‘Empire’, from Heimat

by Quincy R. Lehr

I throw down the paper, dash to make my train,
and find myself in furious squalls of rain
soaking through my jacket and my shirt.
My fellow helots look just slightly better
with cheap umbrellas battered in the gale
that snaps the points and leaves them slightly wetter
than they might have hoped. A final spurt
of energy gets me underground. Not hale
or healthy or quite content, one still must strive
to curse each minute till the train arrives.
 
And as I thrust my way to get that seat
that isn’t taken yet, all of my neat
stratagems to reach my destination
dissolve in anticipation of the walk
on the other side to get to where I’m going.
Subway signs don’t note precipitation.
For God’s sake, man! It’s only seven blocks!
And thus begins a ritual of throwing
furtive hands ceiling-ward. ‘Do mind the gap.’
Christ, I think I need a better map.
 

 
And anyway, the headlines always stink.
Someone’s robbed us blind or gone to bed
with hookers, or just landed in the clink.
And if that’s not enough, look at the funnies—
Imperialism rears its ugly head
as General Caesar heads out to the sticks
to battle Aster … Vercingetorix.
 
Caesar thinks himself an Alexander,
easy on the eye, hung like a horse,
a famous man, Rome’s best damn field commander—
a man-slut, middle-aged, and balding Wop. 
(That kind of language just won’t do, of course.
We’ll give the just rejoinder to the Roman:
Wop’s rich coming from an Oklahoman.)
 
And in the other corner’s … whatshisname,
mustachioed Celt in plaid with magic potions
and loyal, dumbass friends. Eternal fame
depends, so often, on what your people brew
as much as ‘freedom’ and other abstract notions.
We’re at endgame. The Gauls are out of luck.
Caesar’s outside Alesia, and it’s fucked.
 
Slapstick abounds. How could it otherwise
with trenches, booby-traps, and catapults?
M. Hulot, but everybody dies.
And while we’re rooting for the underdog,
we can all predict the end result:
Oh, God, it’s just horrific … cut to tape!
A raucous teenage sex romp, but with rape.
 
Our hero (anti-hero?) ends in chains
for Caesar’s Triumph. Everybody’s sad,
since after all, it’s decent to complain
when someone screws up self-determination—
downright rude, and maybe even bad.
Besides, the Gallic villagers seemed nice
(but let’s not mention human sacrifice).
 
Still, Vercingetorix has got a trick
he hasn’t pulled as Caesar turns around
during a prison interview. The prick,
confident he’s won, does not consider
druidic skill with magic mushrooms, ground
into a potion. Out comes a hidden blotter.
Caesar’s thirsty. SHIT! DON’T DRINK THE WATER!
 
Here be groovy shapes, man, but poor Gaius
is not a weekend warrior, and he sees
horrific things. Those dodgy trips can try us,
even with experience, and here
we have a guy who’ll just have water, please
and only knows that he’s been truly spiked
when everything changes shape. Here’s what it’s like:
 
A Roman road opens out from that bare room
through hundreds of miles, and reaching the Subura,
narrows to an alley steeped in the gloom
of sagging insulae, emptied chamber pots,
graffiti of dicks, vaginas, something with a goat,
and what the fuck was that?
 
It’s Caesar’s ex-flame Servilia with a brush,
a black-haired dame approaching middle age,
buxom and arrogant.
She’s conjugating verbs around his name
in every tense—and every one obscene,
a hideous manifesto.
 
He sees a crowd
gathered around his lover armed with sticks
pushing around the togate men who guard
her composition, howling out abuse
in monotonal rapid-fire.
A melee soon ensues 
between the Senators and lumpen scum.
Caesar cries out, ‘What have I become?’
his eyes fixed on his rough admirers, and scared.
 
How did he come to this, a son of Venus
allied to the cynical pimps and whores
who call out idly from the corridors
of half-decrepit buildings?
But they’re my base! Stop, Caesar! Don’t be an ass.
Remember that you’re of a different class.
 
A voice calls, ‘Dude!’ and soon, Servilia
grows taller, male, and … turns …
into Vercingetorix,
who almost seems to glow …
and Caesar smiles
at the Gaul and guards, and focuses on a map,
finds his position, and goes to take a nap.
 
And though he laughs when the colors disappear
and doesn’t have the prankster crucified,
the vision set before his eyes has reared
a dark suspicion, vicious as a hydra,
that ending up on the Senate’s losing side
is not the only peril that he faces.
Beware the mob. What do you call these? Traces?
 
‘Tracers.’ Antony supplies the word.
I guess he’d know, thinks Caesar with a smile.
Besides, the whole damn notion is absurd.
Give ’em bread and circuses, and bouts
of gladiatorial combat for a while,
 and citizens will live with monarchy
and like it. So much for democracy. 
 

 
That jerk Tiresias is now asleep
and snores so loudly that it wakes the neighbors
who shout out curses. ‘Keep it down, you creep,
or medicate! Do yourself a favor!’
The prophet, though, is out of it and dreaming,
oblivious to us, and to our scheming.
 
This is not a country for old men,
and thus old men will play by different rules,
babbling about what happened way back when
while tinkering with antiquated tools…
unless they sleep, their wisdom overgrown
with tendrils of fatigue. We’re on our own.

 

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