Friday, April 24, 2009

De jure is de facto's slave...

I was pleased to discover recently that Ethan Coen, of the famed Coen Brothers (screenwriters for some of the very best in contemporary film, like Fargo, O Brother! Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski and Miller's Crossing) has also published a book of poetry. One of the poems in that collection is entitled "The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way" (also the title of the book). It's a kind of reflection on the old "might makes right" adage, and takes as it's starting point what Coen calls "the realist's rules of order." If you've seen any of his films, you know already that Ethan Coen has a way of turning the simplest of phrases into most shockingly mundane of profundities. This poem is a case in point.

What is striking about this piece now, I think, is how much it mirrors a side of the current debate over torture. Like out-of-control, drunken drivers, one side of the debate continues to lurch and to careen and to plow grossly forward, asking only the "realist's" question-- does torture "work"?-- all the while ignoring the possibility that there may be another way of determining the "right of way." It's a reckless manner in which to proceed, for sure, but the danger seems only to befall those who try to get in the way.


The Drunken Driver Has The Right Of Way
by Ethan Coen

The loudest have the final say,
The wanton win, the rash hold sway,
The realist’s rules of order say
The drunken driver has the right of way.

The Kubla Khan can butt in line;
The biggest brute can take what’s mine;
When heavyweights break wind, that’s fine;
No matter what a judge might say,
The drunken driver has the right of way.

The guiltiest feel free of guilt;
Who care not, bloom; who worry, wilt;
Plans better laid are rarely built
For forethought seldom wins the day;
The drunken driver has the right of way.

The most attentive and unfailing
Carefulness is unavailing
Wheresoever fools are flailing;
Wisdom there is held at bay;
The drunken driver has the right of way.

De jure is de facto’s slave;
The most foolhardy beat the brave;
Brass routs restraint; low lies high’s grave;
When conscience leads you, it’s astray;
The drunken driver has the right of way.

It’s only the naivest who’ll
Deny this, that the reckless rule;
When facing an oncoming fool
The practiced and sagacious say
Watch out — one side — look sharp — gang way.

However much you plan and pray,
Alas, alack, tant pis, oy vey,
Now — heretofore — til Judgment Day,
The drunken driver has the right of way.

3 comments:

Chet said...

i take it this poetry is meant to be ironic? do any poets use rhymes schemes anymore?

Chet said...

If you want to read some good poetry on political unsavories, try Carolyn Forché's _The Country Between Us_.

That's some beautiful shit.

The Clapp said...

Very thoughtful poetry, though he seems to miss one key point of drunk drivers in America; they have the right of way, but this may be one of the last rights afforded to them for a long time. Man 1 or Murder 2 carry pretty hefty fines/imprisonment and though they may take the right of way on the road, we do our best to strip them of all other rights. They only have the right of way because they stole or forced it from the others on the road, and likewise we will steal back from that person. :)