In corridor and street
they stalk me
Oblongs, oblongs, oblongs
In no place can I walk safe
from their flat boldness.
If I stand on the corner
of 3rd and Market
They fly, they wave,
they rattle on posts.
Oblong spirits, but tangible
spirits of man textures,
Paper, cotton, plastic, the junk
of sweatshops oceans away.

They never speak, can only honk.
Crippled, they are deaf and blind.

And, they would muffle me,
enshroud me, wrap
Their oblong selves around me,
silence me
With their stripes, stuff stars
down my throat,
Deny me breath to call them
what they are—
Emblems, something cheap and easy
to wave or sport
On breasts, suits, hats, SUVs—
to call them
Nothing but rags covering
a continental emptiness,
Nothing but flags,
red, white, and blue.

I thought it was a dream, a nightmare,
And, then I awoke, and it was true.
December 2001


As the date December 2001 indicates, this poem was written not too long after 9/11/01, the day that saved Bush from being a one-term president and from which one can date the beginning of the ending of our country as a democracy of responsible citizens.  And it has a particular place as an origin, the corner of 3rd and Market in Lewisburg, Pa.  That is where the Federal building stands, and for many years peace-loving people have held a vigil against war there, where the large flag rattles loudly against the metal flagpole whenever wind is blowing–which it always is.

Bush ruled by fear and flag, and the latter was everywhere that fall, as it still tends to be.  Our local Fourth of July parade is a massive display of militarism and “patriotism.”  A few years ago, the director of this obscene rite wrote to me and others, asking us to show flags.  I wrote back, saying that I could not wrap myself in the flag, which was a phony patriotism, cheap and easy.  I told him that I would agree to read the Declaration of Independence, which the day should celebrate, at the end of the parade, but he declined my offer.  Small flags are planted on the sidewalks for the parade, and when it was over I went out to pluck the one from my sidewalk and was struck to see that it was made from flimsy stuff made in China–cheap and easy.

This poem speaks for itself, but I must pay one debt.  On the day in 1967 when the people of peace marched on the Pentagon I had the good luck to pass by Dick Gregory, standing on a car, and chanting, “The flag is a rag.”  Unforgettable and true, and it found its way into this poem.  I present this to the Spilling Ink Co-op for David Hafer, who has an excellent, genuine sense of what patriotism really is.

Karl Patten
from Spaces and Lines


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