Last Statement for a Last Oracle

 

After this oracle there will be no more oracles.
The precinct is hereby desanctified. You wanted it,
you have it. From now on everything I say
will be a lie said for cash. Now, for the last time,
here’s the truth: You have won with your horse power
and numbers from the north. You will go on
winning forever—this is your damnation—
until your conquests and the insides of your heads
are alike, and you and I know what it’s like
in there, so if some dirty beast remembers,
on some future dirty night, what it was like
once to have been a human being and pleasing to me
in a fair exchange of pure sacrifice for pure prophecy
he will throw himself into a fire and howl to death.
I will now drop back into the fire you are
so curious about. When you get drunk tonight
and pee on it, it, you and I will go out like the light
and an acid yellow smoke will take the place of our souls.
We will have to go on living a lie for a while, however,
in the unspeakable condition I have referred to in passing.

 

Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and piss.

—Lord Byron

 

As any good scholar or copyright lawyer will tell you, sources are a vexing business: the point of origin, the wellspring, the source, is always contentious ground, where what seems solid melts into mud: this kind of instability or slippage accounts for much of the power of Alan Dugan’s “Last Statement for a Last Oracle.”  The poem would seem initially to follow a familiar, three-part structure—scene, vision, and then return to that scene modified or altered by the vision—but instead, “Last Statement for a Last Oracle” offers a series of steps or corrections which constantly shift the poem’s meaning in new or multiple directions and so create, through the drama of deferred resolution, a tension that accounts for a significant part of the poem’s energy, as does the way the poem plays against the form it would seem to follow.

The title of the poem, and especially the word “for,” immediately foregrounds one vital aspect of the poem’s slipperiness.  We are about to read a poem written by a contemporary or near-contemporary poet as a prophetic speech spoken several centuries ago.  This doubling is essential to the work of the poem because the speaker speaks to us through historical time, which means the oracle we are about to receive will have come true in the past.  Another aspect of our belated interpretation of the fulfilled prophecy we are about to receive is the poem’s implicit reference to another “last oracle”—the last oracle, spoken by the Oracle at Delphi to the emissary of Julian the Apostate in (roughly) 350 A.D.

Tell the king, the fair wrought hall has fallen to the ground.
No longer has Phoebus a hut, nor a prophetic laurel, nor a
stream that speaks.  The water of speech even is quenched.

(Allen Grossman, Summa Lyrica, 292-293)

According to Grossman, “We can correlate the death of the speaking stream in cult with the birth of the loquaces lymphae in poetry” (Ibid. p. 293).   The drama of this death, this loss, is one aspect of the anger and the double-nature in Dugan’s “Last Statement”: “finite language is social statement mapped upon syntax which entrains through time.  When we speak and understand we remember and anticipate” (Ibid. p. 292).

“Last Statement for a Last Oracle” is a persona poem in which, in the first line, a speaker, not the poet, informs us that we are about to receive a prophecy, one made especially plangent in that, as a mode of speech, this prophecy includes the drama of its own extinction (the play between extinction and extinguish is one of the dramas of the poem).  The poem also uses the device of the direct address, although there is a doubling in the “you” the speaker addresses, who are both the historical barbarians who “have won with your horse power / and numbers from the north” and the audience of the poem, us Northerners, Europeans and North Americans.  This “us” also includes the author who, in the chapbook Sequence, where the poem was first published, concludes an epistle addressed to Constantine Cavafy as “yours, the northern barbarian, Dugan” (there is a certain amount of Walter Kelly’s “we have met the enemy and he is us” going on here).  The poem opens with what seems to be a fairly direct statement: “After this oracle there will be no more oracles.”   This directness is somewhat vexed in that the word “oracle” means three separate but related things: the person who is an oracle, “the mouthpiece of the gods” (OED), “the place or seat of this, at which advice was sought from the gods” (OED, again), and also “a freq. ambiguous or obscure response, given at an oracle, supposedly from a god”(OED, of course).  Since an oracle is a person, a place, and what is said by that person at that place, the first line of the poem can be read in a number of ways (after this prophetic speech, there will be no more prophetic speeches; after this person dies there will be no more prophetic speeches; after this place is destroyed, there will be no more prophets, or prophetic speech, and so on).

After the opening statement, the poem, before it delivers the promised oracle, backs up to describe the situation out of which the oracle oracles.  We’ve won.  Because we now possess the sacred place (“You wanted it, / you have it”—unusually direct speech for an oracle), it can, because it belongs to us, no longer be sacred. Then the oracle, or what would seem to be the oracle, is portentously announced: “Now, for the last time, / here’s the truth.”  The long sentence that follows accounts for ten of the poem’s twenty lines, and with its central position in the poem and its elegant rhetorical flourishes would seem to be the prophecy the poem’s title and introduction have prepared the reader for.  The start of the sentence—“You will go on / winning forever”—falls nicely into the “freq. ambiguous or obscure response, given at an oracle” category; but what follows moves quickly from the realm of prediction to the language of critique (“until your conquests and the insides of your heads / are alike, and you and I know what it’s like / in there”) which is a different kind of business entirely.  The passage feels oracular because of Dugan’s use of parallelisms, which give the voice the stability of rhetorical certainty and enact a kind of see-saw of prediction and fulfillment in the language.  The repetition of “dirty” in “if some dirty beast remembers, / on some future dirty night, what it was like / once to have been a human being and pleasing to me” is fulfilled by the parallel syntax of “in a fair exchange of pure sacrifice for pure prophecy,” which leads with a seeming inevitability to “he will throw himself into a fire and howl to death.”  The drama of the cleansing the “dirty beast” in the “pure sacrifice” of self-immolation obscures the entirely suppositional nature of the oracle’s speech, which isn’t prophecy so much as wishful thinking (if barbarians felt shame, we wouldn’t be barbarians).  The poem then seems to return to the brute realities of the tense present, dividing itself into a familiar three-part structure: scene setting, prophetic speech, then return to scene with both scene and speaker significantly altered by the nature of the revelation, a sort of condensed Greater Romantic Lyric—but Alan Dugan, furiously sui generis, is not a Romantic poet.

When the poem returns to the present (“I will now drop back into the fire you are / so curious about.”) out of which the oracle speaks, it is the oracle, not the barbarian, who enters the fire, and from the fire offers his or her prediction for the immediate future—here is where we finally receive “the truth” as oracular vision.  “When you get drunk tonight / and pee on it, it, you and I will go out like the light.”  The result of this, the future state of our souls created by pissing on the oracle’s grave, is the heart of the prophecy.  The poem then returns to its present, the false state before the “acid yellow smoke,” which is our true soul, has taken its rightful place.

The poem continues to pretend to be about something else through the masterful last line, all the way through to the very last word of the poem.  “Unspeakable” in normal discourse means language and acts “decent” people avoid, and “referred to in passing” is a locution used to minimize a subject’s importance.  However, in the context of this poem, our condition is “unspeakable” because—among other reasons—there is no one to speak it, as along with shame, we lack self-knowledge, and the oracle, who spoke of it “in passing” from one state to another, having completed his last task is now extinct, extinguished by our urine, defiled into us.  The word “passing” is the poem’s final turn and resolution.

The ways in which “Last Speech for a Last Oracle” turns away from and against the kind of poem it would seem to be enact Dugan’s angry resistance to the settled historical and economic givens the poem militates against.  If the contemporary poet cannot pretend to the vatic certainties of prophetic speech, he can still achieve (at a cost) “the truth” as invective against and explanation of our current, contemporary “unspeakable condition.”

 

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Andrew Feld is the author of Citizen (HarperCollins 2004), a 2003 National Poetry Series selection, and Raptor, University of Chicago Press, 2012. His honors include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, the “Discovery”/The Nation Award, two Pushcart Best of the Small Presses Awards and work in the Best American Poetry series.  He is an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Washington, Editor-in-Chief of The Seattle Review and a licensed falconer.

Alan Dugan, “Last Statement for a Last Oracle” from Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry. Copyright © 2001 by Alan Dugan. used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Seven Stories Press, www.sevenstories.com

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