Pharsalia, NY

I thought I might be done writing. Maybe not, but I think I’ve gone as far as I care to go in the direction I’ve gone.

Besides I’d rather laugh than write. Although sometimes my sense of humor resembles a Holocaust documentary.

I just want to rest. I’ve wanted to rest since I was about 10 years old. I’m not the laziest person I’ve ever met, but only because I don’t have that much ambition.

I’m resting from the last four essays, one of which spoke vaguely of elephants.  So here’s a happy little poem mentioning elephants I’d like to air out one more time. Unexpectedly, part of it was included a few years ago on Counterpunch. Unexpectedly, because I don’t usually bother trying to publish anything. But when I do try, I usually don’t even receive an acknowledgement of rejection.

They didn’t publish the whole thing, and that was probably intentional. The poem naturally ends with “Here pool retreating forces/Their triumph and defeat/merging and disappearing/Like ice/ in water, like elephant/into earth”. But I am leaving up the longer, less focused version because I happen to like the ending, damn it. I like thinking of that long line of beat-up trailers and houses along route 23 as a kind of terminal moraine. Erratic humans here and there.

The photographs are not mine. Maybe I’ll replace them with some I take. But I’m not exactly sure I like the idea of taking pictures of other people’s squalid living conditions. It’s a little too intrusive. And I’m afraid of getting shot. But these photographs look like Pharsalia, which is one of my favorite places.

Pharsalia, or Civil War, is also the title of a poem by Lucan, written sometime around the time of Christ — about the civil war between Julius Caesar and the Roman Senate. “All wars are civil wars.” All empires mark our own triumph and defeat. The footprints of all these triumphs and defeats can be seen in the land, in Pharsalia itself.

What I see in Pharsalia is the terminal moraine of a ruinous glacier of hyper-rational thinking that came from Europe. That witchery (as Leslie Marmon Silko uses the word) — that non-sacred vision of reality — has reached its apex and is melting away. It leaves behind a flattened landscape of political and social thought, of spiritual ruin. It becomes evident in places like Pharsalia first.

It’s a place near where I grew up. There’s a melancholy power here. Subdued, ancient, hard, desolate, beautiful. In this beauty there are seeds of renewal that will remove every last trace of witchery from our system.  But first one has to appreciate the desolation of the place.

A Royal Elephant

The Royal Elephant carcass of a bus lies mangled
among legions of Fords
and Chevrolets. From shrinking drifts
broken doors and mirrors reach out
like Chief Bigfoot in Death. All of Pharsalia
melts again into the stone boot-prints
of mile-heavy ice.

chief bigfoot

Here pool retreating forces.
Their triumph and defeat
merging and disappearing
like ice
in water, like elephant
into earth.

Where Oneida once held
a feather dance, thanking Maples, now
Chevys and great yellow plows,
their wings rusted,
lie buried in snow.


In a paintless church, old
window frames lean
against the sills, thick
with flies, an inch deep, overhead
broken cobwebs swing.

Here and there
Erratic hunter/gatherers
Slump on sofas
in aluminum encampments
piled along the highway
like a terminal moraine

erratic hunter gatherers


Here are some actual photos of Pharsalia — thanks to whomever the hell took them:

rural new york

Pharsalia house

pharsalia trailer 3

pharsalia truck

pharsalia trailer 2


6 thoughts on “Pharsalia, NY

  1. I loved this the best of your negative geography essays. I like seeing photos of the landscapes that inspired your writing and I also had cluster flies in my old house built in the 1830s, in the old windows, upstairs. I killed thousands of them with my hands and some cardboard because I didn’t know that fly poison existed. Flies, and the mice and rats, felt like a plague, since I grew up in suburbs. After a few or many years I got on top of the cluster flies (and rats, but never the mice, at the old house) but it’s a scalding memory so I feel connected to the people with windowsills full of flies about whom you write.


  2. Having spent almost twenty years living in what NYC calls, “Upstate,” I used to think New York State was behind the times. Now I think it’s a place ahead of its time.

    You capture so much in The Elephant! There’s a mythic quality to the Empire State. It’s there in the names taken from the kind of Classical education that once meant that the settlers in a small town could recite snatches of the Iliad “in the Greek.” Those names and the ruins those times left behind haunt us. “It wasn’t enough.” is the message whispering on that cold damp wind off Lake Erie.

    Keep writing….

    Liked by 1 person

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