This week we’re featuring a poem from our archives: “Late Empire” by David Wojahn. It originally appeared in TMR 14:2. David Wojahn’s INTERROGATION PALACE: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS 1982-2004, was a named finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and winner of the O.B. Hardison Award from the Folger Shakespeare Library. He directs the Program in Creative Writing at Virginia Commonwealht University, and also teaches in the MFA in Writing Program of the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
I often think of my poems as meeting places for objects, events, and narrative which have no rational connection but have a deep intuitive connection for me–one that I feel compelled to explore. “Late Empire,” which became the title poem of my fourth book, interweaves an account of the first hot air balloon flight–its passengers were a trio of barnyard animals–which took place in France shortly before the Revolution, with the memory of a London concert performed by a short-lived but astonishing punk band called The Screaming Blue Messiahs. As the poem unfolded, both events seemed to presage a kind of apocalypse. When the balloon and its passengers touched down in a field, they were attacked by a group of farmers who believed it was the moon, somehow fallen from the sky. The Screaming Blue Messiahs, who were lead by a gigantic shaved-headed singer named Bill Carter, specialized in lyrics of dread and menace, several of which get sampled in the poem. I suppose the poem is about intuiting something dreadful, something that may be personal or historical or both. The “you” in the poem is the poet Lynda Hull, who died in 1994.
The hours, ripe apples, hang. The pleasure boats
dapple the artificial lake, the women
shadowed by silk parasols, hands caressing water,
the men in powdered wigs, half-dozing at
the oars, and above the palace of Versailles
the globe airostatique, tasseled and swollen,
a Fabergé egg, labors to the sky
with its wicker basket cargo—a puzzled drake,
a rooster, a goat dubbed Climb-into-Heaven —
the brays and crowing wavering above
a hundred thousand pointing fingers, and the din
giving way to collective gasp, the one breath
inhaled, exhaled, novitiates all; the halcyon
days before the bells of sirens peal, blackout,
a night sky riddled with searchlights. But here?
The Screaming Blue Messiahs erupt from the stage.
Drums hiss at bass; the giant shaved-headed
singer strikes a pose, a chord, hulking
maniacally into The Wild Blue Yonder
amid a light show of dive-bombers—Stukas—careening
ever downward, feedback ricocheting
the walls. London, the Town and Country Club,
and I’ve lost you in a riot of green spiked hair,
slam dance, combat boots, the crowd awaiting
the next upheaval, the storming of the palaces
of the ancien régime … If I die in a combat zone
box me up and ship me home . Footage
of fire, Dresden and its million pounds of napalm,
the singer clubbing his guitar to wire
and splinters on the stage, and I’ve lost you
to the noise and tidal dance floor. I am
the destroyer, I am the des-troy-er.
A skinhead waves a broken bottle at
a scared Bengali kid, and the light show
bends their flight to slow-mo; the kid leans down,
hugs himself while his friends crowd by, his sleeve
in bloody shreds. The room speaks the language
of last summer’s recurring dream: the terrible
incinerating light has come, the dead
frozen black to the wheels of their cars, and I weave
a path among them to a house no longer standing,
call you in the way I call you now,
deaf to my own voice, and it’s now
I see you lifted skyward by the crowd,
passed with half a dozen others on raised arms,
weightlessly buoyed to the music’s stammer,
passed backward and forward across the dance floor,
a zigzag slither, until you finally come to rest,
earthbound again, on wobbly feet by a dull red
EXIT sign, and I’m threading my way through the faces
to reach you, shards of the guitar tossed snarling
to a sea of hands…. And when the balloon reaches
three hundred feet, an early fall wind propels it
beyond the lake, His Majesty’s deer park,
the ersatz peasant village of the Queen,
and when it blunders and falls to a field ten miles
away, imagine the terror-struck farmers and milkmaids,
lamenting the fall of the moon. Before them the goat,
no longer dazed, grazes on some clover;
the broken-winged rooster staggers in circles.
Now fear has raised a hundred pitchforks and scythes.
Now the fallen moon, and its cargo, must die.
How can we blame them? They set the field on fire.