Praying to Coca Cola

Day 15 of a poem a day from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript (this one from the “Back in the Colonies” section, near “Dialogue with an Angel“). This poem was inspired by my 2013 trip to Ghana with the Charlottesville-Winneba Foundation. So was “Gold Coast,” a poem in my first poetry book about being dragged out into the riptides by a group of men. This poem is about the equally impressive force of cargo cult, a phenomenon of seeking to explain, rationalize (albeit with religious rationale and ritual), and ultimately control the uncontrollable, foreign (even to us natives) military-industrial force of modern Western conquest.

“Praying to Coca Cola”
Winneba, Ghana

In the cargo cult of African Christianity
with its God Bless You Bank, Jesus Christ is King Laundry, and White
the initiated worship with their elect brethren. God judges; man pities.
Every week the power goes out (rations), every month a tourist drowns
(natural causes), and every year the politicians visit (sister cities).
It’s the big city—but it’s the same here as all the other big towns.

One day the children will read books in air-conditioning, and eat oranges.
For now cassava will do. Some already read—with their ears, it’s true.
One day the library will stand in this grove. Let us pray.
Soon enough, all the visitors will go home. Not today.
Let us pray for more donations. And more sisterly formations.

When one of the young ones complains, remind her it would look bad
for even a black American girl to disrespect her post-colonial dad.
Keep on joking about your wives, thrusting in air, drinking your cultural
Collecting money to break ground on the same library each year.
Putting on a ceremonial show to hunt, but never catch, the sacred deer.

But cargo cult lives just as much there as here.
American cargo cult is America First.
Napolean Hill, the best of the worst.
The Seven Habits of Highly Rich Bastards
to get your boots licked just like the Master’s.
Having faith is one of the greatest hazards.

Keeps you going to work, keeps your head to the grind.
It’s not new to say it’s the opiate of the mind.
If I can just learn how Andrew Carnegie brushed his teeth
and lie down when Oprah goes to bed,
then I can rest my wealthy head—
put the knife that cuts me while I wield it, back into its sheath.

What the more obviously conquered know
that the precariat will learn, fast or slow,
is that warplanes made of twigs turn out to bear neither candy nor
Machine gunfire beats the best warriors sprinkled with the holiest water.
Half-coconut headphones, bamboo antennae, runways drawn in
unmeasured dirt—
all the magic papers and words will bring no roaring silver birds, only night
The secret is never revealed. Should we have sacrificed the other daughter?
That the great delivery never comes is bound to cause a little hurt,
while we deny our foolishness and continue digging in the dirt.



Day 14 of a poem a day from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript (this one from the “Back for Forwards” section, around “Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant“). This is a poem about the paradox of overcoming psychogenic amnesia, a component of PTSD that involves forgetting things one would wish to forget.


Don’t disturb
the thick gray
slab of cloud
smashing into
the lost deer
of my head
darting across
the busy highway
of days and
what didn’t happen
at least
not this time
but the clouds
are caught
between mountains
a bowl of unreal
neither sky nor ground
and I am lost
the more
that I am found.


Meeting Thomas Drake

Day 13 of a poem a day from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript (this one from the “Finding Berlin” section, near “Publish and Perish“). This poem grew out of a snippet and then (unsung) song I wrote after the Logan Symposium, where NSA whistleblower Tom Drake signed the pocket constitution I left the U.S. with years ago. (The founding documents remain among my favorite works of fiction. Most of my songs remain unsung, because making noise is hard. Someday I will give up fiction because it is sentimental, and being embarrassed to make noise because embarrassment is an embarrassment.)

“Meeting Thomas Drake”
London and Berlin

His face is paler than you think,
and he smiles like it’s unusual, like it’s a treat
when I ask him to sign my pocket Constitution.
Paltry restitution
for losing your job, house, savings,
country, and wife
for telling the truth—
losing a life.

Tom Drake was number four at the NSA
when higher-ups threw Thin Thread away.
An executive spy,
he didn’t see why
they’d scrap the solution
(to the terrorist revolution)
that would have prevented 9/11,
try to roll a lucky seven
finding signal in much more noise
after collecting data on millions of American girls and boys
instead of being selective,
encrypting the mass.
Was rule of law elective?

They came after his ass.
He blew the whistle—
first up the chain—
giving the Inspector General
a chance
to throw him under the train.
The evidence he gave them was destroyed.
The FBI raided his house.
After legal defense and a plea bargain deal,
his assets were null, his expertise void.
Pleading his innocence cost him a spouse.
How were onlookers within to feel?

In Hawaii, a young analyst looked on with fear:
blowing the whistle in this atmosphere
would require more daring, and more public aid.
People would have to know first why he had made
the decision to show them the secrets within
the war machine’s heart.
How to begin to grasp the gap between the Constitution
and the black art
of “collecting it all“—
the NSA motto?
The law promises due process.
The surveillance apparatus, much less
protection of names and dates and times.
Who you called—when. What you said—where.
They look back when there are crimes
on the mass of data we share
without consenting to have lost
our basic protections there
in everyday digital benefit and cost.

So Snowden went farther afield to cry foul,
calling out to the People, the world,
with his Constitutional howl.
And how he was hurled
from the country he served,
for learning from Tom:
don’t take your qualm
up the chain, or they’ll crush you.
Both men deserved
heroes’ thanks,
and the calm
of a whistle rightly blew.

What experiment are we running now,
in the land of wild experiments?
Can public scrutiny contain power’s arrogance?
Tom and Ed still believe in how
our fathers’ fathers made a deal
to dwell in hope, not live in fear.
Life, liberty, and pursuing happiness
require the audacity of hope, no less.
But I wonder, when their lawyers call me “dangerous”
and I leave my own country penniless
for being a scholar and activist
of some small, forbidden thing
(is this really happening?)—
does the whole load of laws and myths
mean anything at all? Did it ever?
For all the well-meaning American Flanders and Smiths,
how many apple-pie soccer moms and teen-fucking dads never
to question cars, guns, and drugs, however
many deaths from shit air and bloody crashes they see or hear about.
No questioning climate denial despite this flood, that fire, one more drought.
No recognition that the drug war’s ignition
was always racial panic—and fear of the hippie left’s organic
power to overcome corporate capture.
But when Big Pharma is after
a law change, they get it.
So why can’t it just be time to hit it?

War pigs say it’s privacy or security—
and privacy is dead. They used to say
liberty, instead.
We’ve lost the war.
Now what’s worth fighting for
will require rest and bigger-picture dreaming,
not small-scale resistance scheming.
Although he is a little old and gray,
I wish to fall in love with Tom and sway
him Europe-way,
speed his getaway
from the Apple store where he wastes every day.
We roam freely here, veterans of the silent war,
information freedom fighters,
living now for more—
hackers, scholars, thinkers, writers,
in our ghetto of common mind,
all our future undefined.

At least here we are together in a herd that feels right,
like African animals in Sigean
roaming by day, cuddle-piling by night.
They look so natural—lion, gazelle, bear, and all—
being with each other under blue skies, in thrall
to no cage bars and loneliness like in a zoo.
Resistors have here our own nature reserve, too.
Send for me by carrier pigeon,
and I’ll meet you at the dock.
How is it nearly six o’clock?

In the growing dusk,
all my hope becomes a husk,
except for small groups of us
who love each other and do good.
I wonder what Sapolsky would
have made of Jefferson’s experiment on Monticello—
his wife’s sister and slave his bedfellow.
Even baboons don’t pretend to own
their mates and children til they’re grown.
There are no bonobos in Virginia, but
experiments in sanctuary sometimes make the cut.
Although with dominance it’s easier to explain
blacks still slaving in prisons, the super-rich
unsoiled by poverty’s stain,
surveillance of every pre-crime itch.



Day 12 of a poem a day from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript (this one from the “One Step Forward” section, around “Courage“).


I told a secret
that I thought would explode!
But nothing much happened;
it merely fizzled by the road.

No one much cared,
or else no one got it.
Or maybe they were waiting
for a better secret—not it.

But it gave me a momentum,
and I kept on telling truths
that I had hidden in a holster,
shapeless to eyeing sleuths.

They had taken on my warmth
from being kept so near my skin.
They had grown a part of me,
their hard shapes pushing in.

Taken out, a strange thing happened
in the cold air and bright light
of other people looking,
fearless, at their might.

Their hardness melted
and with it, their power
to push in. Perhaps their only power
was in pressing through my skin.

I kept a secret
that I was meant to keep.
It did not weigh me down
or press into me deep.

I think it might be growing
in the darkness of my heart,
where if it should flame or flower,
it won’t tear me apart.



Day 11 of a poem a day from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript (this one from the “One Step Forward” section that I broke off to come after the “Backwards for Forwards” section of “Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant” and the rest).


Take the files, pass them on, find a plane, and get on.
Otherwise, they’ll kill us all.
A complex time. A simple call.
Snowden and Ellsberg urge you on.

And what of the smaller windows of that form of resistance
that tends to destroy the resistor’s existence?
Once I copied my own files
and mailed them to the paper
never thinking that I’d move 4,000 miles
to walk away from that caper.

I do not think it made a difference.
The papers ran
across the land.
Freeing the information did not touch the ignorance
that had made injustice king.
Only reopened the unhealed sting.

If you choose to speak
although it’s hard and hurts,
first commit to turn the other cheek
if no one in the crowd converts.

I do not regret trying.
Only that, as martyrdoms go,
mine was so unsatisfying.
I told a truth no one wanted to know.



Day 10 of one poem a day (… on days when I feel like it, apparently…) from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript. Currently it’s in the “Finding Berlin” section. I’m thinking of moving it to the “Nuremberg 2027″ section envisioning future war crimes trials, and expanding on linkages between things like JTRIG (which the Snowden documents revealed as doing contemporary Zersetzung plus Internet), the Stratfor files (documenting the financial and sexual nature of some tactics in use in these psychological operations), and the old Stasi “science” of degradation. But then it’s a political essay instead of a poem.

Flash fiction is an in-between possibility, literally and figuratively—weaving between poems to make more of a contiguous set of worlds in the book. But it’s hard to orient people quickly in those worlds. And even when you take the book-length time to orient readers, they often think it’s science fiction when it’s about reality. (The Margaret Atwood problem.)

Then again, sometimes you want people to dismiss serious political critique as art, performance, or satire. The jester is protected. The Yes Men are on the loose, while Lauri Love is in court again today to hear whether he’ll be effectively sentenced to death for allegedly participating in digital protests on the anniversary of Aaron Swartz’s death (#OpLastResort). Some of what #OpLastResort did was funny, like making the U.S. Sentencing Commission website display a game with the alert message “PEW PEW PEW PEW PEW! End Prosecutorial Overreach!” and a missile-enabled Nyan Cat with which viewers could shoot text off the webpage.

But the satire frame is serious. Just as the power of the fiction frame is real. You have to claim them early and often, I guess. I learned that as a stand-up comic. (I should do that again sometime—it’s good for my writing, I like the people in that scene here, and it’s fun when I’m actually prepared. But I’m such a serious Stubenhocker—homebody.)



Reports indicate that at a reading in early 21st century, pre-war Berlin, the author introduced the poem’s protagonist as a former lie detection researcher-turned-artist and American expatriate who had experienced what was public record but poorly recognized at the time about psychological operations against domestic dissidents in the pre-revolutionary U.S. This poem interweaves her story with an account of a contemporary survivor of similar tactics in the former East Germany, who was still continuing to recover even as the Berlin Wall was gone for as long as it had stood

According to Richtlinie Nr. 1/76,
the Ministry made itself a scientific niche.
To no longer terrorize through courts, resolved.
To go after opposition smarter, not harder, evolved
a new kind of torture to unleash.

I’m not here to argue. It’s my witness to bear.
What they used to do here, now we do over there.
Is that why the city took me in?
You degraded, undermined, corroded, decomposed, dissolved—
we have a home in Berlin.


The long arc of history took thirty-odd years
to bend toward Aunt Monica getting over her fears
of the Stasi rediscovering her wearing a dress,
taking pictures, touching, making her confess.
To be a woman but have been born a man
is already more than some people can stand.

And if we had a real lie detector,
could it have helped her?
It can be so hard to know
when it’s yes and when it’s no.
To know what you want requires learning to ask—
not something we learn at a school or work task.

But they knew it was a ploy,
an interrogation toy.
Knew from the Soviets, who had long known
spies are neither made nor discovered, but grown.
“The lie detector says, you a liar”—
more evidence on the chest-crushing pile.


Although we know it is only a game,
in Iraq and Afghanistan just the same,
American forces wrote home to complain
that lie detectors worked as hammers to send
sometimes probably innocent men
to be held and tortured at Abu Ghraib.

You could say that they were brave,
to raise the issue of abuse.
Or that they were stupid,
for believing in the screws
they turned, unsuited
by standards of science and ethics alike,
wanting only to better serve the Reich.

I do not care what you say about them.
In their judgment or defense, there is no great wisdom.
They lived as pawns—as pawns will die,
whether peacefully in their sleep
or by revenge, not knowing exactly why.
Them to whom judgment was definite and cheap.

I care about the truth—
that elusive, strange, and pulsing thing;
how just when you think you have it,
you pull up an empty string.
I care about Monica’s pain
that is also my own.
And Anna’s eyes fixed on the train.
And in faraway sands, the unidentifiable bone.

It was their job to pretend to know
who should stay and who should go,
who would walk free,
or not feel the wind blow.
It is my job to touch
the curtain of certainty,
pull it away to show
what we already know—
behind forms and scores personally
guaranteed objective,
there is always a frightened, little man,
some sweaty-palmed detective.


What happened is impossible to convey.
That’s part of the way
they make you think the gaslights’ flickering
and the unrelated bickering
are single stars in the sky of your fault.
The file says you said
The miscarriage… the assault.

In the famous movie on the actress
whom they accidentally killed
with one too many no-touch tactic,
there is a mole—
a man within who has a soul
and doesn’t want to see hers stilled.
He does not save her from the blackness
of despair that is the point of his whole practice.
But he tried, and helped a bit to mitigate
the damage he did to disintegrate.

Sometimes I’m so sure someone saw it happening and helped me get out,
that I’m afraid to say so because they could still be inside, acting the lout.
Thank you, stranger.
Let my little fiction cause no danger
to the lives of others.
Know that if I had my druthers,
I’d never go back,
nor unmake the choices that led to the attack.

Especially if you were not helping after all,
but only convincing me that leaving was my only choice
because you wanted me gone—one small,
troublesome person with a soft, persistent voice,
removed in a new Palmer Raid
where it seems to the subject it’s her own idea
to get the fuck out of here—
and those doing the hurting, seem to offer aid.

To be as honest as your average bundle of lies
and contradictions, all bustling head and slippery thighs,
whether and to whom I owe thanks
for helping me leave the targeted ranks
doesn’t keep me up anymore.
The dark bird stalks me nevermore.

What they did to me is done,
and proof would require someone
who did it to say so,
or produce documents to show.
Otherwise, I just sound mad
trying to piece together how I was had,
which was half the point.
The past is a cleared checkpoint.
It interests me less and less
than the open road,
my new home and happiness,
regaining weight at last to bear the future’s (for now) lightening load.

But if I were to ring out a warning,
some eloquent defense of freedom and of living,
of decency and forgiveness after mourning
what has been done,
giving what peace can be given
under the irreversible sun—
it would be that we are too late
to linger long in despair,
too late to abdicate
attention to ads and Kabuki,
too late to stay to fight when we’re not safe there,
and far too late to believe in magic boxes and Washington’s cherry tree.

We have time for triage,
because we must,
and to love each other well.
Time to enjoy the voyage
even with no trust
in our return,
no Athena guiding us through hell,
and no certainty that the tides of history will turn.

When everything was dissolving including myself,
I left my research in boxes on the shelf.
Some was destroyed; some I could save.
And so, finally, I’m releasing these tapes.
We don’t have a word for what kept me from it, yet.
I’ve only told you a story—don’t forget.
Maybe dead men cannot talk,
but they have talked to me.
Sometimes even blind men
get a second chance to see.

And if I were to ring out a confession,
you must excuse my poetic expression.
You may have come for my old life,
but I am no good, Christian wife.
Do you know who I am?
I have been a lover in your house of spies,
and you will never expunge
the heat between my thighs.