Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

Compassion Machine

<i>Compassion Machine</i>
Photograph via Flickr by capt_tain Tom

Sweet secret, harmless spell—
My husband knows one line to one hymn,
Thy sea is great, our boats are small,
Thy sea is great, our boats are small,

but he sings it nightly until the baby sleeps.
Damp and warm, the baby tucks
his head again, again toward the sound.
The room is dimly lit by the pulse
of an artificial seascape: turtle, jellyfish, seashell.
I hear my husband’s voice from the other room.
His voice tender, softly
accosting, little green crest capped with foam.

But how long can the line cohere
when the sentence insinuates?
The song cannot reconcile lifejackets
in the picture-windows of Turkey,
the boy washed up face down in the sand.
How many guns with how many cartridges,
the human collateral who spent,
the others who paid for them.
While je suis Parisienne was trending,
I was walking through a field of wildflowers.
Dragonflies bent the falling light,
a body of water moved, grooves in a record.

Each time the world shatters, the compassion
machine reproduces by division.
Profligate as cedar pollen, as ragweed,
it disperse molecules on which synthetic parasites
enter the bloodstream.
Lazy-eyed, accusingly shaped, dotted with
an enlarged heart—
the machine, like any god,
is a kind of wish fulfillment.
It is earnest if obscure on the subject
of culpability: it says reduce yourself to an object
means you love the world.

IV. Atrabiliarios & Untitled: A Counterexample
      If you want to dignify a life,
      you have to come back to beauty.

            –Doris Salcedo

Shoes tucked behind a scrim of viscera.
Hapless shirts coated in plaster, stacked on rebar.
Dark wood worn with the disappeared’s touch.
The work says, Nothing can be made to restitute.
The machine says, Factual accuracy, deployed relentlessly,
can redeem you.
       I object, I refuse.
But inside my body, the muscle memory
of contraries, of pleasure, struggles
not to be consumed by parasitic eggs.
Soon, they will birth the mouths of the useful something,
appetite of ambivalence, appetite of insecurity.

Dissembling, the machine projects a certain
forced charisma. It’s mouths say, I’m here to help, friend.
You can have the ocean—fat slapping seaweed,
a crashing brackish green—any beautiful thing!
But, for it, you must wear this 20th century haircloth:
how else will we know that you know
that we know you’re guilty?

The larvae hum in my extremities.
I’ve tried, I say, eyeing the haircloth,
thinking I’m holding it at arm’s length only to see,
from a craftily placed mirror,
myself gesturing pathetically, as though I want
nothing more than to feel the cloth fall al-
most luxuriously down my shoulders.

Yet there are still mysteries, though the machine
would have you believe otherwise.
Why trees in a forest feed cut stumps
around them is a mystery,
why humpback whales loll about
with their penises draped all over each other is another.
I would like to know how old
the oldest living jellyfish is,
how many lovers have trailed their hands
across the bark of the world’s oldest tree.
What good does it do to remember
the dead, the suffering,
only at their point of utmost extremity?
It makes of them an unlikeness.
It wastes the materials, such as they are, at hand.

VII. Like Butter: A Counterexample
       [My sculptures] are about being human.
                   –Kathy Butterly

Doesn’t the violence we fear evade “factual accuracy?’
The machine has made an error
in its valuation of safety.
All we can do is offer a contingent protection,
sometimes after the fact.
Butterly’s forms are another kind of fact,
which I think the dead also consecrate:
peach and aquamarine glazes, delirious
surfaces, tiny, joyful pedestals affirming
bulges, protrusions, bodily fluids.
Her bumptious creations will return the echo
of anyone’s joy, the machine
for the moment nowhere to be found.

Those in need of protection—do they recognize
themselves only in images
of suffering? I think they have needs
like I have needs: daily, the machine plays me
for a fool. Object, refuse.
I want to be naked, as defiant if knowing
as Hannah Wilke’s body on the rocks at Cadaqués…
Experience has shown the machine cannot
be bashed in with a cemented armoire,
it cannot be seduced by sensuous forms.
It coughs at all manner of response
not quantifiable by use value. Equivocator,
you are silky on the subjects of wrack and ruin.

Vanquish the machine? Isn’t it in me?
But I listen to the way my husband’s song repeats,
and, in repeating, a familiar
changing, closing the baby’s eyes into darkness, night,
solitude. Each of us makes what we can
with what we have—the song retrieved,
perhaps, from a place of incoherence, or worse.
But also second chances, wrong turns, the long
way around. Also joy, also happiness.
I sing, sometimes helplessly, against the stillness
of any dream for a child’s safety.
Safety, my love, is a myth. The jellyfish perishes.
Always, something wants in, out—
the body inside the body like a shell. Softness
exposed is to live in the world.
Love begins as a single cell.