From “A Child of the Future Perfect”
My parents had been born into the past,
Which suited them, I think you’d have to say.
The Great Depression shaken off at last,
They stepped into an ancient Model A
(My mother’s father’s gift) and drove away.
Not very far: They’d shortly disembark
To live in line with Le Corbusier:
His high-rise towers in a verdant park
Were copied in—Why not?—the Bronx, New York.
“Geometries of joy and light and air”
Created something that was wholly new
And clueless as to how it ought to work.
It was called Parkchester, and it was where
I would be born in 1942.
For Wallace Stevens, that transcendent scribe,
We live in the ideas about a place,
Not the place itself. If I try to describe
This “rationally formulated space
Consisting of four quadrants which embrace
An oval pool where piscine sculptures spout,
Towers of varied height and red brick face . . .”
See what I mean? Of all the ideas about,
“Security within, peril without,”
Was probably the most important one,
For its imperative must be obeyed.
What could go wrong when evil forces flout
The rules of order that are soon undone?
A Little Golden Book of mine displayed
The savagery that lies outside the law:
How easily did Wolf—so bad, so big,
Blow down the foolish First Pig’s house of straw,
Then move on to destroy the house of twig
Erected, so to speak, by Second Pig.
Wolf was defeated by Third Pig, whose lair
Was built of brick—like Parkchester, you dig?
A Nazi was that Wolf, whose character
And principles would be replaced by Bear
In a Cossack hat that must have kept him warm.
Bear’s taste for honey led him to the hive,
Whose occupants took to the upper air
And drove him off with their fierce buzzing swarm;
“Children, it’s thanks to them you’re still alive.”
Such parables of economic ruin
And foreigners hell-bent on violence
In tales of Wolf & Pig, of Bee & Bruin,
Were given us to show by inference
That practicality and common sense
(And dwelling in impregnable brick towers)
Created a not-to-be-sneezed-at defense
Against the ogre outside who devours.
Exclusion, it may be, is what empowers:
Should we meet Wolf or Bear in a dark wood,
What shielded us before now disappears;
But roller skating on the street for hours,
We had the freedom of the neighborhood,
Oblivious to our parents’ fears.
I grew up where the future came to pass
In a kind of corporate experiment:
The towers set on islands of mown grass
Beckoned, affordable: O come and rent!
My parents moved like nomads from a tent
Into a city newly occupied,
A way of living without precedent.
What was the present but the past denied?
The residents had little else beside
A past with all its axes left to grind,
Owing to the hard times they’d gone through.
But here they were now, and so now they tried
To get ahead, keep up, not fall behind,
Since now they had what to look forward to:
A future bought on the installment plan
That seemed to offer never less than more—-
The coffee table and the plush divan
Spilled from its lavish cornucopia.
The first installments were of furniture,
Appliances: a snapshot would reveal
My mother and me at curbside waiting for
My father to appear behind the wheel
Of a 1947 Oldsmobile
Sedan, as cozy as our living room.
They might have asked if their success was real,
But must have thought it proper to assume
That they deserved it to go on and on,
That God and a brand-new Frigidaire were one.
Like Buck Rogers in the twenty-fifth century,
I was convinced that what had been foretold
Would be delivered, for much certainty
Attended each prediction: soon jet-propelled
Backpacks would be invented to uphold
Our fathers in their daily commutation
From the high brick towers in which we now dwelled
To the recently repurposed subway station
(Hardened to resist annihilation),
Wherein a single slim pneumatic tube
Would huff each passenger by automation
Into his office’s pulsating cube:
A FIVE-COURSE MEAL REPLACED BY ONE SMALL PILL!
Others, I guess, await this future still,
But I’ve been disappointed far too often
By all the IOU’s my time amassed;
By how the future seemed to blur and soften
As it approached us and then skidded past
Without unloading any from its vast
Warehouse of soon-to-be’s, briskly onswept
Ahead of us, and we, the overpassed,
Forever enduring promises not kept.
Until they were. But when Neil Armstrong stepped
Into the future, it at once became
Part of the past, no matter that he leapt
And gamboled in the moondust like a lamb.
On earth we peered into a boundless deep:
HUMANITY WILL OUTGROW NEED FOR SLEEP
So there were futures that would be stillborn,
Others that had already taken place,
And some quite likely to: SCIENTISTS WARN
THAT [YOUR FEAR HERE] COULD END THE HUMAN RACE!
That I could vanish without any trace,
And just at the onset of puberty,
Seemed possible: a future to erase
All other futures that I might foresee.
My parents’ unaddressed anxiety,
The fears they couldn’t bring themselves to mention
Over what still has not yet come to be,
Had some connection with RISING COLD WAR TENSION,
And in the silos where it was confined,
A certain future that got left behind.
But not before the leaders of our nation
Had doubled down on their unlikely bet
That shelters would preserve our civilization.
I soon discovered, much to my regret,
That, although planned for, shelters were as yet
Unconstructed—a fact that left me feeling
Abandoned, for what succor could I get
By digging through my downstairs neighbor’s ceiling?
The future opened up for me, revealing
A present tense of phones and elevators,
Indoor plumbing, polished chrome (APPEALING
TO THE HOUSEWIFE OF TODAY), refrigerators—
And in a moment, all of it dissolves!
I dreamt of boys and girls brought up by wolves . . .
It’s time now to revisit, if you will,
That certain future’s odd uncertainty:
It hasn’t happened yet, and yet it’s still
Poised between “sure to come” and “not to be”;
A countdown that began when I was three,
A sword that hangs above each conscious head,
Still balanced ever so improbably,
Suspended by a single, fraying, thread.
Imagine living with such conscious dread.
Yet that’s how we all think now, if we think
At all about it. No matter what we were,
That future only will be inherited
By our descendants, driven to the brink
Of what, with any luck, might not occur.
But there’s no way to undo what we’ve done,
Unknow what we have known; no point decreeing
That rivers may against their currents run;
Shall we unsee what we have seen? “Unseeing”
Isn’t a verb: points to a state of being
Which is our own, when every day increases
That possibility there is no fleeing,
When ire, ignorance, and our caprices
Conclude to press the button that releases
All the downtrodden demons from their lair;
And at that moment when the button’s pressed
Our unflagging agitation ceases;
Not, so far, yet: not ashes on the air,
But the news, for now, that “This has been a test . . .”
It was a frequent theme of cartoon humor
When I was young, the feckless moron who
Had painted himself right into a corner
Not to be lifted out of or gone through.
Above his head, the question, “What to do?”
And on his face a look of mere distress.
He had failed the test. Options? Only two:
Just sit there, or walk out and leave a mess.
The former option seems to offer less,
A minimum of praise, but far less blame:
No matter whether witting or unwitting,
Not to have blown it so far is success,
And the trees that have not yet burst into flame
May bless you for your charity in sitting.
The paint that I’ve applied has not dried yet,
And I’ve begun to think it never will.
The room is dark now since the sun has set.
When the last light fades from the window sill,
The room will be completely dark until
Tomorrow’s sun comes to shed light upon
The painted floor that will gleam damply still,
Letting me know a new day has begun.
The still-wet floor and the recurrent sun
Are bound together indissolubly;
Resentment, envy and self-sacrifice
Attend on the figures of my meditation,
But in the future I may come to see
How what is happening now will suffice.