The Angel of History

Hwaet! A long time ago in a galaxy near the men’s bathroom on the 2nd floor, Humanities Building, during the heady days of the UCLA English department curriculum reform, a poem — penned by the disgruntled “cleric,” Bickerstaff — in rhyming four-beat couplets, loosely metered and decrying the demise of the “Long Forgotten Major,” was distributed under cover of night to the mailboxes of the English faculty. A response was needed. Thus was conjured, out of the miasma of past, subjunctive and future tenses, Th3 4ng3l 0f H1st0ry — grotesque mutant (horribile dictu!), equal parts Sysiphus, Heraclitus, and Walter Benjamin, and fearless defender of knowledge, beauty and the wisdom of ephemera — not to mention thesis, antithesis, and synthaesthesia — and just plain fun. Following are H1s words:


Hey Bickerstaff,


My friend, it’s sad to see

You set your leaky pen to poetry,

Or tax WordPerfect (stet), or noble daughter

In vain to fix to sheet what you shouldn’t oughter

With each spent punkt – indeed, to read

That vision, melody, verse – outfoxed the deed.

If poems came to all who blindly trust,

Your cleric’s job, my poet’s, would be dust.


Of course, some old books are still worth a shelf,

A 3-foot one, a 7.5, or even twelf,

To keep the “canon” steady (thereon the brood

Of English profs can safely screw the bulb).

The war of mods and ancients is not old,

It’s ancient – spawns dark rings each time retold,

Thereby assuring children grab their mittens

Or iPhones, iHats, whatev – when its tale threatens.


For the past’s a playground, we are merely players;

The past collides with us like blind surveyors

(Lacking the requisite marks), overruns our glens

As Hurricane Katrina New Orleans,

Re-zoning lands, ignoring a feeble FEMA

And makes of the present past, and the past prima.

Words once rich, like “hella,” “refudiate”, and “LOL”

Soon rust, unpractised, in that cave where Grendel fell.


The past becomes opaque when fixed like stone,

The “great names” weigh like Rushmore’s pantheon;

A leper colony’s walls conceal their riches,

The names themselves the uprights, beams and ditches.

Release the past to play! of the present, cease

To demand, as sign of health, enforced disease

Of chaining flux to stone, or of voyants ranging –

The present knows no truth but that it’s changing.


And why should students look to us to tell

Them what to read, when each home library’s full

Of Butler, Roth, Ellison, Stoppard, Barth-

Elme, Hurston, Parks, Delillo, Siebald, and Barthes?

Berryman, Ashbery, Ash, Doonsebury and Muldoon?

Doesn’t every home stack these besides New Moon?

A bookstore is a daunting place to be,

And sans a dot com’s recs, one opts for coffee.


Despite the many pasts the present rends,

As many rise to amplify its sense.

No need to mourn the L.F.M.’s long demise,

Already, a B.F.F. opens its eyes,

A major that can house the Major, but sings

In poly-tones, like the ‘pillar’s rainbow wings.

In hipper slang, we’d call this Major virtual,

(He already is, some say – in league with Grendel).


So, this is not some tale from Swift, no clique on clique,

The past is still in English, or “Englishes,” but not Greek.

Perhaps it is a war of yin and yang,

That swirls like mocha java to sate our pangs.

To Jameson, the present’s pastless, so we look back

At nichts – the past should aim to soothe the lack.

Thus, against the glitz, we’ll embrace, “forever” friends

– No candle burns as bright from half its ends.



Th3 4ng3l 0f H1st0ry



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