In Hollywood, the CIA is always the villain, even if the protagonist is a CIA agent, and Ridley Scott’s action adventure Body of Lies is no exception. Starring Russell Crowe as the cynical CIA careerist Ed Hoffman, Leonardo DiCaprio as the much-abused human intelligence specialist Roger Ferris, and Mark Strong as the skeptical Jordanian intelligence czar Hani, this cloak-and-dagger thriller is a bit dark for a popcorn movie, but for a dust-filter genre Middle East spy flick it does the job, without belittling the million+ deaths the U.S. war on terrorism has caused.
This poem, inspired by the 76th Psalm, is in Hoffman’s voice browbeating Ferris about priorities.
Uncle Sam is well known in Basra,
in Baghdad he left his mark.
In Jordan he knows his friends,
in Gaza he has his narcs.
There, in a shower of missile strikes,
he laid waste Saddam’s war machine:
vengeful light shows in electric green
battered the backbone of industry.
The palace guard were put to shame,
retreating in a bitter daze,
and unopposed, the air force bombed Iraq.
The credit was the C.I.A.’s,
for manufacturing consent.
Langley has never been more feared,
for who can outrun a drone?
Satellites decide whose homes
will be reduced to rubble,
when Langley has a score to settle,
defending freedom, as they say.
Jihadists go to ground like rabbits
knowing we will draw up kill lists.
Make what promises you may, you’re with us;
our allies are your friends because of aid.
The wages of oil wealth are paid in blood.
My Pentagon outranks your king’s right hand.
Though I’m not normally one for musicals, I thoroughly enjoyed Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s masterpiece, The Phantom of the Opera, starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum. I cringe at Gerard Butler’s signature move in shoot-em-up’s of shooting his adversaries dead when they’re already down, but this role won me over to his fandom. Emmy’s turn as Christine is angelic, and I would definitely go to see another musical adaptation if she were in it – fans should check out her YouTube channel for original music videos, including Christmas music!
This poem, inspired by the 75th Psalm, is in Madame Giry’s voice, an almost omniscient narrator of the story of the cursed Parisian opera house and its melodramatic demise.
We sing for you, the Phantom – we take heed,
and know your voice, who summoned us, comes near.
The people are enthralled, and doubt you not.
“The point of no return is now at hand,
and I shall cast the lots – who lives, who dies.
This Opera house would fade from memory,
if I had not raised up its brightest star.
I warned the circus dancers, brutes and clowns,
and their inflated diva, not to sing.
Seek not to rob my prottégé of rank.
Your blithe disdain for art does not daunt me.
For nowhere else will you obtain the means
to move the soul – my music is the key.
The Phantom you abhor will have his due,
for only he can make or mar on cue.
At his fingertips the music sheaves,
mute with possibility – his dreams.
He will break his silence, and in song,
unwind his fell designs for the pompous throng,
and all will come to ruin at one blow.”
And I, though I keep faith, will always know
whose music moved the firmament that night.
“And all the fools who hunted me recoiled.
Christine alone held fast, and met my eyes.”
In the hands of an ironist like Euripides, the last days of queen Hekabe are a miserable sight. Above, you see the death of her daughter, Polyxena, to honor the grave of Achilles at Troy. Having lost all her children at once, she feeds her revenge on a target of convenience, and upon seeing that even then she cannot escape her fate, she casts herself into the sea. This poem, inspired by the 74th Psalm, comes before the news of her last child’s death, before she has abandoned all hope of redemption.
As Simone Weil points out in the Poem of Force, even a slave’s tears are not her own to shed for those she loves – she may weep only for her master’s sorrows, and no longer dare weep for her own. So even Hekabe’s prayer to Apollo is an act of outrageous defiance, for already she is a slave, and this she will not accept.
To what end, Apollo, are we cast off?
You rage against those under your protection.
Recognize our ancient heritage,
as people of your fiefdom, in your debt,
whose kingdom raised royal temples in your name.
Set foot upon the smoldering sanctum,
all looted and blood-smeared, altars defaced.
The Greeks have overrun your Ilium,
made mock-ups of portents, and scorned the gods.
Aegeans felled our princes and our priests,
summarily as woodsmen clear young pines.
Our graven images are ground to dust
in blows from spear hafts, maces, shields and slings.
These arsonists reduced your throne to ash,
and shat upon the altar at your feet.
They would erase Troy from the very Earth.
They scorched your groves and feasted on your kine.
Your oracles we did not heed in time.
The prophetess Cassandra is a slave,
and no one understands her either way.
How long, Sun God, will Greeks with their snide jokes
dismiss a queen and mother’s right to mourn?
What holds back your darts, seeing us butchered,
your silver bow at rest and not deployed?
The Furies are an older lot, but you
once prized our safety and our shining walls.
You smote the serpent Python in his cave,
as ancient and as fearsome as the Flood.
You pulverized the monster’s gaping jaws,
filleted his flesh for dolphins, mice and crows.
You severed stones between the laurel’s roots,
where springs gushed forth, and stilled them into pools.
Your chariot announces break of day,
and Night herself waits on your horses’ neighs.
You, the inventor of maps, drawings, laws,
medicine, learning – you gave men reason.
Justice demands you take heed of our plight,
their barbaric gesture, blood sacrifice.
Do no dare feed these dogs daughters of Troy,
the wrath of a mother will reckon this.
See to your city, take heed of our prayers,
for the Furies are moved, they scent clotted blood.
Turn not aside from an old woman’s needs,
for even a slave may pray on her knees.
Apollo, aid me if you will not be shamed,
for the Greeks mock our loss with funeral games.
Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven has been warmly received by critics as an epic that trades in positive masculinity and features a powerhouse performance from Eva Green as the princess Sibylla and an all-star cast of knights in shining armor. As with Gladiator, the soundtrack steals many a scene, this time scored by Harry Gregson-Williams.
The story asks the question whether personal integrity is an adequate stand against corrupt leadership in the realm of statecraft – whether upholding the rights of criminals is fair to those under their power. Although the film suggests that Balian is content to live with his choices to the end, the price paid by others whom the film allows us to care about is awfully high.
This poem, based on the 73rd Psalm, is in Balian’s voice addressed to Sybilla, after he has announced his decision not to usurp power from her cynical and foolhardy husband, Guy de Lusignan (played by Marton Csokas). Later, he will retrace his steps and confront Guy ineffectually about a tactical blunder – but his cinematically convenient decision to confront the king bluntly in front of his knights naturally dooms his advice to failure, as Guy must defend his own authority by dismissing Balian’s unsolicited advice wholesale. Balian (Orlando Bloom) comes off as a bit of a blunderer himself, in that regard. But at least his self-respect is intact…
Only the good is cherished by a true knight,
for what more is Christendom to the pilgrim?
Truly, for my part, I might have strayed,
for in this labyrinth, love gave me pause.
Do you doubt that I envy your husband,
when I see you secure in his palm?
Glibly the man fears nothing of the grave,
feeling only his fullness in power.
The cross has no place in his religion,
for the man abhors all self-denial.
Arrogance defines his every gesture,
disdainful of his duties under law.
Grease from his table smears his bloodshot eyes,
as he plies the mob by idolizing war.
Of binding oaths he speaks with arch derision,
and no one doubts that he will be a tyrant.
When he swears by the name of our Lord,
his rabble-rousing sweeps through crowds like wildfire.
Not because they credit him with faith, no –
and yet they drink his poison eagerly.
They suppose Christ does not see them sin,
and question how one God could know all hearts.
Do you think I am blind to their success?
Men who stint no evil gain in power.
For what reward do you think I keep my vows,
and by my labors do such penitence?
The Templars spit on me, and will do worse,
and all my doings here may be for nought.
Do you doubt I contemplated killing him?
The thought of my wife, and your son, held me back.
The act of apprehending how things stand
has been a wrenching sorrow in my heart.
Until, in contemplation on the mount,
I came to sense what heaven can withhold.
Truly, these warriors rule over an anthill,
a simple act can cast all to the winds.
Do you not marvel at how sudden death
can be, on the heels of great good fortune?
Ephemeral as incense, their illusions
dissipate like mist above the sea at daybreak.
When I resented keenly all I’d lost,
and fear of hypocrites transfixed my soul,
I stumbled like a brute led on God’s way,
comprehending none of what I saw.
Yet even then, love’s light burned from within,
the spirit of Jerusalem sustained me.
Your brother took me in his confidence,
and in defending you, I won acclaim.
Why else do you believe I take up arms,
who else do you imagine I desire?
Exact from me all that the world demands,
and still a knight and Christian, I endure.
I see what ends corrupted men are for,
how low they grovel, obdurate and damned.
For me, nearness to scripture is enough,
I pitch my tent where God wills and move on,
consoled by the fair sweat upon my brow.
So I was reading the Penguin selections of the Talmud, and stumbled upon a ghost story just in time for Halloween – here’s some paranormal poetry in anticipation of the Dia De Muertos.
Not sure what to make of all this talk about a Gladiator sequel with Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott, but if it comes to fruition this time, I will definitely be seeing it in theaters! Couldn’t resist writing a little fan poetry in anticipation…
This paean to Indira Gandhi is a little tongue-in-cheek, but it pays tribute to a very real and very enduring dynasty in Indian politics, the Nehru/Gandhi family, scions of the Congress Party, once upon a time a party of statesmen with a platform, but now as much a family firm as any political party in India.
Dynasty politics is something my home country, the U.S., is no stranger to. Here, nepotism and family name brand politics seemed to have peaked when Clinton and Trump faced off in the 2016 elections, but the family firm’s place in American politics has deep roots, and the periodic reversion from statesmanship to “family & friends” politics is probably an ineradicable tendency in populist democracies.
The portrait of Indira Gandhi above is from a Time magazine story on the state of emergency Indira used to prolong her stay in power when the high court ruled that she must step down. Indira’s emergency powers eventually gave way to a resurgence of press freedoms, but contemporary India is under a similar cloud of violent oppression and censorship, causing investigative journalists to fear for their lives.
This poem is modeled on Psalm 72, the last of the Davidic Psalms, a poem addressed to the trusted heir to the throne, King Solomon.
Impetuous child of a tireless statesman,
take up for your country the torch of his name.
Refuse the temptations of office and purse,
safeguard the afflicted, the outcasts, the poor.
From the Vindhaya mountains to Chota Nagpur,
may your dynasty quell years of conflict and strife.
May this daughter of Chacha Nehru bring us joy,
lifting up the oppressed with a steady hand,
just as she steered us through war, without flinching.
Our rivals hang back when we join in her train,
green and gold – a new dawn white – a pure, freshet moon.
Where she turns her embrace of her people, monsoons
cannot slow her advance, and good practice ripens.
Men and women who press for fair wages will thrive –
and civil strife yield to the ballot once more,
from the Bay of Bengal to Maharashtra,
from the mouth of the Indus to Mahanadi.
Before her the Thar desert shimmers and nods,
and the glaciers of Kashmir safeguard Ladakh.
May the princes of Jaipur at last pay their way,
and the island Tamils take up pens and not swords,
may the gurus of Punjab inspire their flock
to build monuments not to divide, but to heal.
And all the Great Powers will line up in turn,
to pay court to our government – neutral, secure.
For the Congress spares the poor from begging,
and comes to the aid of the children of God.
Indira is moved by the laboring poor,
the barefoot rice-planters and girls look to her,
to outwit the absentee landlords and loan sharks,
knowing she came back for love of their cause.
Long may her legacy lead us through peril,
bringing prosperity, banishing famine.
All of our faiths owe her prayers of goodwill,
for her government has been a blessing.
Well has she watered the paddies and fields,
and even the mountains are greener today.
Mango leaves rustle with promises now,
and lotus blooms spring forth like stars in the sky.
Will her name always guide us in times of need?
As constant as moonlight, her family returns,
a blessing to people of all tongues and creeds.