
He will proceed with us through
that window--back and to the left--
and the tower of hell
and the great serpentines of the highest order
to stray this far from the ground floor of the tower
to the cusp of the forest's garden where snakes flow
and flowers bloom. The star anise is in season.

From here, we behold the mountain we made at Babel,
and it trembles and crumbles for lack of sustenance,
and the sentence for hubris is--

Nihongo o hanashimasu ka

The universe is a big place, maybe even the biggest. On this round
world we're scattered, with continents and dinosaur bones, raindrops
looking to join rivers looking to join rivers looking to join oceans.
Reader, can you find me, among masses of men pouring out? Dirty
water and you dilute me, you think. No! I become more. I am
the earth plus plastic! You are mere tools to give me what I need.
Have you found the god in everything who makes the grass green?
It ain't Eris. That bitch and her golden apple have nothing on me.

I'm sorry; I've been drinking. Send money.

Mu is the answer. Says little, does less, means nothing.

Are you looking at the trees, stumpy? Only you can prevent
forest fires. Smokey will just steal your pic-a-nic basket.
Let that motherfucker burn, like some body builder working out, muscles
stand in relief; the athletes lift triangular weights and ride penny farthings,
handlebar mustaches catching their tears.

Buddha put down his pen and crossword and told me
not to worry, madness and vexation would be my reward
if I contemplate the beginning; it is pointless, the beginning,
and does not lead anywhere useful.

I will build broken cathedrals and worship plastic refrigerator magnets.

Reader, contemplate:
the usefulness of
the little magnetized chip-clip as-seen-on-TV

As you are outside myself, reader, I promote you to godhood,
as you are knowing more than me.
a step toward omniscience.

printf("tlhIngan Hol Dajatlh'a'");

Thusly, from cans of meat electric this way came:
disclaims most old of our liability taste
it also wave tells you
how conversation between Captain Helding
and high-jump dragon boat
festival of your husband--all decoration
a man came and was favourable:
and the real green-eyed monster Hungarian
with graffito satisfaction that showed itself.

And when mutton makes sense as a cake topping,
next to man and man, man and wife, wife and wife
and undreamed plural singularities
That will be the day we understand universal grammar,
and we all know that merciful Cthulu,
King Kong,
and Frankenstein
died for your sins

And all this,
dear god,
all this
for a question
from a child
on a picture
on a wall
of a story
from a book
and a god
I can't believe in.