Friday, August 17, 2007

Elegy for Sergio Vieira de Mello

Four years ago, on 19 August 2003, twenty-two UN staff members serving in Iraq were killed by a suicide bomber. Among the dead was the leader of the humanitarian mission, Sérgio Vieira de Mello. This as I recall was the first of many stunning tragedies in Iraq. I hadn't expected the invasion to turn out well, but I hadn't been prepared for something so horrible, and spent the next couple of days wandering around San Francisco feeling sad and angry and composing the following, which I post here because it's not getting any better sitting in a folder.

For Sérgio Vieira de Mello

Sérgio, it's been a week. I claim
the stranger's right to be growing more upset.
You're lying in state back home. It's winter there.
The trees must be restrained in splendor, the parrots'
cries in quieter Portuguese. But here
in San Francisco it's summer, not just in name;
girls in halter tops fill all the cafes
and Joseph Cornell stores on 24th,
Dolores Park's a beach of beautiful
male torsos and thighs, so many effortless
Michelangelos with faces of that rich
variety that men misname as race.

Sérgio, it's evening. I'm walking down
from Noe Valley to visit friends in the Mission.
Three ginkgos stand in front of an Irish pub,
The Liberties (as in Don't Be Taking, perhaps,
though Liberty Hill's not far away.) Amidst
the summer green are yellow hints of fall.
A few branches hang, broken and brown. Here
are pots of marigolds and foxglove. There
a manzanita's blossoms hang like pink
Chinese lanterns the size of nipples, a few
as red. A jacaranda, up here at least
the slenderest and loveliest of trees,
has lost its lilac blooms. The wilting rhyme
of the agapanthus stalks has been cut down.
Above, my country's flag is crossed with Castro's -
the field of stars on seven rainbow stripes.

Sérgio, perhaps you would have laughed -
a beggar - no, a homeless guy in a doorway,
autistic from hopelessness - by his side
his book of hours, a baby-blue pamphlet:
Some Basic Facts about the United Nations.
He must have picked it up for free downtown.
I hate the consciously inoffensive blue,
the trite coincidence, the pitiful man,
this magnificent beautiful city's failure to solve
the insoluble. Forgive the ugliness,
but this anger makes me want to puke.
Saddam, get of Hitler and Stalin, lives,
the spiteful madmen who killed you and your colleagues...
Arafat's New Year's "No" on peace to Clinton,
the sacrilegious green of Hamas's flag,
the "we wanna be a superpower" French,
Cheney, Rupert Murdoch, the neocons,
Bush's incuriosity - his complacent,
manipulated ignorance as good
as mendacity any day - "he often says
that life would be a lot easier if it were
a dictatorship." Even the dorky look
on the EMT's face as he carried an outraged child
from the skeletal bus the day that you were killed.
Seething, IQ plummeting, I've new
respect for all that you, with better grounds
for fury, accomplished in your life, and beyond.

Sérgio, you would have loved my friends,
Maarten and Chiara, too. I'd say
that they are people - smart and generous,
productive, in love - you could have been proud
to die for. But they wouldn't have asked, and you
didn't volunteer. Well, it's too late,
and better to think of happier things, like how
the other day my friends, out drinking, asked
for caipirinhas - in exchange for instructions, got
a round with Cuban rum in place of cachaça.
Going to bars with them is economical.
Strangers see them smile, hear them laugh,
and send us margaritas, a small blessing.

Sérgio, this neighborhood is rich
in people, poor in other ways - for San
Francisco, anyway. The dollar stores
are full. And here's a tall, sharp-spired church,
its unglassed windows boarded up and painted
gray, the great rose window slatted gray;
two motion-sensor lights point out the steps
are filthy - the only parishioners now are pigeons.
Chiseled into a column's base in German,
"Christ is the cornerstone."
                                            I think that we
should build new churches based on men like you -
not houses of worship - places to meet and plan
a better world. And here, more random luck,
La Iglesia del Buen Samaritano.
Light spills from the doorway. It's dusk. Late
for a home-cooked Italian dinner, I hurry by
and pass a lone Monarch fluttering north.

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