There are places no history can reach. 
—Norman Mailer, Armies of the Night

Outside the river entrance, between the Potomac
and the curbed flowerbeds, a man walks up and down,
has been walking this last half hour. November leaves
skip in the wind or are lifted, unresisting,
to mesh with the spent residue of dahlias’
late-summer blood and flame, leached marigolds,
knives of gladioli flailed to ribbons:
parts of a system that seems, on the face of it,
to be all waste, entropy, dismemberment;
but which perhaps, given time enough, will prove
to have refused nothing tangible,
without audible clash, with no more than a whiplash
incident, to its counterpart, a system
shod in concrete, cushioned in butyl, riding
chariots of thermodynamics, adept with the unrandom,
the calculus of lifting and carrying, with vectors,
clocks, chronicles, calibrations.
                                            File clerks
debouch into the dusk—it is rush hour; headlights
thicken, a viscous chain along the Potomac—
from concentric corridors, five sides
within five sides, grove leading on to grove
lit by autonomous purrings, daylight
on demand, dense with the pristine,
the dead-white foliage of those archives
that define and redefine with such precision,
such subtleties of exactitude, that only
the honed mind’s secret eye can verify
or vouch for its existence, how the random
is to be overcome, the unwelcome
forestalled, the arcane calamity
at once refused, delineated and dwelt on.  Where,
as here, triune Precaution, Accumulation
and Magnitude obtain, such levitations
and such malignities have come, with time,
to seem entirely natural—this congeries
being unquestionably the largest
office building in Christendom.
                                            The man alone
between blackened flowerbeds and the blackening
Potomac moves with care, as though balanced
astride the whiplash between system and system—
wearing an overcoat, hatless, thinning-haired,
a man of seemingly mild demeanor
who might have been a file clerk
were it not for his habit of writing down
notes to himself on odd scraps of paper,
old bills, the backs of envelopes, or in a notebook
he generally forgets to bring with him,
and were it not for the wine jug
he carries (the guard outside the river entrance,
as he pauses, has observed it, momentarily puzzled)
cradled close against his overcoat.
                                                 By now file clerks,
secretaries, minor and major bureaucrats, emerging
massively through the several ports of egress,
along the ramps, past the walled flowerbeds,
which the lubrications and abrasions of routine,
the multiple claims of a vigilant anxiety,
the need for fine tuning, for continual
readjustment of expectation, have rendered
largely negligible, flow around him.
He moves against the flux, toward the gardens.
Around him, leaves skip in the wind
like a heartbeat, like a skipped

if I were a dead leaf
thou mightest bear                               

He shivers,
cradling the wine jug, his heart beating strangely;
his mind fills up with darkness

overland, the inching caravans
the blacked-out troop trains
convoys through ruined villages
along the Mekong

with the hydrocarbon-dark, headlight-inflamed Potomac

the little lights    the candles
flickering on Christmas eve
the one light left burning
in a front hallway     kerosene-
lit windows in the pitch dark
of back-country roads

His mind
plunges like a derrick
into that pitch dark as he uncorks the wine jug
and with a quick gesture not unlike
a signing with the cross (but he is a Quaker)
begins the anointing of himself with its contents,
with the ostensible domestic Rhine wine
or chablis, which is not wine—which
in fact is gasoline.

tallow, rushlight, whale oil, coal oil,
gas jet: black fat of the Ur-tortoise
siphoned from stone, a shale-tissued
carapace: hydrocarbon unearthed
and peeled away, process by process,
in stages not unlike the stages
of revelation, to a gaseous plume
that burns like a bush, a perpetual
dahlia of incandescence, midway
between Wilmington and Philadelphia
gaslight, and now these filamented
avenues, wastelands and windows
of illumination, gargoyles,
gasconades, buffooneries of neon,
stockpiled incendiary pineapples,
pomegranates of jellied gasoline
that run along the ground, that cling
in a blazing second skin
to the skins of children

Anointing the overcoat, and underneath it the pullover
with one elbow out, he sees, below the whiplash threshold,
darkness boil up, a vatful of sludge, a tar pit,
a motive force that is all noise: jet engines,
rush-hour aggressions, blast furnaces,
headline-grabbing self-importances

the urge to engineer events
compel a change of government,
a change of heart, a shift
in the wind’s direction—lust
after mastery, manipulations
of the merely political

Hermaphrodite of pity and violence, the chambered
pistil and the sword-bearing archangel,
scapegoat and self-appointed avenger, contend,
embrace, are one. He strikes the match.
A tiger leap, a singing envelope goes up,
blue-wicked, a saffron overcoat of burning

in the forests of the night
make me thy lyre

out of passionless dismemberment,
a nerveless parturition, green wheels'
meshed intercalibration with the sun

A random leaf, seized by the updraft, shrivels
unresisting; fragments of black ash
drift toward the dahlia gardens

from dim tropisms of avoidance,
articulated, node upon internode,
into a scream, the unseen filament
that never ends, that runs
through all our chronicles

a manifesto flowering like a dahlia
into whole gardens of astonishment—
the sumptuous crimson,
heart’s dark, the piebald
saffron and scarlet riding
the dahlia gardens of
the lake of Xochimilco:

Benares, marigold-garlanded
sutee, the burning ghats
alongside the Ganges: at
the An Quang pagoda, saffron
robes charring in fiery
transparency, a bath of burning

Scraps of charred paper, another kind of foliage,
drift toward the dahlia gardens

a leaf
thou mightest bear

The extravaganza
of a man afire having seized, tigerlike, the attention
it now holds with the tenacity of napalm, of the homebound
file clerks, secretaries, minor and major bureaucrats,
superimposing upon multiple adjustments,
the fine tuning of Precaution and Accumulation,
the demands of Magnitude, what the concentric
groves of those archives have no vocabulary
for dwelling on, the uniformed man of action,
in whom precaution and the unerring impulse
are one, springs forward to pound and pummel,
extinguishing the manifesto as decently as possible.
by now, has sent for an ambulance.

The headlights crawl, slowed by increasing density,
along the Potomac, along the diagonal thoroughfares,
along the freeways, toward Baltimore, toward Richmond,
toward Dulles and toward Friendship Airport, the airborne
engines’ alternating red
and green, a pause and then again a red,
a green, a waking fantasy upborne
on a lagoon of hydrocarbon, as
the dahlia gardens ride the lake of Xochimilco.
While the voiceless processes of a system
that in the end perhaps will have
refused nothing tangible, continue neither
to own nor altogether to refuse the burning filament
that runs through all our chronicles, uniting
system with system into one terrible mandala,
the stripped hydrocarbon
burns like a bush, a gaseous plume
midway between Wilmington and Philadelphia.