From Irregular Times

Orange Alert
by J. Clifford Cook

In Syracuse,
poets,
scheduled to read their work within the Federal Building
were turned away at the door,
their permit denied
in accordance with a nationwide orange alert.

To get inside, they would have to remove
all loose change,
and incendiary devices
such as metaphor
and irony
and dissent
from their pockets,
and walk through the security gate.
"Don't fret," said the smiling man with the silver star,
"You can read your poems in the snow, in Clinton Square."

In the public square
a blast of foreign arctic air
brought whiteout conditions
to those who remained to speak,
unafraid of whatever might fall out of the sky.

From inside, the guards watched with amusement,
assembling security kits
of opaque plastic and duct tape
in case of biological attack.

Through the storm,
A delegation of the Literacy Council
was escorted through the security checkpoint.
The first lady through
was prepared to speak with her representative
about the virtues of reading the classics,
and to request great works of metered verse
in which the form was what mattered,
in which visions of home and land
were made clever with little devices
like rhyming "kettle" with "metal".

"Oh, for the days when poetry was free of political poses!
When was that?" the first lady wondered aloud.
Was it Whitman who crashed the tea party?
Or Emerson?
Keats was a drunkard,
or was it Yeats?
Surely it was sometime before
the beatniks' foul mouths and conga drums.
"Still, there are true gentle artists even now.
Jack Frost had the decency to just talk about snow,"
she said,
"and horses,
and farmhouses,
and a fence."
She and the representative agreed
that the Psalms were quite enough for them.

Below, forming a circle in the square,
the protesting poets had nothing to burn for warmth,
but observed that the old worn flag
had been taken from the public square
to be replaced with fabric more fresh,
without such a history of blowing in the wind.

In the basement of the Federal Building,
as the old flag was incinerated,
blue and white were transformed
to an alarming yellow and orange.
Even the red became darker,
like blood full of air from excited lungs,
then a final change to dark ash
and invisible vapor,
rising through the Federal Building
to warm its workers from the winter outside.


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