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Sleepy Little Essay on Good and Evil


Try this. Better? Somewhat. It will do for the time being. Seem to make some mistakes. Also seem to find that the edge scrapes my wrists. Nothing is quite the same. As you said, humans don’t like change. Animals probably don’t like change either.

Animals don’t make change. Have you change for a twenty?

Why do we think that change is for the better?

Does the New, which some humans seem to think is better than anything, always involve change? Or is the New a kind of refreshment, or replacement, an exchange.

Some moody paradox is brewing. New, better, best.

A new day.

The future is now.

Newness: flawless.

If one is always in the New one escapes wear and flaw: entangled with youth, invested in hope, a long-term relationship with possibility and potential. Americans abroad I remember observing always seem to be wearing new clothes.

Let’s get a renewal. Let’s have some more new, some news.

I have some good news and some bad news.

What’s new?

Forgive us our flaws as we forgive those who flaw against us.

Good better best.
New newer newest.

Another linguistic crosshair. Another shadow play between morals and materials.

The good and the new.
The best and the new.

The best is yet to come.

Futurity of the good best.
A new, improved future.

So far this isn’t developing an argument, not actually engaging the something that is not nothing. So far this is stabbing blindly in the dark causing little pinholes through which the light streams as it has for eons.

Is it the same light or is it new light?

O little essay, are you sleepy? Wake up! It is morning, it is almost noon, almost too late to make a stab. Are you dreaming? Of what do you dream? Do you dream you are a little essay, or are you something else, a dark blue prince holding a bright silver sword with a sharp tip? Are you dreaming the prince is stabbing the sky?


What is falling out of the sky?

Are they tears?

The sky’s tears are leaking into the house.


Some fuel is heating the heart so it boils up into the mind, causing a sweet glue to form that turns into foggy crystals through which the eye looks out at a tarnished, darkened world. The only way to brighten this world is to dissolve the crystals back into liquid, making the world brightly animate with shapes that distend and contract.

These distended shapes can morph quickly, unexpectedly.

If the thing at the back of the refrigerator has gone bad, it is old.

It has been neglected back there. It stinks.

Bad old stinky thing.
Throw the bad old thing out.


No value to place against wealth.
No clear understanding of sufficiency.


Everyone in the neighborhood is a little down, a little depressed. It isn’t the weather. It’s something more reliable and constant, a permanent fixture in the installation of life. There is a numb, glum, disenchanted and disappointed air, a rootless moodiness that could erupt into anger or sorrow, into petty resentment, unfounded accusation, mean-spirited retaliation for minor infractions, spiteful revelations of the weakness of others.

Everyone feels left out of something they don’t want any part of.


Envy is sitting on the stoop in a tight red skirt, and dirty fingernails.

Paranoia is playing hopscotch on the runway.

Anxiety is throwing a big party at the Embassy.

Sadness is interviewing Happiness for a new show on FOX.


O little essay, please wake up!
What do you want to call yourself?

What are you about?


OK now you are awake. Come to me now, and tell me exactly how things are.

The white fence is holding a swoop of morning light.
The gravestones are tilted.

The maple leaves are lifting gently in the nearly still air.

Surrounded by tasks that clutter the night and make little pockmarks in the day.

There is a hat on the desk, along with two books, Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet and Deleuze and Guattari’s On the Line.

A speech by Alfredo Jaar, his commencement address at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

A mourning dove is making its sad call in the distance.


For the commencement address in my neck of the woods, the Mayor of New York spoke. In a time of excruciating public dismay and anxiety, he spoke with bland reassurances to the parents and teachers and students assembled under the hot tent on the hot day.

There is the heavy sweet scent of peonies.

Perhaps the fact that he is rich and powerful was enough for the assembled families; perhaps all they needed was the sheen of great personal accomplishment, the affiliation with strong civic leadership. His words were reassuring. His heart was in the right place.

It was as if the great city of New York were standing under the tent, beckoning with its good will and promise.

I watched the Mayor of New York leave, stripping off his gown, removing his tie, surrounded by his cadre: secret service, assistants. Nearby, a helicoptor waited to whisk him back to the great city.

Power and wealth isolate persons into cages from which they look out into the porous human tent.


I was evicted from my place on Duane Street in New York City after nearly thirty years. I don’t want to discuss it. It has made me vengeful. I want to hurt my landlord and his venal wife. I want to expose them to the human tent. They were cowardly and greedy.

They lived upstairs. They were my neighbors in the human tent. But over the years they erected a cage.

The neighborhood is now a giant cage filled with the rich and the powerful. Those of us who lived in the tent are being forced out.

Cowardly because they did not speak to me directly. They spoke from behind the curtain of their lawyers.

A letter came in the mail.
It said in lawyer language get out of your tent.

When my landlord passed me on the street I pretended he did not exist.
This was my petty triumph.

Greed, well, no further comment is necessary. Good as gold. My tent is now a beautiful new cage.

It is said that Adam and Eve were evicted, but that was because they were curious about becoming mortal, about the idea of knowledge, specifically about the knowledge of good and evil. This desire to know evicted them from eternity. Birds don’t have this knowledge. Mayors and landlords and presidents ostensibly do. Adam and Eve were greedy for knowledge.

Perhaps they think, in their power wealth cage, that good and evil are things, apples, not actions, not ways of behaving in the human tent.

I don’t mean to imply that they are evil. The President likes to assign evil to others. Do unto others.

He likes to think he knows the difference between those who act out of evil intent and those who act similarly out of good intent.

The logic of killing is something I do not comprehend, although

the venom of revenge tastes sweet on the tongue.

Terror is sudden fear. Fear is loathsome.

My ex-landlord and his wife are not evil. But I will not assign to them goodness.
I will assign to them human flaws: deception, bad faith, expedience, cowardice, greed.


The fear I felt on the morning of September 11th 2001 kept me from my tent on Duane Street. The air was thick with poisons. The bestial wreckage breathed its dismal breath. Loud noises made my heart race, made my eyes tear. I took myself away. Because I took myself away from the heaving beast and the fear it instilled, I was evicted. This is my rendition of the story.

Slowly, I was able to return.
I had the tent painted. That seemed to help remove the stinking breath.

My lawyer said it would not hold up in court, my rendition of the story. That the corpse of the heaving beast was finally removed did not remove the fear from my heart. Fear is not a thing, not an apple. Like sorrow, it takes a long time to relent.

The Mayor of New York has outlawed smoking in public places. Smoking is bad for your health. He seems to imply that those who smoke are morally fallen, if not quite evil. I am interested in this sense of moral indictment. Now he is safe from smoking in his cage.

Perhaps he thought if he outlawed smoking he would clear the air in the human tent of the beast’s toxic breath.

From the public space of terror into the privacy of my porous tent, the beast exhaled.

And then?


A little girl named Ivy wearing a pink dress came to see me. I gave her a peony to match her dress.


Ann Lauterbach

ANN LAUTERBACH has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1986 and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship in 1993. She has published seven collections of poetry, including If in Time, Selected Poems 1975-2000 (Penguin Poets 2001), and most recently, Hum (Penguin 2005).


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2007

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