Saturday, June 12, 2004

The Dead Presidents

O actor! my actor! your fearful script is done.
The B-grade movies have all been shot, but still no Oscar won.

*

I caught part of the Ronald Reagan funeral on television. Had heard The Battle Hymn of the Republic from a distance, came upstairs a little later just as they were launching into Beethoven's Ode to Joy. Then the brief military bit, the precision marchers with that strange crooked arm step, lining up beside the coffin & then carrying it back down from the nave.

I'd hoped for more. What I saw I was moved by, not by who it was but by the ceremony of it all, the RITUAL. Funerals of heads of state or royalty are one of the few places you can find pure ritual these days. I'd seen a shot of the coffin being transported to the Capitol, a line of motorcyclists abreast across the road, the hearse, the riderless horse with the empty boots facing backwards in the stirrups. I'd hoped that the funeral procession leaving the cathedral would have more pageantry, more ritual, to it.

But, I suppose, this is one of the drawbacks of having an elected Head of State. They came come from anywhere in the country & are then are returned there for burial. By motorised hearse, by aeroplane. There is not a centre where everything happens. The U.S.A. is a young country, & though it tries occasionally to pretend it has the history of a European state, these are the occasions when that is shown not to be true.

The Queen Mother of England would probably have occupied a similar level of my estimation as Reagan in that I had little time for either of them. But her funeral procession was amazing. Pure ceremony, pure tradition, pure ritual. The flag-draped coffin on a catafalque, the mourners marching behind, in rank, the silence of it all, the rhythm of measured pacing, the occasional creak of the gun-carriage's wheels, the firing of distant guns. Centuries summarised in an act that happens only a few times each century.

The ceremony was almost the antithesis of what William Carlos Williams wrote about in Tract.
I will teach you my townspeople
how to perform a funeral –
for you have it over a troop
of artists-
unless one should scour the world-
you have the ground sense necessary.

& yet I somehow think that who ever did manage the Queen Mother's funeral did scour the world & did have the necessary ground sense.

*

I heard about the assassination of John F. Kennedy whilst I was riding on the small bus that then crossed the Coromandel Peninsula of New Zealand from Whitianga to Thames.

A narrow road in a temperate rain forest. Most times only wide enough for the bus. Branches scraping the roof. Few passengers.

The driver had a little transistor radio. Reception was, understandably, crappy at best. Scratchy. But through it all, breaking into the music, came a severe & oh so serious voice. "Stand by for an important news item." Repeated. Then, "The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy has just been assassinated."

Because of the dateline this was the morning of Saturday, November 23 in Aotearoa. Hearing the news anywhere would have caused shock, but to hear it in such surroundings was utterly bizarre. & distressing. Even to someone like myself whose politics were left of left, JFK was a figure of hope. Vietnam was still to move from S.E. Asia's equivalent of off-off-off Broadway. The Cold War was still the main occupant of the world stage. The Bay of Pigs was someone else's fuckup. The Cuban missile crisis had been resolved because of JFK's steely resolve & we were all breathing a little easier. Frank O'Hara was still alive. Kruschev was still coming on the right day!

We changed buses & headed for Auckland where we were to stay at the house of some friends who gone away a couple of days earlier & who had told us where they'd left the key. Drove into Auckland to a main street dotted with newspaper billboards – yes, they still had afternoon newspapers in those days – that proclaimed PRESIDENT KENNEDY ASSASSINATED. Not many people around, only the billboards.

Caught a taxi to our friends' house. Went inside. First thing we saw was a newspaper billboard on the wall. AMERICAN PRESIDENT ASSASSINATED. Freaked out, totally & utterly. How, if they'd been away for the last two days, could this have got there? Moved closer. Found it to be a reproduction of the billboard announcing Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Did not breathe any easier.

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