The Wisdom of the Ancients

What country is this? blind Oedipus stumbles
at the threshold, on his way out, his last job.

You feel for him even if you’re neither old
nor blind, are just waking to the headlines.

What country? The neo-Nazi baby showers,
bbq’s with aging KKK’s, the munitions

stockpiled in some California basement
where, about right now, they’re lifting

prints, have handcuffed the ten year old
who shot his white supremacist dad.

What Country. And that’s just one instance
gone awry in the freak-show of grievance

and discontent, all very justified, if misguided.
In the morning paper, the mighty purse

their lips, so serious, so worried, so…
To stay the part they must re-run

Doomsday tsunamis in their heads,
imagine tax-havens going like Atlantis.

The crowd throngs around Oedipus
who tramples the manicured grounds

of shrine, steps in the wrong place,
considering the blesséd ones under

are chartered to avenge the very crimes
he’s guilty of. The crowd is wary, touchy,

territorial, the sort of throng that hovers
near the wounded, vacillates, in full choric sway,

between taking the thing out of its misery
or picking it up, offer alms or arm.

Nothing as bad as what I’ve seen of late,
the proud man’s contumely in full display,

on Broad and Walnut, where walking past
one of those guys who’ve broad-tipped

abridged bio to cardboard, begging for change—
Iraq Vet, HIV positive, hungry—the boss

to the windowashing crew turned around
and began to pellet the beggar, hard,

a pocket-full of loose change, penny by penny.
What country. Everyone a paycheck away

from the curb; everyone, the best still,
quick for illegal turns. Them and them alone.

Who was the man? Where has he gone?…
A bum, a beggar, not of this place
the chorus

asks in unison Were you born like this?
Born for this? Then, I’ll be damned if you

bring down this curse of yours on us. They’ll relax,
begin to oh and ah along with him,

welcome him eventually, proud of country,
rich and strong. Whose city is this? asks Oedipus,

learning to be easy with whatever happens,
resigned with every crime committed.

He is a man come to die, trying to wipe
clean a rap-sheet that has it all, parricide,

regicide, incest, worse, the sheer insolent
pride that got him here in the first place

and though there’s greatness in him,
we’re supposed to glean an exemplar

of what the human is, not just the smarts
to down the idols a city is beholden to,

but the way your finest moment will do
that volte-face and turn out fuck up really

with a mighty comeuppance as a prize.
Here he is, worn out, impaired, needing pity.

My students don’t or won’t care or get it.
They’re getting the news from

There are some hints of sadness in the poem
one of them cuts and pastes, continues

The narcissus is the symbolic flower of death,
the plagiarist. Them and them alone,

quick enough for the illegal moves,
invulnerable, blessed, in a rich country.

Oedipus will wend his way into the thicket
that keeps the daughters of the dark,

threshold to a city, its very border.
Today is his last day. He’s on the know,

his turn to tease with riddle: Whose country,
whose city is this?
No answer. Them alone.

Sebastian Agudelo‘s forthcoming book is entitled Each Chartered Street. Poems from the collection have appeared in American Poetry Review, Antioch Review and Manchester Review. His first collection, To the Bone was selected by Mark Doty as the winner of the 2008 Saturnalia Book Prize.