Selected Poems II


Art Beck


So the thieves are back with their cynical smiles -
what they never earned they just take with a wink.
It's the same old arrogant game: What's good
for them is best. They wave the Bible to proclaim
the rules and praise the Lord who created fools

In the Fourth Year of the Emperor’s Glorious

adventure, we discovered the honey bees were quietly deserting our orchards. Then, almost as if they weren’t there, young amputees began appearing on the streets. Sullen exiles on crutches, too proud to question, at a loss to explain - the Emperor’s broken toys. By the fourth year the war was long won, but we still couldn’t deal with the spoils rotting in the sun. While wasps and flies and soldier boys buzzed like bright ideas in the Emperor’s brainless skull.

There’s that Strange Recurring Dream:

The government of sneak thieve has finally been overthrown by a revolution of murderers. Our children are in the streets, stalking their prey. People are numb. They can’t make simple choices, can’t decide whether to go to work, drive to the store. They cling to their houses like trout behind rocks in a winter river. We watch the new leaders on television: Master Sergeant Waldo, Monsignor Kelly, the ascetic Police Captain Striker. Each is wary of the others. They agree on the points of order without smiling. We realize it doesn’t so much matter what’s forbidden. It’s only important to know that all penalties have now been reduced to death. We lie here, naked, on the covers, washed by the flickering silver light, titillated by their static voices. All non-procreative sex is now banned, they agree, and our puckering middle aged bodies are dazzled by the forgotten excitement of mortal sin.


is a strange concept. A word we take visiting to some very dark places. The CIA practices humane interrogation. Lethal injection is humane – as were the electric chair and the long drop, before. The Humane Society gasses our unwanted pets. The ancients were being human as well as humane when they sacrificed a pound or so of ritually slaughtered beef to the nectar nourished gods, hoping to entice heaven to share and absolve carnivorous guilt. Our slaughterhouses with their conveyers, pulleys and killing machines are inhumane but efficient. As are cats who play for hours with their prey, just to savor their own cruel saliva. But are they inhuman as well? The really big, wild cats, after all, don’t toy with their kill. Hunger is too insistent. It’s the sleek, Purina fed housecat that revels in torturing the starved trembling mouse, the peeping crippled sparrow. And the ordinary guy with a bit of a Budweiser gut who patiently chomps a pizza on his gently rocking boat and nurses his excitement - waiting for the nibble of a really big one, the still ignorant pull on the barely visible line: The kind of fish we all want, the kind that fights futilely against the hook in its craw and runs again and again from him, full of hope, then ever so slowly, losing hope. ever so slowly reeled in by his brand new, slick equipment.

Joseph and Magda in the Bunker

Three generations past that other, 1945, May day. Listening to Shirer’s sad audiobook in the muted park. Sunlight almost embarrassed by its warmth. Two pond geese, each standing on one leg like question marks. What deity blessed those bastards with such lovely children? Joseph and Magda Goebbels, who chose not to live without Hitler. But, first, poisoned their Helga, Hedwig, Heidrun, Holdine, Hildegard and Helmut. Helga, the eldest, may have suspected; distinct bruising was noted around her mouth. Were the others already asleep from the pinch of their morphine injections? All six, ages two to twelve, laid out in pajamas for the Soviets to find, ribbons in the dear girls’ hair. Did their parents think they were cheating the victors of their spoils? Childless Hitler did the same with his joyous shepherd Blondi. Cynics might say Adolf was just testing the cyanide Eva would soon consume. But the mere thought of killing blameless animals had long since shocked that butcher into vegetarianism. He loved his dog. And loved his Fräulein Effie, too. The paired geese peck idly at insects and preen. In the weeds, shadowy carp mouth their omnivorous way. And wriggling up from the mud to the little island, lovestruck turtles lay their innocent, reptile eggs.


In Stonewall Jackson’s eyewitness account, old John Brown was made to stand - white-hooded and noosed, for fifteen minutes on the scaffold - while they maneuvered the solemn troops. When the trap finally sprang, he strangled for another like time, arms pinioned at the elbows, hands sprung up helpless at ninety degrees, clenching, unclenching... Nothing really botched or unintended. The rope – as Major Jackson’s sharp eye noted – was measured for the standard four foot drop. In the Commonwealth’s eyes, humane. Punishment he certainly had coming. Better, when you think about it, than three hours dangling on the Cross. Better than a young French girl burnt alive for communing with angels. Easier than Father Edmund Campion, drawn and quartered for love of the scheming Pope. Brown’s was a predictable, Southern end. Look what the old Yankees once did to witches. Look at the chaos the new Yankees were itching to sow. The planters could smell their steel shackled world, squirming with rage. But politics and the age aside: martyrs lack all common sense. The worst offer their blood in a bloody cause. And if others simply decline to lie - none of them are pure. To their inquisitors, even the meekest are angry lambs. What’s gained but the hallelujah of judicial suicide... Centuries earlier, Galileo Galalei may have been agonizing along these lines when he bowed, recanted, then retired to his garret window to sigh and mutely circle an undeniable sun along with the slow twirling earth. Did he escape his miserable fate? Or just suffer nine more penitential years, choking on the bonfired smoke of his smoldering work? No one ever wrote a hymn to him or marched in battle to its step. But in the Florence museum where his papers repose, his right hand’s dessicated middle finger is preserved under glass, a stubborn relic raised to glory.


It began - in the 1500s - as a convenience for creditors. A sort of truce between predators, so that the fastest, the most vicious couldn't just swagger in like a lion and carry off the carcass with a roar. The purpose of the procedure was to freeze the shivering debtor in place, while his bankers negotiated their nibbling rights. The wretch had little to say. No preference, beyond a morbid curiosity, as to who took which bite where. And after the lawyers finished. After the lenders washed their hands, disgusted at the slim pickings: the court would often record its frustration by ordering the Bankrupt's ear sliced off. A permanent credit report, a warning to anyone with money - Don't lend your money here. A caution to anyone who borrowed - Don't fail. But, of course, we all fail. Our teeth fail, our eyes fail, our livers, our marriages and hearts. Dementia lurks like a demon and nothing succeeds in the end. Why would those with eyes to see resist their credit cards - their platinum road to ruin? A vacation in Rome, a wedding at the Ritz, a year of nothing but the best. We've deposed the aristocracy. We live in the republic of the free now, the democracy of bliss where the lamb eats the lion's lunch. When bankruptcy pours the wine, only fools postpone joy. Justice is elusive. But mercy is always within our grasp.

Hemingway at Sixty

In his sleep, he hears something burrowing under the house, scraping at the grout in the tiled floor. Then wakes to find blood spots on the pillow. Despite the sun, he just can’t seem to get warm. Even so, he writes. But there’s no longer room for the old demons on the page. The gaping mouths of the cabinet ministers and Guardia kneeling in the mud have opened too wide. And he’s getting smaller each week, each hour. His only hope is to lock them squirming in the cellar. Who would the butchered slaughter if they could? We marveled at the virtue, the humanity, the optimism of those last works. At how he’d mellowed and matured. We never noticed how tiny he’d become in his skin. How fragile his eyes seemed to be. How little of himself he’d come to own. How the locks were being picked and the door was opening.