On Disasters — After Seneca

by Harvey Mudd

Disasters generally come around
with a smug certainty
of their place at the table.
The beloved pet, the brindle cat,
eaten by the coyotes;
or the household gods
carried off by a foul – smelling harpy.
And without so much as a by – your – leave.
Long odds, but it happens.

But that’s the small stuff.
I’d leave my veins uncut
over private calamities, even my own.
The personal, in the larger scheme of things,
is just noise.  I go on.

Consider next the fate of a small city
in the heart of the country,
a city that voted reliably Republican,
with a dozen MacDonalds, a Nissan dealer
who paid for the little league uniforms,
and not a single porn shop,
a city truly “All – American,” ( a term much favored
in America), modest, yet proud, and justifiably.
But out of luck.
It was visited this past spring
by a particularly virulent tornado
that moved through it
like the Reaper Himself
at the helm of a grain harvester.
It cut a six – mile – wide swath
Of death and splinters.
Jesus!  What to think ?
So many Christians!
So much suffering.

We hold out our hands to them.
But if we’ve cut our wrists, our hands go limp,
and there’s not much heavy lifting
or compassionate clasping that we can do.

I go on to the next.  There is a philosophical puzzle
in all this.  To Japan, same year,
to consider the tsunami
that knocked over the bottle
in which the genie slumbered,
a rudeness that pissed it off terribly.
In its tantrum, it showered
the most unpleasant spittle,
tiny splinters of itself, barbed and invisible,
into the cauliflower fields
and the nurseries that grow hyacinths
for the houses of bankers.
The cows ate of it, and how these gentle creatures
cried out at the milkings!
Worse pain than a kidney stone.

But these disasters were natural
(a term much favored in these bad times,
as the planet warms).
Nothing evil nor ill – intentioned in them.
Though in Japan
stupidity, greed, and arrogance,
the Three Stooges of the Apocalypse
had their hands in it.

The question I’ve intended to ask all along
is entirely a human matter,
but one gets distracted by nature’s spectacles,
the tsunamis, the earthquakes and eruptions,
floods and wild fires.
The brindle cat drowned
or the household gods buried in ash
makes good TV.

But to be or not to be is still the question.
To cut one’s veins in a warm bath
is a method not much in favor
in a modern country that’s armed
and pharmaceuticaled to the teeth
like America, but Seneca,
the wisest and most virtuous of Romans,
opted for it.  America, our ancestors at least,
must have admired Seneca, for there are towns
from sea to shining sea named for him.

For Seneca, the disaster
was political, the destruction of the Republic
from within, folly and corruption,
and the evil that men do.

I observe all this,
America in its decline, its wars,
civil and foreign, from France.
The pools of blood where the guillotine
once stood have been scrubbed away.
Best municipal services on the planet.