Whatever you’ve heard, he comes by it honestly,
that reputation: the childhood desperation,
transformation, revelation. What other kid gets
a cartilage-crushing grip on the long neck
of the rattler in his cradle? gets the ball struck
halfway down the guard-dog’s gullet? gets the lion’s bite
snapped back, cracked open? gets hold of the jawbone
of the ass? He grew up rash, tiger-eyed and
rhino-fisted, could growl with the best of them,
no one better positioned to appreciate
the sinuous python, the mesmerizing cobra,
the quick utility of the garden garter,
so he knows just what to do with every snake
which now he handles—coil clamped round the ribs,
viper’s venom milked at the eye. Ah Bluto, Bluto!
For him, it’s personal, it’s visceral, it’s always hands-on.
Rassled him down an iron horse. Kilt him a bar.
From the first hour we knew what he was,
a stone thrown hard and sharp into our waters. Kids
who’d swanned out collegiate not five minutes previous
shrank back cowed, deflated suddenly: banty or squab.
You could track him across campus by that emptiness,
that space around him. Other thugs might sneer,
might snicker, nudge each other, eyeing the chicks,
the cocks, beaking the barnyard. He
noticed no one, shared nothing. We were landscape
to him, poky as dirt or weed or scrub, his to walk over.
Have I said how attractive it was, the campus
crackling with menace, the air around him flaring?
Like girls at a party waiting to be used—his one hand
over her mouth to keep her shut, his other
ramming her groin to keep her open—we
couldn’t keep our eyes off him, equally stunned
and shunned, weeping and moistening, readied for him
almost without realizing. You never knew
what would come from his mouth when you called on him:
Lynching. Laughing. Tiny Tim should die. It was my job
to sharpen his logic, strengthen ever so socratically
his justifications: should die—why? So blame me
if you want for where he is now—except he never justifies,
sits smug in the emptied court, cushioned by air
he’s sucked from the judges’ lungs, every last lawyer
breathless as we were back then.
At the last, they say, he bound himself upright,
his sword arm scything, scathing; ravens circling,
scattering and skirling, a cloudburst slewing,
settling; steel glinting; a sharpened silence.
Spied out, they say, like a spider by his web—
yanked out, they say, like a spider from his hole—
face filthy at the last with cobweb, beard grizzled sisal thick—
no safe anonymity, no plain white Oldsmobile.
As earth shook itself, a dog flinging up its fleas, he
braced open with his back, they say, the mouth of the mine,
shoulders roaring, arms pumped, joints popped—the miners otherwise
crushed as he was, the mountain over him, the fallen towers.
Or shrouded grandly in the heroes’ tomb
force-built by traitors captured in his civil wars.
La caja o la faja? Now he gets both,
sword ready on the altar should the dead return.
Blinded, shorn, whipped and goaded, dumb as an ox and
grunting gutturals, neck thickened beneath the yoke, bones
straining forward the burden, at the last (they say) he
stretched out his arms, embraced the eternity closest to his hand.
The shirt stitched stiff with intricate stitches, crusted white
with what might have been starch; her eyes panicky, not quite
meeting his—yet they say he pulled willingly over his head
her acrid doubt, her jealousy, the voluminous ferocity of her love.
The Party sent to him in exile at the last
a twenty-year-old female cadre for his bed.
After the show trials, after the indictments,
not even Abishag could warm him.
“To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you no loss”—
beaten by hoe, beaten by bill hook so as not to waste the bullets.
“He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him”—
to the end he wore no glasses lest he appear intelligent.
How had it come to this? Live lobsters air-lifted,
silver chopsticks, platform shoes. We called him “Dear Leader,”
called him “the red and rising sun.” An ember
in the center of our hearts. A new star, constellated.
Fed poison like the rat he was, he could not speak
but lifted up his arm, lifted damningly his eye.
No doctor for two days. They say the poisoner
kissed the lifted hand, then when it dropped again spat on it.
Over a light lunch—pasta—he remarked that lipstick
comes from sewer grease, then kissed his new bride’s (lipsticked?) lips,
fed her burnt and bitter almonds. “A direct hit,” clamored
the Goebbels’ smallest boy, thinking the shot a Russian bomb.
They say, they say—but some say no:
his shadow vast, cast across the pampas;
on the board a bloody haunch, a blue-blood’s rack of ribs;
colossal still, a sickle or a hammer in his hands.
The stanzas refer to events—typically culminating events—in the careers of Cuchullain, Saddam Hussein, an invented strong man, Frederico Franco, Samson, Hercules, Pol Pot, Pol Pot and Charles Taylor, Kim Jong-Il and Mao Tse-Tung, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and an archetypical strong man.
• “La caja o la faja”: “either a coffin or a general’s sash”: what young Spanish officers like Francisco Franco would supposedly earn—that is, death or early promotion—posted to Morocco in 1912.
• “To keep you is no benefit”: said to those exterminated by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s.
• “He killed my ma”: an election slogan in support of Charles Taylor in Liberia in 1997.