By Jade Sylvan
Some teachers will tell you that Las Vegas was first settled
by thirty missionaries of Brigham Young
on a charge to convert the Indians,
a fort built on what is now the Vegas Strip
was a refuge for Mormon pilgrims
traveling from Salt Lake to San Bernadino.
This is a lie. Las Vegas was first envisioned in a
collective hallucination by a group of backpacking
spiritual expeditionaries who, following ancient tradition,
traversed deep into the desert before ingesting
God laxatives, the solution to their quandary of rot
showering down on them like ticker tape.
Build, it said. Build.
And they answered,
Yes, we will build.
We have every right to be here
among the redrock canyons,
the mountainous thrusts
of the planetary glory days.
We know better.
We’ve improved on the old way
that knew nothing but slow-motion endings.
We are beginning after beginning
after beginning, and each one in a different color.
There are no rivers here. No natural light.
We have no need of the sun.
We can be louder, brighter.
We will build a lightbulb
that will drain the lifeforce
from every peak and crevice
on this proud old flying rock.
It will be visible from space.
Give to Caesar’s Palace what is Caesar’s,
and to Ozymandius what is left.
Our churches span football fields.
The red-faced preachers spit their sermons into PAs.
There are chain coffee shops in the lobbies.
Jesus wouldn’t have gotten it at all.
Everything is recorded.
Here, everything is saved.
Our answer to your agedness is this moment
and this moment and this moment.
Lifelong vows dispensed in twenty-four hour drive-thrus.
We have girls who want to meet you.
We will send them right to your door.
We have built a cathedral to indulgence in a desert.
An oasis of fulfillment in a basin of want.
As the land around us reaches to heaven
for an inch of rain, as the cacti shrivel to
slouched pipe cleaners, we shall have fountains spraying
water made undrinkable by chlorine
over actors hired to play gondoliers
in a tiny, plastic Venice.
We are incandescence. We burn so bright
you can see us from outer space.
Let them know we are here. We are coming.
We know we will one day outgrow the need
for dirt and water, for the incorrigibility of God.
We have planned our own obsolescence.
When they follow the light on Caesar’s Palace
seeking first contact – the awkward greetings,
the exchanging of wildly different recipes,
they will find half-buried approximations
of every wonder we ever built,
the thrust of the Eiffel Tower,
the convex dents of the Great Pyramids.
They will find the plastic skeletons
of an culture of dilettante ouroboroses,
a loveless shell as close to eternal as anything
built by mortal hands can be.
Then, they may hear in the sliding sands
of the desert a sound like laugher,
or perhaps screaming.
They will never be sure which.
The real Venice will have sunk by then.
We will have known better.
Streamline Trial, July 9th, 2010, Tucson
By Jade Sylvan
They are handcuffed to chains around their waists and ankles. Fifty-two men in church pew rows of eight and seven women in one line up front. The chains tintinnabulate like soprano bells. The white bailiff tells me to move over to the other side of the bench. “We gotta keep a separation between you guys and these guys,” he tells me. I stand and move over. They wear black headphones that drop to wireless boxes beneath their chins. These are for translation, but they look like bridles. Some are hunched like old cows, some sit straight as bucks. The chains tinkle like sleigh bells. A female lawyer brings a cup of water to one of the women. Three border patrolmen sit in back in military-reminiscent uniforms of forest green. The chains rattle like hungry ghosts – lost souls with bloated bellies who devour shit and rotting flesh of vermin. The Judge says, “Your attorneys appointed this morning tell me you want to plead guilty to the crime of Illegal Entry. If you do not understand what you are charged with, please stand.” None stand. The Judge says, “If you do not understand the consequences of pleading guilty, please stand.” None stand. The Judge says, “If you do not understand anything that has just been said, please stand.” None stand. The chains rattle like hungry ghosts who have challenged the maw of the desert in search of jobs hauling garbage or polishing shit-stained tiles for the white folk who call them vermin. They are called up in groups of five to stand before her with lawyers waiting behind. She is seated on an oaken plinth, tall as a dragon. Behind her glows the icon of a bald eagle. The Judge says, “Do you wish to waive your right to a court date?” “Si.” “Do you understand your right to a trial?” “Si.” “Do you wish to waive this right?” “Si.” They are bridled by the inability to understand a language that makes no distinction between the plural and singular “you.” They know the curse of Babel. How much could they build if they were not tied to their tongues? The chains rattle like Ebenezer’s dream. They are the Ghosts of America’s Past – of the boats that carried the fair-skinned British, of the shackles that dragged the Africans, dark as oil. They wear the red flesh of the slaughtered Natives and speak the language of Columbus’s queen. The ghost of America’s past is hungry. It feeds on bodies huddled together in sweltering rooms beneath the earth. It feeds on the strung corpses that hang from Southern trees. They are ushered off to the side door, nameless shades shuffling across the Styx, to be remembered on the Day of the Dead as jolly skeletons in sombreros drunk on agave and worms. The lawyers bid them brief goodbyes and sanitize their hands before returning to their posts in front of the Judge as the next group of five approaches. They are fifty-nine men and women who have broken a law of the United States. One man speaks in Spanish. A translator interprets. “Ma’am, I want to say that most of us here are not criminals. We are hard workers. We work in your fields and your restaurants. I want to thank you for the time I have spent in your country.” The Judge says, “I appreciate what you have said, and thank you for saying it.” She continues. “Mr. Flores, thirty-five days imprisonment. The felony is dismissed. No fine is imposed. Mr. Montero, sixty days imprisonment. The felony is dismissed. No fine is imposed. Mr. Hernandez, forty days…” she stops. She has started to cry. The courthouse grows uneasy. The American citizens all shift in their seats and begin to whisper. The Judge drinks from her water glass. Inhales deeply. Continues. “Mr. Hernandez, forty days imprisonment. The felony is dismissed. No fine is imposed.” One more young man wishes to speak. The Judge says, “Don’t make me cry, okay?” No one laughs. He speaks in perfect English. “Ma’am, I just want to say I did not choose to come here. I was brought here when I was two. My family is here. My business is here. I barely speak Spanish. I feel I am not represented by this process.” The Judge says, “Do you want your family to visit you in prison? This is the law in this state. It’s the way things are.” He is sentenced. He is led out with the rest by a lawyer he will never see again. The chains clatter around his ankles. Once he is gone the lawyer sanitizes his hands. There is no gavel crack to signal the end of the trial. The Judge gets up and walks away.
If you do not understand, please stand.
Jade Sylvan is the author of The Spark Singer (2009 Spuyten Duyvil Press), a touring literary performer, songwriter, and teaching artist. Her poetry has been published in Word Riot, Decomp, The November 3rd Club, The Pedestal, and others. Her first full-length album of original songs, Blood and Sand is forthcoming on Red Car Records. She does a lot of other stuff.