J. Finds in His Pocket Neither Change nor Small Bills

By Jeffrey Schultz Jeffrey Schultz

                      Griffith Park, Los Angeles

Every living heart . . . all over this broad land, will yet swell . . . , when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
                      —Abraham Lincoln

Because the body now and its organs suggest nothing
     but those pathologies in which we’ve been instructed,
Because the gutter’s black as new blood, a Petri dish
     of piss and teeth knocked loose at the root,
Because our walking here’s scared up pigeons and the air’s
     thick with their disease, because, therefore, we’re holding
Our breath in silent prayer, Good People of Los Angeles,
     for our immune systems, for hand sanitizer,
For swift and decisive return of the sun’s irradiating
     grace, I can hardly say I even know you much
Beyond the turnstile’s slick in the discount supermarket,
     the sidewalk’s chewing gum and tuberculosis.
But I’ve been thinking of you, of your eyes darting behind
     the tinted lenses which minimize exposure to UV, to God-
Knows-what, even though it’s dark this morning, cold, cold,
     at least, by our way of thinking: frond-tips glimpsed
Through fog-bank, a dew so lightly acidic we’ve forgotten
     it’s the cause of these few more leaves dropped
From evergreens, the rasp at the back of the throat.
     Members of the Taxpayer’s Association, divorce
Attorneys, Good People of Bel Air, you who keep eyes dead
     ahead at the top of freeway off-ramps, who refuse guilt,
That scrap cardboard hungry sign slung over a stack of bones,
     entrance within the Town Car’s four doors, the pure, leather-
Scented air there, I’ve been thinking about those
     other ones, the thousands of indigents and itinerants,
Formerly among us and suffering the debit card’s curse
     on the panhandler, who today, because it is December
And dark, because after cremation they’ve gone so long
     unclaimed, will be buried in mass anonymity somewhere
Far from here, Boyle Heights or East LA, somewhere
     unremarkable: flatland, barred windows, chain-link.
There’s a minimum of ceremony. A short benediction
     and half a handful of city employees. Dogs watch
From a distance. It takes a certain kind of distraction,
     a remarkable forgetfulness to not recognize
In those nameless something of that little tyrant, The Self,
     to let history and language fail, let the world outside
Dissolve, a mentholated lozenge on the tongue.
     The taste it leaves is the inability to taste anything else,
And at bottom of the park’s southern slope, beneath
     the Hollywood Hills and their Attendant, Contempt, one
Who’s wandered a few too many blocks from the halfway
     house’s steadying three-times-daily belts into Los Feliz
Boulevard’s early rush a few bars of O Lord,
     won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz? before schizophrenia
Changes key again into abject terror’s primal screech.
     What’s remarkable then is the passing jogger’s scandalized
I could just die and the morning’s usual by-the-numbers.
     All over the basin pyschotherapists await the DSM-V’s
New-phone-book thud on the doorstep, and grave shift
     cryogenicists make the last rounds, check temps, check
The corresponding boxes on log sheets while we continue
     in our unrelenting interrogation of the body: Liver!
How do you plot against me today? Brain! you’ve gone soft. As if
     deep-within’s crowded tissues could confess the knowledge
We most desire, as if we’d not already allowed our private
     pandemic to order our days as on a clear plastic pill case,
As if, I mean, to function were synonymous with to live.
     Right down to it, we all know Death’s no more likely
To knock and announce than the LAPD, and though
     he may be gentler, he will not, in the end, read perfunctorily
From a list of rights meant to protect us. Everything
     we’ve said has always been used against us. Los Feliz:
The Happy Ones. We mispronounce. Force a rhyme
     with Felix. Mispronounce and counteract even irony’s
Potential side effects. Los Feliz. The Homeless. The Lesser
     and Underprivileged. The Disturbed. May they all someday
Rest in peace. Good night, Sweet Paupers. Abstraction’s
     its own little crime against humanity, but euphemism
Is still a lovely word to say aloud. Los Ángeles.
     But what angel is this? Stretched half across the footpath,
Its body’s a grotesque, everywhere swollen
     and withered at once. It’s gone septic, it’s gone
Almost entirely. And what worthless paper is that man
     fumbling with as he approaches? A thinning five maybe,
Lincoln’s etched face a gaunt pockmark, beard and ears,
     or else the “Elegy for Sky & Gooseflesh” penciled
On an expired bus transfer? It’s a worthless scene:
     a man in headphones and an angel which actually appears
To be something much more like a beggar, except
     that it’s passed out and so freed of the beggar’s contractual
Obligations. Starved and curled into itself, it looks
     freed even of this world, like something almost not
There at all, a fact the man uses as excuse to keep walking,
     his step timed to the beat, his eyes scanning ahead
For needles, slivered glass, the more subtle sort of dangers.
     What else could he possibly do? Kneel down
And slip stealthily something into the blistered palm
     of its hand? Cover its body with the fallen fronds
Which we can’t now help but imagine as resembling wings
     because we’re thinking instead of a man slowly dying
In a public park about a real angel and so The Eternal
     and so the failing health of our own souls, a disorder
For which the FDA has yet approved no treatment. Disorder,
     as if it were simply a matter of finding the right arrangement
Of bodies in space. But what can we do, all exactly mad
     with grief for ourselves or hobbled with debt’s deep
Tissue bruise? Because in mourning we are to gather
     together, Shoppers of the Miracle Mile, Day Traders,
Night Watchmen, but we’re all just standing here
     like fools, unable to look each other in the eyes,
Unable to believe in anything at the unchanging core
     of being but a phantom limb’s complete and constant
Wing-ache, because we are what multiplies, the desert
     as it reaches towards even you, Citizens of the Once Frozen
North. In mourning we are to remember, but memory’s
     emaciated; there was something supposed to become more
Perfect, something else about what always comes of tyrants,
     but who knows? In mourning we meet in need,
But here in a circle at last, tell me what ridiculous things
     we could possibly ask of each other. Spare a buck?
Sing a little prayer for me? The overcast buckles
     under the weight of a singed and empty sky. Because
There’s next to nothing left, America, call our
     name; please, won’t you please lay on your hands?

Source: Poetry (November 2009).

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This poem originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

November 2009
 Jeffrey  Schultz

Biography

Jeffrey Schultz lives in Los Angeles and teaches at Pepperdine University. He received the 2009 “Discovery” / Boston Review prize.

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Social Commentaries, Money & Economics, Race & Ethnicity, Cities & Urban Life

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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