Volume 24, Number 3

Public House

A diplomat slumps over warm Riesling,
lamenting the sad limitations of tact

and smiles to outwit fear, cajole all factions
to concur in a better world; a priest consoles

that such kingdoms are within us
if we can find the eyes to see them.

A child on his father’s shoulders,
arms outstretched, playing at being

an airplane, glides quickly, mirage-like
across the open doorway. The diplomat

straightens the crease in his fine necktie,
stares at the now-empty space, a few feet

of concrete in streetlight, and then night.
He almost declares a million children

no different than that boy will starve,
fall to disease this year, or be orphaned

for no crime other than being born
in the wrong country. He doesn’t add

Ask them about kingdoms of heaven.
His thoughts are conquered anyway,

as a louder argument down the bar
draws all conversations under its banner:

A well-suited man, calm as the night
is vague, reminds a wasted kid with dreads,

with whom he’s conversing for reasons
beyond understanding, that he has the privilege

of drinking, denouncing things, because our soldiers
defend us from threats, even those yet unseen.

His colleague seems in a constant state
of disbelieving his ears, keeps screaming,

What don’t you get; we’re killing people!
The nationalist looks at him like a kid

who’s just said the sun orbits the earth,
but the bartender halts the proceedings,

blending up a pitcher of margaritas
that no one seems to have ordered,

glancing knowingly at the old man
in the corner, wearing an ancient coat,

stroking his giant beard, staring, listening,
as if memorizing the entire night.

The priest smiles shyly, already giving away
that he’ll tell a joke, grabs his friend’s shoulder,

says, See, you just never know when
all of a sudden you’ll witness a miracle.

But the mind of the sullen statesman
has already painted the unjust world

in several coats of its most hopeless shades,
bypassing his friend’s blithe kindness,

as if he already knows the sweet nuisance
of phantoms’ drinks will fade like lilies,

knows the truculent pacifist will launch
the salvo he’s been engineering

throughout the barman’s clever armistice:
What if your kids were off in some country

shooting people, being captured? Tortured!
As if he knows the young man’s adversary

will tell him, as if it were obvious,
Well, they’re not my children. Thank God.

—Michael Collins