–for Charles Altieri
My mentor and doctoral advisor
loves philosophy and hates ethics.
My father had a doctorate in moral theology;
he worked as vice president of ethics
at a Catholic hospital system.
Ethics, my father has said, is not about
choices between the good and its other.
It’s about choosing between conflicting goods.
I think I understand why my advisor hates ethics—
it presumes only a small part of what makes us human.
But I do not hate ethics.
I find on reflection that there are questions
in my life where I care about
not making an ethical mistake.
For instance, my nation
has used drones to kill soldiers and these drones
have also killed hundreds
of civilians—this even by my government’s own count.
So should I speak in favor of nonviolence
at the risk of what the Green Party platform
calls naivety about the intentions
When a man kills eighty-four civilians in Nice
grief is ubiquitous and unmitigated.
I am aware that my thinking on this question
is partial and not of pristine clarity.
Perhaps I am a fool;
I feed my children and wake before dawn.
What I know of the fool comes from King Lear.
A singing, sometimes raving source
of the non sequitur.
An older colleague, a writer, surprised me
and made me laugh
in a meeting when he said:
This idea may be foolish,
but I am a foolish person.
We spend a summer day at home
and on the television in the evening the Republican convention offers
a Navy SEAL promising that the nation needs
an elite military.
The fool in Lear has no political power,
no promise of it or ambitions for it.
It is almost as if he were already dead.
I wrote in another poem
that I couldn’t be a radical because
I fear being mistaken
as I know I can be, I have been.
But no one has the power to effect all
the social changes he wishes to see,
not even the President of the US.
That’s not why I’m not a radical.
I’m not a radical because every system
I have been given is the power of art.
I am embarrassed by the knee-jerk way
I have asked critics of many ills
to propose a better solution.
It is ethical simply to say: not this.
President Obama joked in a banquet speech
that he might use drones to kill the Jonas brothers,
singers whom his daughters admire.
My wife says those who wish for power
should have to show a sense of humor.
One of the truths spoken in jest
is that Obama has power over a kill list,
one he has used to take the lives of more people
than have been held at Guantánamo.
All humor is critical, John Cleese says.
The President’s joke is critical of young men’s
Perhaps there is a measure of self-criticism too.
According to his policy all men
in youth or middle age
should be counted as combatants, military targets,
in the reckoning that comes after
a precision strike.
seen once, seen perhaps a few times,
in black and white,
the screen at first all order,
data marks around the margins of the scene,
and the picture bright with the rays
still perceptible at night—
a jewelry box, a rectangle
become a chaos of earth’s gray
Hellfire takes its time.
The technology that enables drone strikes
is not as new
as their use might indicate.
It is only after the inception of the War on Terror
that existing abilities came to seem ethical.
I was beginning my career as a college teacher
the day the towers fell.
I thought of myself something like a soloist
playing a concerto.
Now, almost a generation later,
I can think of myself as at the end of a tether
hung from a helicopter
to rescue those stranded in a flood,
asking myself what the past
has to offer
those who wish to be good.
I am in Satan’s garden.
There is a wall
like the chapel at Evora.
I observe the herbs,
I sit in a patio chair,
and the sun turns my closed eyelids red.
I am waiting for Satan,
I have something I must tell him.
Leave my children alone,
I say into the air.
Through an open window
children of the sun.
Say there could be drone strikes
without civilian casualties against terrorists—
as some claim there now can be—
would they be ethical?
A majority of Americans approve of such strikes,
and majorities everywhere else reject them.
Individuation of responsibility,
a scholar of the subject says,
is the mark of our asymmetrical war.
the question of whether one is or is not a combatant
has become more complicated,
To be a true believer in nonviolence at this moment
does seem naïve.
But what of the justification for violence against
a young man in the mountains of Pakistan
designated as an enemy combatant—
to protect American lives?
Isn’t that another kind of fundamentalism,
one that stops thought?
The summer after I graduated from high school
I planned a trip,
a kind of vision quest,
to Santa Barbara, three hours to the north.
I never made the trip.
What I remember of that summer is playing basketball at parks
with other young men,
friends and strangers,
cutting and leaping and darting past one another,
in a dense pattern of motion
like the bees that have their hive in a tree in my backyard,
leaving and returning,
an analogy I will not look too deeply into,
a home within a home.