Swerve at 65

“If all movement is always interconnected, the new arising from the old in a determinate order―
if the atoms never swerve so as to originate some new movement that will snap the bonds of fate,
the everlasting sequence of cause and effect―what is the source of the free will possessed by
living things throughout the earth?” ― Lucretius Carus Titus, 99 - 55 BCE 


Sidewalk café. All that brings to mind.
Tiny table half in shade, pots
of shrubs and gaudy primrose, saplings budding
into sprays of white plus tender leaves, an arm’s
length from traffic. A crow swoops from the eaves
to investigate leftovers from a couple with a Doberman,
who just sauntered off leaving plates
and dregs in cups and most important crumbs.

Life keeps at it: two Latino guys
power-wash the plastic surgeon’s brick
plaza. Deliveries come and go, their boxy
trucks beetling around the corner. One hipster
driver wheels his handtruck, empty, back
to its mobile den. The Doberman’s ears were taped
and rigid as party tooters. He (or she,
I didn’t check) reared up, his front paws
on their table like someone making a point.
His point being, I want what you have.

This week I’ve discovered Lucretius Carus Titus,
his On the Nature of Things, his muse Epicurus,
his followers Bruno, More, Jefferson, Darwin.
I feel the knowledge seeping through my veins,
don’t know quite what to do with it...
Expensive cars crawl past, windows darkened,
engines drowned out by the pressure-washer’s howl,
a cross between waterfall and dentist’s drill.
Bristling with old tools, a yardsman’s truck
heads, implacable, for the next weedy landscape.
A well-dressed lady in a puffy winter coat
(it is warm and sunny) stops and lifts her phone
to the blooming plum, snaps a picture, checks it,
retakes it, stalks on. Across the street, apartments
overlook the scene, and me. Yes,
I am part of someone’s changing view.
Who lives above me, unaware?

If I lived here I would be home now.
That’s what the realtors are selling.
At the barber’s, a giant photo of an unshaven
but “handsome” man (quotation marks are mine),
in posh casual wear, gazes pensively
at the adjacent shot, a “man and son” (ditto)
enjoying quality time with their haircuts.
The workers pressure-wash them too: so clean
you could eat off them.

The last time I wrote such observations
I was 20,000 feet up and a thousand miles
from home, where I live now, and I
was registering the street life of clouds,
the passing traffic of mountains and rivers, as if
it was I who was static, not whipping through the air
at 600 em pee aitch, as though the sun
circled around the earth. Today I am free
to do nothing, leverage the sun
and its changing position, and, well, think—that is,
think thoughts, rather than worry at concerns
like well-worn stones—because my man, as they say,
has clarified with bar charts and spreadsheets
that no, I really needn’t go back to work.

I am retired. All that brings to mind.
My senses stir, small multi-legged critter
roused from a winter’s sleep. A few feeble
blinks, the stretch of a foot, a foreleg, a quick
flapping shake of the ears to clear the cobwebs.
I’ve been wanting all this time here pen in hand
to figure how to fit Lucretius in
to this story. I think I have it now.
I have swerved (cue vee Greenblatt),
like prescient Lucretius’s atomi, which make up everything,
which do not travel in straight lines like raindrops:
they jitter and they change their courses,
thus enabling evolution, happenstance,
free will, art, begging dogs and such.

I slouch writing in this sunlight
like one of those proto-fish dully amazed
to find his front fins scooting through the hot
sand of a scratchy beach, a beach that’s full
of new things, swerving, often, freely.
He wants what they have. He can live here
and be home.

Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

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