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I Am an Atheist Who Says His Prayers by Karl Shapiro

November 29, 1987

I am an atheist who says his prayers. I am an anarchist, and a full professor at that. I take the

loyalty oath. I am a deviate. I fondle and contribute, backscuttle and

brown, father of three. I stand high in the community. My name is in Who's

Who. People argue about my modesty. I drink my share and yours and never have enough. I

free-load officially and unofficially. A physical coward, I take on all intellectuals, established

poets, popes, rabbis, chiefs of staff. I am a mystic. I will take an oath that I have seen the

Virgin. Under the dry pandanus, to the scratching of

kangaroo rats, I achieve psychic onanism. My tree of

nerves electrocutes itself. I uphold the image of America and force my luck. I

write my own ticket to oblivion. I am of the race wrecked by success. The audience

brings me news of my death. I write out of boredom,

despise solemnity. The wrong reason is good enough for me. I am of the race of the prematurely desperate. In poverty of comfort I lay gunpowder plots. I lapse my insurance. I am the Babbitt metal of the future. I never read more than half of a book. But that half I read forever. I love the palimpsest, statues without heads, fertility dolls

of the continent of Mu. I dream prehistory, the

invention of dye. The palms of the dancers' hands are

vermillion. Their heads oscillate like the cobra. High-

caste woman smelling of earth and silk, you can dry my

feet with your hair. I take my place beside the Philistine and unfold my

napkin. This afternoon I defend the Marines. I goggle at long cars. Without compassion I attack the insane. Give them the horsewhip! The homosexual lectures me brilliantly in the beer booth. I can feel my muscles soften. He smiles at my terror. Pitchpots flicker in the lemon groves. I gaze down on the

plains of Hollywood. My fine tan and my arrogance,

my gray hair and my sneakers, O Israel! Wherever I am I become. The power of entry is with me.

In the doctor's office a patient, calm and humiliated. In

the foreign movies a native, shabby enough. In the art

gallery a person of authority (there's a secret way of

approaching a picture. Others move off). The high of-

ficial insults me to my face. I say nothing and accept

the job. He offers me whiskey. How beautifully I fake! I convince myself with men's

room jokes and epigrams. I paint myself into a corner

and escape on pulleys of the unknown. Whatever I

think at the moment is true. Turn me around in my

tracks; I will take your side. For the rest, I improvise and am not spiteful and water

the plants on the cocktail table.

From Karl Shapiro, "New & Selected Poems, 1940-1986" (University of Chicago Press: $9.95, paper; 103 pp.). Former editor of Poetry and Prairie Schooner, Pulitzer Prize winner and professor thrice emeritus (most recently at UC Davis), Shapiro is the author of numerous volumes of poetry. 1987, Karl Shapiro, by permission.

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