Christopher Cessac

Two poems from Christopher Cessac’s The Youngest Ocean
followed by a note on the author

Ars Amatoria in the Express Checkout Lane

Everything—love, lust, even our alphabet—
was young once. If only to amuse death

we should have paused more for photographs.
Or less. Having reduced their immediate desire

to ten items or less, the young lovers before us
in line remind us of blameless lives our mothers

and doctors dreamt for us before these small crimes
that we call a career—the romance of life

in our provincial outpost is no romance. Eros,
that deathless, heartless god of hearts, taught us

to make our own sweet trouble by abandoning
us as he abandons all in time. Our time alone

together: a lucky marriage of sweat and song,
life held close, with purpose, if only to amuse death.

The Youngest Ocean

Nothing beautiful to say about the world
and never stop trying to say it.

A sense we’ve known happiness before
so there can be happiness. What happens

depends. How to be in this world
and what role model doesn’t disappoint.

A desire to persist despite. Everything
before and how it relates to what is possible:

as Columbus is the name of no one
long before trombones and flags parade

down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan—
a King’s army retreats, King’s College

is rechristened Columbia University—
The Manhattan Project begins in secret

and never ends—Japan is Cipangu,
where Columbus believes he will arrive—

. . . .

Start with an impossibility of art:
This world does not exist—everything just

as possible as nothing. Don’t trust literature.
Poets too can camouflage selfish reasons

for killing others like the rest of us.
It’s not easy being President,

finger on the button, etcetera.
Before our wars, before even happiness:

the entire sprawling suburban log-cabin
penthouse empire of convenience,

even invitations to the inaugural ball,
unlikely as life itself . . .

. . . .

and no horizon—creation stories
begin like this (an exhausted albatross,

a ball of fire after a fleeing serpent,
a boy fishing who lands an island,

the sun sprouting from an egg)—
names, details vary, but first: water.

And even water loves to hear its name
so we name:
Atlantic, after Atlas,
from our catalog of sensibly absurd heroes
punished with unbearable chores—

How many ways to say it, our one myth:
resistance is useless.
For Prometheus
sunrise is knowledge a beak will knife

into his stomach again, every morning
is both life and dread . . .
encircled by, yet wanting, olives,
figs, a pomegranate, a single drop
of water . . .
Sisyphus with his rock
and Camus his pen to push and push . . .

Adam and Eve and being made to live
with death . . .

Atlantic, after Atlas,
the weight of any heaven is on a man’s back.

. . . .

. . . in order that the crew might not be dismayed
if the voyage were long . . . two reckonings:
the smaller which was false
and the greater which was true.

. . . .

Any honest cocktail party and some crude
academic with no contempt or sympathy

for empire will yelp of Leif Ericson
and Vikings finding old, unknown shores—

“District of Leif”?
It lacks romance,
sounds like conquest or shipwreck,
not discovery; his story, not history.

. . . .

Interbrand, a division of Omnicom:
[W]e developed the name Prozac. This abstract
name cleverly combines the positive
associations based on the Latin/Greek
derivations of ‘pro’ with a short, effective
sounding suffix. … Brands are an important
influence on our lives. They are central
to free markets and democratic societies.

. . . .

Not Interbrand, Congress or cartography,
“Columbia” is developed within a poem:

Where e’er Columbia spreads her swelling Sails:
To every Realm shall Peace her Charms display,
And Heavenly Freedom spread her golden Ray.

by Phillis Wheatley, a slave—existence
is not simultaneous: the speed of light

versus the sloth of heavenly freedom
and her rays; the sunlight we know is years

older than now—each morning both life
and dread, a world old and unknown.

. . . .

A war knows the work of secrets
and how to bury them—
Beneath bleachers
at Stagg Field, a vacant stadium turned arena

for gladiators in grey flannel, labcoats, egos,
anxious, hurried to prove The Bomb can be.

. . . .

Stagg Field, after Alonzo Stagg—
All football comes from Stagg,

says Knute Rockne: the huddle, numbers
on jerseys, tackling dummies,
the shift
in focus from defense to offense and surprise:

hidden balls, criss-crosses, reverses, laterals;
it’s Stagg who introduces the forward pass—

fourth down, fourth quarter, desperation,
who wouldn’t throw a bomb?

. . . .

Stagg Field and a squash court turned lab—
a chain reaction in uranium lets loose

an impromptu celebration: cheers and chianti
in paper cups follow a quick call to D.C.

to whisper the agreed-on secret phrase
announcing success:

The Italian navigator
has landed in the New World.

. . . .

Too much sake and dancing, the moon
and cherry blossoms have conquered

Capitol Hill, I’m drunk, reeling from poems
you’ve whispered, secrets the Secret Service

will never hear . . .
How to be in this world
and even against unbroken suffering, beauty
and peace are pursued still, if only to argue—

. . . .

Climbing the mast to look for land
or landing at Columbus International:

On one hand: charity, our neighbors, their children,
what happens to this world after us.

On the other: our own comfort (a full belly,
some wine, a solid roof, a soft place to fall at night).

Each moment we prioritize and live.

. . . .

If revolution is equal parts philosophy
on fire and cold muscle of desperation

then America was never revolution.
To write a winning creation story

demands discretion: no Pemaquidians,
no Pophamites, no bullion-hungry shiploads

of Roanokers abandoned to die on islands
off Carolina’s coast, no godless aristocrats

lusting for Spanish gold, for real estate,
for fortunes in salt-slacked cod shipped

from Maine for decades before Plymouth.
Forget all these.
Start with honest Pilgrims:
worship and work, worship and work—

and Squanto waiting for us, grateful
to work our crops, worship our gods . . .

. . . .

Interbrand: strong brands bestow value
far beyond the performance of the products
themselves. Brands that do this possess an idea
worthy of consumer loyalty.

. . . .

Loyal and clever,
well-placed, well-read—always others,

eager, busily repainting Pentagons, War
departments into Defense departments

to not announce a shift in focus, a leaning
toward empire—
Calliope or We
the People, Polyhymnia or polycarbonate
conglomerates, we all have our muses . . .

. . . .

George the Third: I wish nothing but good,
therefore everyone who does not agree with me
is a traitor and a scoundrel.

Bush the Second: The reason we start
a war is to fight a war, win a war,
thereby causing no more war.

Roosevelt the First: In strict confidence …
I should welcome almost any war,
for I think this country needs one.

Nixon: I’d rather use the nuclear bomb …
Does that bother you? I just want you to think

. . . .

Our little freedoms, what should we do,
flaunt them? To what end? Some illiterate,

treeless outpost on the Black Sea?
Ask Ovid the pleasures of such a reward.

So what then? Fetch the boss’s laundry,
bang away at one more Aenied? It’s not easy

not being President: someone else’s finger
on the button, etcetera.
Capitol Hill,
Fifth Avenue, the Interbrand board room—
so many ways to measure distance between us

and none adequate—a ghost town in Morocco,
a landlocked village off the Black Sea . . .

What should we do? Settle down, forget
the future, reduce the world to what we can

hold?—some olives, a few pomegranates,
a lover, our children. Pastoral dreaming

solves everything except what matters.
Fellow exile, to not be present is not enough.

. . . .

Ovid: I’m punished because my unknowing eyes
saw an offence, my sin’s that of possessing sight.

For what, naming names? Carmen et error?
Exiled and here at home, among my own.

How else to explain shame at seeing the flag
over there and over there and over there . . .

Columbus the wise proving the world
is round, Pilgrims and Indians embraced

in Thanksgiving, in order to form
a more perfect union, of the people, created

equal, etcetera. What do you expect
from a schoolboy—I believed it all.

Centuries pass. Cemeteries and landfills fill
to near bursting. What do we do?

We grow old. Find work. Try for love.
The alternatives are too grim.

. . . .

Columbus on Santa Maria or Tibbets
on the Enola Gay or Balboa curled up

like a dog, hiding beside his dog
in a barrel on a boat headed west,

or General Curtis Lemay, fast in battle
like a lion, or Captain John Smith, unwearying

master of guile and toil, or De Soto, Octavian,
Truman, certaine Knightes, gentlemen, marchanntes,

Honest John, Davy Crocket, Pershing,
Ajax, Hercules, Fat Man, Little Boy . . .

. . . .

Atlas tending his garden of gold
at the western limit of the known world.

A hero arrives, asking only for rest.
Are you secure enough to let some stranger

loiter among everything you have?
Atlas refuses.

So the hero offers a gift
and who is so satisfied as to refuse a gift?

Atlas is staring as the hero raises the head
of Medusa. First his feet, then his legs—

Atlas becomes a mountain, clouds scratch
his stone shoulders, on his back falls

the work of keeping heaven
separate from world and men.

. . . .

There have always been many ways
this world could end; it’s beginnings

that escape us. Empire or people
resisting empire . . . What could be more

valuable than a new world, everything
before versus what is possible—

. . . .

Two hours after midnight land appeared . . .
green trees . . . fruit of various kinds . . . naked people

. . . in order that they might feel great amity
towards us, because I knew they were a people
to be delivered and converted to our holy faith
rather by love than by force, I gave to some
among them red caps and some glass beads
. . . and many other things of little value.

Christopher Cessac is the author of Republic Sublime (Zoo Press), which won the Kenyon Review Prize in Poetry, and Eros Among the Americans (Main Street Rag). His poems have also appeared in Rattle, The Antioch Review, Black Warrior Review, Kenyon Review, Poetry Daily and elsewhere. Originally from Texas, he lives now in Toronto.

Ars Amatoria in the Express Checkout Lane; first appeared in Mudlark; The Youngest Ocean; won the Pelleas Long Poem Contest and previously appeared in The Modern Review.