Nail Chiodo

Calliope Teething

The Penitentiary


Skittish joy, that gracious guest
Who accepts hospitality as her own bequest,
Though tantalized by en suite baths and showers,
Loving fresh, clean linen1 and Medieval towers,
Makes of homes, at best, transient abode
And, for want of deeper comforts, frequents the road.
Thus, grateful hosts always keep a room
Well-aired in case they get the glooms,
In hope that she, though so eclectic,
Will pass that way and turn the trick.

Long hours without her
Teach the old lesson:
She is taken up with power
And requires it become obsession.

Oh horror of a life that’s lived
Seeking freedoms ineffective!
Enough of Lethe2-ward spelunking,
The time has come for a grand debunking!

The world, it seems, lets travesty be made of lives
Each time mediocrity so much as sighs,
Despicable when it goes on and on,
One’s yet surprised it’s not more common;
And even if mediocrity is but part to blame,
Mere effect of causes “better left unnamed”,
The backwoods threat to the mind is the same:
There is only one way to play this game.
Par ma foi3, all that one wants is praise
From the sensitive bourgeois, pursuant a raise
Or, better yet, a reduction of time
To be served now as mime
And now as Ostrogoth4!
No, no5, let not your synapse be the pig-trough.
All the nonsense ever spoken
Defracts the sunlight shed direct
Upon man’s back which grows erect
In Nature’s tribute to the intellect.
The last intelligentsia have let slip
Their grasp to get a hand on hip:
Not that I’ve anything against them;
Let them all be granted tenures!
In this sphery prison great effort goes
Where velleity leads us by the nose,
Yet if one manages to see
Bodies as involucra, we’re free,
Or, at least, as free as inmates become
Whose sentence is a life-long one.
Inklings of this—unexpected—station
In the young are fair approximation,
In the old, evidence that they’re off-track,
The nut’s still there they couldn’t crack.
Not that convicts of such conviction
Don’t have problems of easy admission:
If irony exists at all, it’s just because
Avatars6 fall subject to the common laws;
But what in a third moment may affect the first,
In a second can reify7 a curse.
Envy? No. Abomination.

  1. cf.John N. Findlay, The Transcendence of the Cave (1967).

  2. the river of forgetfulness that flows in Hades, the underworld of Greek mythology, whose water produces loss of memory in those who drink it.

  3. Fr. “upon my faith”.

  4. a member of the eastern gothic tribe that ruled in Italy between 489 and 555 A.D.

  5. cf. John Keats, Ode to Melancholy, I, 1 (“No, no, go not to Lethe…”)

  6. in Hindu religion, a god’s coming down in bodily form to the Earth.

  7. to treat (an abstraction) as substantially existing or as a concrete material object.


So!1… stuck “in the pen”, let’s organize
A dig, an excavation through the fuss
Of the last thirty odd years of lies,
Accepted now, though once they racked us.
To begin ab ovo2: Ike was in the Oval—
Naturally, he had his fans—
But acute liberal intellectuals
Knew the country was wont to subtler plans,
Required a more sophisticated person,
Was a helm that needed the perfect man:
Adlai3 was considered so by some
And, what with Jack4 getting the gig,
Ike was liked all over again:
On blacks he wasn’t all that big
But living his term he kept out Nixon5.
Perhaps the time’s single one event
Fateful as all now understand
Was that little Sputnik6 present
Krushchev put into Ike’s cold hand7.
Ah old Nikita! Such charm, so peasant crass8!
Even chid Mao once for the line of his descent9,
And Mao agreed, he too had betrayed his class.
But, to children, the Sputnik brought long Lent10:
The eagle11, of a sudden, notes the bear12,
While she relaxes in her birdbath,
Has almost clambered up to where
He can see her and… laugh?!
That oaf more adept at rockets?!!
She clawed at blackboards, her wrath
Ensured his cubs the picnic basket,
While eaglets dieted on science and math.
I saw the best minds of my generation13
Balance formulae by squinting14,
Back when a “big ego” was socially damnation,
And think it’s here worth more than hinting
At what fucked-up the youngsters of the nation.
Back then there was the paradox of S.A.T.s15:
High-scoring meant to ask oneself
Is competition an aberration?
While those classed on a lower shelf
Were brought to believe in wealth and ease.
For egos and conceits it meant
Those not faltering were growing
Not from self-loving but dissent
From all possible misinterpreting.
Now this was no function to just squint at,
And hence all the strange adventures
Of another generation’s combat
With everything from evil to loose dentures.
If ever since then some high tribunal
Forced one to state one’s plea,
In lieu of making the court a urinal
I’d say personal idiosyncrasy.
The pious wishes of the sixties16,
If felt, had to be retracted
And the decade was like a sieve,
Sifting tastes, how people acted.
Nor is it just coincidence
That what was for most reaction
Of libertine stamp against
Forms of academic sanction
Ended with the resigned acceptance
Of privileges tied to profession;
The swan song of false scruple
For all but a few activists
Was that their job was useful;
But, I think, no doubt exists
That the acme of all crisis
Was the failure of “left” economists
At transforming values into prices17.

When all the citizenry have had their share
Of misinterpreting, a nation’s
Only place to go from there
Is general misrepresentation.
I remember it as having begun
After the stampede to the libraries
At every major atheneum
Back in the early seventies18
The need which then emerged
For ostensible explanations
Of the phenomenon19
, the urge
To invoke those kids’ privations
Or their older siblings’ excesses20

How to account for the poor wretches?—
Like a stranger’s offer of caresses
Prefigures horror in thumbnail sketches.
And sure enough, negative publicity
Does the trick in a way
No amount of complicity
Could ever have done, the sway
Of public opinion is towards
Puerility—unabashed and torturous.

Such are the means that Nature’s used,
Herself the headless hen abused,
To assure the pen its wardens.

  1. cf. “Well!”, Samuel T. Coleridge, Dejection: An Ode.

  2. Lat. “at the egg”, “at the beginning”; Ike: nickname of Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th president of the United States (1953-61); the Oval: the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C.

  3. Adlai Stevenson, contender at the primaries for the nomination as Democratic Party candidate for the office of President of the United States in 1960.

  4. nickname of John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States (1961-63).

  5. Richard M. Nixon, 37th president of the United States (1968-74), was vice-president of the U.S. during the Eisenhower Administration; though already quite old, Eisenhower lived past the end of his second term of office, so Nixon did not become president by succession. He was elected to the White House only seven years later; in the middle of his second term of office, however, he was forced to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal.

  6. the first artificial satellite, put into orbit by the Soviet Union in 1957.

  7. Nikita S. Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union (1953-64), triumphantly presented Eisenhower with a small model of the Sputnik upon his visit to the United States in 1959, thereby officially inaugurating the Space Race and raising the stakes in the Cold War.

  8. Khrushchev was a tough-minded histrionic, proud of his working-class origins.

  9. Khrushchev once teased Mao Tse-Tung, the leader of the People’s Republic of China (1949-76), for being of relatively privileged social extraction; Mao retorted that it just went to prove that both of them had betrayed their class of origin, implying that Khrushchev had betrayed the working classes as he had the privileged ones.

  10. in the wake of the Soviet launching of Sputnik, American children had to “fast” as if it were Lent, in the sense of playing less and studying more, especially of the sciences and mathematics, as part of a national educational strategy spurred by the Space Race.

  11. the American eagle.

  12. the Russian bear.

  13. cf. Allen Ginsburg, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”, Howl (1956)

  14. certain “wiz kids” could balance, or resolve, even complex mathematical and scientific equations and formulas without performing laborious calculations; all they had to do, apparently, was to “squint” at the formulas for the solutions to somehow appear to them.

  15. Scholastic Aptitude Tests, i.e. standardized tests intended to measure verbal and mathematical proclivities, administered to High School students throughout the United States.

  16. cf. Vladimir I. Lenin, The Foreign Policy of the Russian Revolution (1917); Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik revolution and newborn Soviet Union (1917-24), defined “pious wishes” the expectations of Russian reformists in regard to the outcome of the First World War; a not entirely dissimilar well-intentioned wishful-thinking flourished in the United States in the 1960s, not least as a result of opposition to the war in Vietnam.

  17. the rather arcane “problem of the transformation of values into prices” was a major theoretical stumbling block for “left-wing” (i.e. Marxian) economists in the early 1970s.

  18. the purportedly optimistic and carefree years of the 1960s in the United States, with their Hippies and exaltation of the importance of peace, love and personal relationships, came to an abrupt end in the early 1970s when a new generation of college students (the vanguard of the so-called Yuppies, or Young Urban Professionals) suddenly plunged into competitive study, especially of traditionally “useful” and highly remunerative disciplines such as Medicine and Law.

  19. at a time when Steve Reich’s best-selling The Greening of America: How the Youth Revolution is Trying to Make America Livable (1970) was being hailed as a Summa of the epoch, the pseudo-liberal, pseudo-intellectual establishment was ill-equipped to explain such a sudden “materialistic” turn in the sensibility and aspirations of the new generation of college students.

  20. those who entered college in the early 1970s determined to forge a new Yuppie identity for themselves, heedless of the Emersonian and Thoreauian values that had inspired their elder brothers and sisters, had been in effect completely by-passed by the 1960s “revolution”; their older siblings had already done all of the “rebelling” (and more) that seemed possible or desirable, and even the majority of the members of their parents’ generation had fallen in line with the new “hip” rhetoric of the age; in a sense, the “Youth Movement” prevented succeeding generations of adolescents from fruitfully living any critical experience of coming of age in society at all; the only thing left for them to do was to rebel against rebellion itself. This “après moi le déluge” sort of attitude was perceived with self-righteous dismay by the pseudo-liberal, pseudo-intellectual establishment only after the effects of the anthropological and cultural harm that had been done became glaringly evident.