“We Used to Meet for Classes. Sometimes It Was Ecstasy, Sometimes Blah” by Daniel Berrigan

Daniel Berrigan


The big claims of the powerless are not notably more interesting
than the big claims of the powerful. The first inspire pity
the others, fear. Together they make a parody
of the tragic. Now and again in our prisoners’ class
someone, a new arrival or a loquacious con man
takes over. Pushing his big claim up front
a rickety cart laden with dubious “goods,” slightly tainted
virtuous side upward.
He would die, in sum, for this or that. (I forget what)
Our fingers drum. The words of dead heroes
twitch in our hands like a struck face.

Like torches stuck in the ground, a night encampment
an unwearied courage; thought plays, light and shadow cross
a mad general flays the air
A mad president charts, premises, promises. A seductive
of the long march.
“Take over—revolution—consciousness 3.” Eyes cloud.
Have heard it all before, have heard it all
before, heard it all, all before

from Rattle #10, Winter 1998


Daniel Berrigan (from the conversation in Rattle #11): “I think it had a lot to do with our father who, for years, was turning out awful stuff but who had great ambitions and who was very well read but was stuck, I would say, in the romantics of the 19th century, and he never got out of it. He was a big Shelley man, a Keats man, etc., though he knew a lot of Shakespeare, too. Anyway, I was typing a lot of his stuff, under duress and much against the grain. We had this old, old manual typewriter, and I was always getting it wrong, because he was meticulous about all this punctuation. I didn’t like the stuff to start with, so it was really kind of a bondage. But I guess in a kind of curious way it got me very interested in poetry and eventually, as a very young person in high school, writing poetry. Then, of course, in the order we had a vigorous regime of poetry in Latin and Greek and English, and later in French. So I sort of swam with the tide at that point. I was publishing when I was 20, 21. And it really never stopped.”

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