“Home Sweet Home”

by Winslow Homer c. 1863

  When Union and Confederate troops happened to camp across rivers from each other, it became a common practice for their bands to engage in musical exchanges. They would take turns playing their own favorites, eliciting cheers from both sides, and then the bands would play “Home Sweet Home” in unison. After one such interlude, a Confederate soldier wrote in his diary, “I do believe that had we not had the river between us that the two armies would have gone together and settled the war right there and then.”

[from] The Elephant’s Journey

by Jose Saramago

It happened, early the following morning, when the soldiers were still barely awake, that an emissary from the basilica of saint anthony appeared in the camp. He had, he said, although not perhaps in these exact words, been sent by a superior of the church’s ecclesiastical team to speak to the man in charge of the elephant. Now any object three meters high can be seen from some distance away, and Suleiman almost filled the celestial vault, but, even so, the priest asked to be taken to him. The cuirassier who accompanied him shook the mahout awake, for he was still asleep, snug in his greatcoat. 

There’s a priest here to see you, he said. He chose to speak in castilian, and that was the best thing he could have done, given that the mahout’s as yet limited grasp of the german language was not sufficient for him to understand such a complex sentence. Fritz opened his mouth to ask what the priest wanted, but immediately closed it again, preferring not to create a linguistic confusion that might lead him who knows where. He got up and went over to the priest who was waiting at a prudent distance. You wish to speak to me, father, he asked, Indeed, I do, my son, replied his visitor, putting into those five words all the warmth of feeling he could muster,

  • How can I help you, father,
  • Are you a christian came the question,
  • I was baptized, but as you can see from my complexion and my features, I am not from here,
  • No, I assume you’re an indian, but that is no impediment to your being a good christian, 
  • That is not for me to say, for, as I understand it, self-praise is a shameful thing, 
  • Now, I have come to make a request, but first, I would like to know if your elephant is trained,
  • Well, he’s not trained in the sense that he can perform circus tricks, but he usually comports himself in as dignified a fashion as any self-respecting elephant, 
  • Could you make him kneel down, even if only on one knee, 
  • That is something I’ve never tried, father, but I have noticed that suleiman does kneel motu proprio when he wants to lie down, but I can’t be certain that he would do so to order, 
  • You could try, 
  • This is not the best time, father, suleiman tends to be rather bad-tempered in the morning, 
  • If it would be more convenient, I can come back later, for what brings me here is certainly not a life-or-death affair, although it would be very much in the interests of the basilica if it were to happen today, before his highness the archduke of austria leaves for the north,
  • If what happens today, if you don’t mind my asking,
  • The miracle, said the priest, putting his hands together,
  • What miracle, asked the mahout, feeling his head beginning to spin,
  • If the elephant were to kneel down at the door of the basilica, would that not seem to you a miracle, one of the great miracles of our age, asked the priest, again putting his hands together in prayer,
  • I know nothing of miracles, where I come from there have been no miracles since the world was created, for the creation, I imagine, must have been one long miracle, but then that was that,
  • So you are not a christian,
  • That’s for you to decide, father, but even though I was anointed a christian and baptized, perhaps you can still see what lies beneath,
  • And what does lie beneath,
  • Ganesh, for example, our elephant god, that one over there, flapping his ears, and you will doubtless ask me how I know that suleiman the elephant is a god, and I will respond that if there is, as there is, an elephant god, it could as easily be him as another,
  • Given that I need you to do me a favor, I forgive you these blasphemies, but, when this is over, you will have to confess,
  • And what favor do you want from me, father,
  • To take the elephant to the door of the basilica and make him kneel down there, 
  • But I’m not sure I can do that.
  • Try,…

Copyright © 2008 by Jose Saramago and Editorial Caminho, S.A, Lisbon.

English translation Copyright© 2010 by Margaret Jull Costa

Visions of Labour

by Lawrence Joseph

I will have writings written all over it
   in human words: wrote Blake. A running
form, Pound’s Blake: shouting, whirling
   his arms, his eyes rolling, whirling like flaming
cartwheels. Put it this way, in this language:
   a blow in the small of the back from a rifle butt,
the crack of a blackjack on a skull, face
   beaten to a pulp, punched in the nose
with a fist, glasses flying off, ‘fuckin’ Wobblie
   wop, hit him again for me,’ rifle barrel slammed
against the knees, so much blood in the eyes,
   rain, and the night, and the shooting pain
all up and down the spine, can’t see. Put it
   this way: in the sense of smell is an acrid
odour of scorched metal, in the sense of sound,
   the roaring of blow torches. Put it in this
language: labour’s value is abstract value,
   abstracted into space in which a milling machine
cutter cuts through the hand, the end of her thumb
   nearly cut off, metal shavings driven in, rapidly
infected. Put it at this point, the point at which
   capital is most inhumane, unsentimental,
out of control: the quantity of human labour in
   the digital manufacture of a product is progressing
toward the economic value of zero, the maintenance
   and monitoring of new cybernetic processes
occupied by fungible, commodified labour
   in a form of indentured servitude. Static model,
dynamic model, alternate contract environments,
   enterprise size and labour market functions,
equilibrium characterisation, elasticity of response
   to productivity shocks: the question in this Third
Industrial Revolution is who owns and controls
   the data. That’s what we’re looking at, labour cheap,
replaceable, self-replicating, marginal, contracted out
   into smaller and smaller units. Them? Hordes
of them, of depleted economic, social value,
   who don’t count, in any situation, in anyone’s eyes,
and won’t count, ever, no matter what happens,
   the truth that, sooner than later, they will simply be
eliminated. In Hanover Square, a freezing dawn,
   from inside bronze doors the watchman sips
bourbon and black coffee in a paper cup, sees
   a drunk or drugged hedge fund boy step over
a passed-out body. A logic of exploitation.
   A logic of submission. The word alienation. Eyes
being fixed on mediated screens, in semiotic
   labour flow: how many generations between
these States’ age of slavery and ours? Makers,
   we, of perfectly contemplated machines.

Retirement

by Karl Shapiro

Something tells him he is off-limits
When he visits the old establishment, maybe for mail.
He still has his key, but it has a slippery feel.
A colleague gives him a startled look, an over-emphatic Hi!
Both act almost as if they had seen a ghost,
Both know they would rather meet on the street
Than in this particular environment, why
Meeting like this is a kind of misstep.
They wave each other off like a gardener and a bee.
Leaving, he stumbles a little, out of deference,
Hoping he won’t run into any Young Turks.

Poetry (October/November 1987)