Man, Mr. President & the Gunfighters
by Gary Snyder
(Reprinted in KJ
Mr. President was
fascinated by gunfighters. Expert gunfighters were invited to his White
House, three thousand of them, like guests in the house. Day and night
they practiced fast-draw and shootouts in his presence until the dead
and wounded men numbered more than a hundred a year.
The Senator from
the Great Basin was troubled by this, and summoning his aides, said,
"I’ll give a basket of turquoise and a truckload of compost to
any man who can reason with Mr. President and make him give up these
gunfights!" "Coyote Man is the one who can do it!" said his aides.
Pretty soon Coyote Man turned up, but he refused the turquoise. He said,
"If Mr. President should get angry, I might go to jail. What could I
do with turquoise then? And if I do persuade him, then you’d owe
a million wild ducks."
is," said the Senator, "Mr. President refuses to see anybody but gunfighters."
"Fine!" said Coyote Man, "I’m good with revolvers."
"But the kind of
gunfighters Mr. President receives," said the Senator, "all wear starched
uniforms and have shaved cheeks; they glare fiercely and speak in staccato
sentences about ballistics and tactical deployment. Men like that he
loves! If you go in to see him in your overalls you’d be wrong
from the start."
me the uniform of a gunfighter," said Coyote Man. After a couple of
days he had his gunfighter’s costume ready and arranged an appointment
with Mr. President. Mr. President’s guards had their big Magnum
revolvers on Coyote Man as he entered calm and soft. "Now that you got
the Senator to get you an appointment what do you think you can tell
me?" said Mr. President.
"I heard Mr. President
likes guns, and so I have come to demonstrate my skill to you."
"What’s special about your skill?" said Mr. President. "My shooting
strikes and kills at every shot, and doesn’t miss in nine hundred
miles," said Coyote Man.
Mr. President was
pleased and said, "I’d like to see you shoot it out.!" Coyote
Man said, "He who draws the revolver plucks out emptiness, teases on
with hopes of dominance. Leaves last, arrives first. Allow me to show
Mr. President spent
a week checking out his gunfighters. Three dozen were wounded or died
in the trials. The survivors were instructed to appear on the lawn and
Mr. President sent for Coyote Man.
see you reach for the revolver with these fine officers. What will you
shoot? A long or a short barrel?"
any type," said Coyote Man. "It happens I have three revolvers. You
tell me which to use — but first I’ll explain them."
about your three revolvers," said Mr. President.
"There is the revolver
of the cosmos, the revolver of mankind, and the revolver of state."
"What is the revolver
of the cosmos?" asked Mr. President.
— "The revolver
of the cosmos? The Milky Way is its grip; the solar winds, the barrel.
Its bullets are stars, it sights by the beams of pulsars. It spits out
planets and bathes them, spinning, in heat and light. The ninety-two
elements aim it; the secrets of fusion fire it. Wield it, and countless
beings leap into life and dance through the void. Conceal it, and whole
galaxies rush into nothingness. When this revolver is manifested the
whole earth flourishes, the skies clear, the rivers sing, the gardens
are full of squash and corn, the high plains rich with Bison. This is
the revolver of the cosmos."
Mr. President was
at an utter loss. "So what is the revolver of mankind?"
"The revolver of
mankind? The twelve races are the grip; the three thousand languages,
the barrel. Forged in the Pliocene, finished in the Pleistocene, decorated
with culture, it aims for knowledge and beauty. The cylinder is the
rise and fall of nations, the sights are the philosophies and religions
and sciences, the bullets are countless men and women who have pierced
through ignorance and old habits, and revealed the shining mirror of
true nature. It takes its model from life itself, and trusts in the
four seasons. Its secret power is the delight of the mind. Once grasped
it brings harmony and peace to the planet; like a thunderbolt it destroys
exploiters, and dictators crumble like sand. This is the revolver of
Mr. President said,
"What is the revolver of the state?"
"The revolver of
the state? It is used by men in starched uniforms with shaved chins
who glare fiercely and speak in staccato sentences about ballistics
and tactical deployment. On top it blows out brains and splinters neckbones;
underneath it spits out livers and lungs. Those who use this revolver
are no different from fighting cocks — any morning they may be
dead or in jail. They are of no use in the councils of mankind. Now
you occupy the office of Mr. President, and yet you show this fondness
for gunfighters. I think it is rather unworthy of you."
Mr. President took
Coyote Man to the dining room and the waiter brought lunch. But Mr.
President just paced around the room. "Hey!" said Coyote Man, "Eat your
lunch! The affair of the gunfighters is over and finished."
After that Mr. President
didn’t come out of the Oval Room for three months. All his gunfighters
secretly took off their uniforms and sneaked away, back to the businesses
and offices in various towns around the land from which they had come.
to Burton Watson
(After the "Discourse
on Swords" in the Third Century BC Chinese Chuang-tzu text.)
with kind permission of the author, Gary Snyder, from Left Out in
the Rain (New Poems 1947-1985), North Point Press, 1986.
Illustration by Robert Williamson
held by the author
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