THE PUBLIC SERVANTS
To be delivered by a sad man standing in a single light. He is a baritone. He sings softly in recitative. Clearly, although he sings with great dignity and attention to form, he is an amateur. The audience is distracted. He is not sure when to exit:
The tree fallen, of course,
but the blade, too, already hung
on its nail beside the shovel.
And because the day was hot
had begun to wilt.
Until a woman—not kin—visited
the tree in private.
(All this before the future
“I always tell the truth.”)
She peeled off the disc of sap
that had dried to mask
the blade marks. Held up to light,
the sap—she said to no one—
was the transparent word of
like wind and seed.
A small man, almost frail, arrives. He stands at the side of the stage, dressed as the poem instructs. From above, a boys’ choir delivers the words of his story. Although he moves his lips, he does not sing:
To serve is a luxury, a harness:
collar and cuff worn down into a comfort
that reveals the alternate warp
of cotton facing. On this Saturday
I stroll down Market Street
carrying with my accustomed yoke
a canary, cage, and pick. Proof
that variety thrives within captivity.
On the city green I proclaim
my master’s gift, his righteousness,
—theft is for the idle—and then confess
my own intelligence
shines in a vacuum of addictive action
—in two like a filament, weakened.
For this reason I am assigned
to labor in the field. My life
is reduced to experiment. A skirt
designed not only to promote
the slow correction of crypt orchid,
adding the pleasurable freedom
of breeze about my legs, but also
to remind me—by its pleats—that each success,
in order to legitimize my failure,
is creased perfectly against the next.
A chorus line of identically dressed detectives enters. They perform a complex soft-shoe to the dying strains of the boys’ choir. Then, standing completely still, they deliver the words of their poem in perfect unison:
At the base of truth
bullets that whistle
out in daylight,
that lodge in the doorframe
until they are pried free
to be scattered about
the rock foundation.
Our conscience demands that
we do only as we please,
ignore a scream for help,
to register pleas
for corrected profiles,
Our fingers pocket a souvenir,
worry each discrepant fact
—the victim’s abbreviated name,
the unknown past—
until the steel is as black
as the backside of the polaroid,
not shared but pre-assigned.
The lights dim.
for Bill Routt
Death is beneath us. We know it’s a trick
but we refuse to ask how it’s done.
(Either we invent an afterlife
to compensate for bad luck
or God instills in us the fear
we have only one life to live.)
It’s that simple: Either we’re clever
or God has a plan. Our bachelor uncle
brings a gag when he drops by.
Not just an object of pity—the thin
socks & shiny legs—he also
smells. We don’t get close. Even so,
before the plastic bird appears
on its perch, we examine his magic kit.
The box looks empty but we know
a trick is coming, so it must have mirrors
angled somehow to reflect blank walls.
(Don’t you see how Heaven doubles over
in laughter, watching us feel for the secret
panel at the back of the Tomb?)
Then there’s that coin passing through
the handkerchief—the display coin falling
quietly into Uncle’s cuff.
On the other side, the coin is a substitute—
already there, secreted away.
(Have you ever heard anyone say
Our Savior & Lord Substitute?)
One time Uncle looked the other way,
and left his manual behind so that
we could satisfy our suspicions.
The kicker was when we realized
that we would have to go through
the entire text to find the trick.
There was no index. There never is.