Mudlark Poster No. 139 (2016)

“A few corpses around...”
Six Poems by Frederick Pollack

Reign | Gilles | The Fireman | Procedure
The Untold | Are You Talking to Me?


Having claimed that a virgin
could cross the empire carrying
a sack of gold and both arrive intact,
the Emperor feels called upon
to prove it. A girl is chosen
from one of the new, half-slaughtered half-
assimilated western provinces. 
At the vizier’s suggestion,
she has strong legs. Treasure is promised
her weeping parents; on the other hand
the consequences of pilfering
are made clear. (A squad of proven
veterans will secretly
accompany her at a distance.) 
In the first hamlets,
weeping gives way to stares, resentment
of the all-too-visible soldiers, the gold,
and her. She protests — “Brothers!” —
then walks silently. Cities she comes to 
she crosses undismayed;
she has seen market days
and tells herself these are just bigger markets.
When buildings are tall and strange she remains
unawed; to be awed would mean stopping.
(Her guards approve, but keep her in sight.)
In villages she stays with widows,
discarded wives, and crones not too suspected
of witchcraft; helps them clean and cook.
The soldiers camp nearby. (The girl likes
the beardless one but dreams
of the tall one with scars; her face reveals
nothing to either as they move
from hill to hill above.) As languages
shift, she encounters
harsh looks: she is a whore because
she’s alone and a stranger. Now the soldiers
intervene (as the vizier said
they should if neither gold nor maidenhead
per se are under threat. And they’re 
in desert now; these villagers
won’t talk, would not be listened to,
and will be punished if they do.) A bit later, 
the guards help the girl 
across mountains. Scarface gives her
a new thong for the sack
she wears beneath her breasts. The boy slips,
and falls into a bottomless chasm.
The girl seeks something in the eyes
of each of his comrades; no one speaks.
They descend into the thickly-settled
eastern provinces. The virgin 
walks always with her eyes on the ground.
The soldiers fade into crowds.
She sees them drinking sometimes, never much.
They fade entirely when she reaches
the palace of the Eastern Governor,
where she is made much of. The Governor,
luckily with witnesses, counts the gold.
As she stands silent, scribes write down her story.
From a window she sees, for the first time,
the sea, which she perceives 
as a sort of wall. The Governor’s ancient
mother, a motherly type,
is kind to her, asking
what she saw in her travels
that struck her as unusual. The girl
hesitates a long moment, says “Nothing.”


The uniform is like an allover
bib, or a washerwoman’s 
ad for her work. The wide ruff
mocks the idea that someone like him
could have status, and, for cognoscenti,
the idea of status. The famous look,
all modern alienation (which the bourgeois
will translate as “being overqualified”),
suggests also a sense that the joke,
however universal, is on him:
to escape this frame would be the punchline.

The others chat. The role of ingénue
mutates quicker than fashion. The old father,
rich, deaf, outwitted, must seem
convincingly stupid. Offstage 
are the fops, who must not see,
only pay and applaud, and a lute, 
and cellphones. Gilles circles
the concept “deadpan,” wonders how long
a laugh may stretch, and whether
after the Revolution he can get
a spot on late-night. 

The Fireman

The powers that be, intuiting
and improvising, seek
a “spiritual” counterweight 
to the slightly out-of-control fascist populism.
They find it among the flames
consuming the Northwest. A middling, easy-to-
identify-with ranch house 
is consumed, and a young fireman
runs in to save two little girls.
His expression as he cradles them,
caught in a photo taken by the mother
and a CNN segment, is sublime.
It helps that he’s a hunk. When a reporter
hurls questions, he replies — stern, exhausted, 
utterly there — that he’s busy,
but is interviewed later. 
Has a not-unintelligent innocence, 
the sincerity we imagine, 
and a voice to die for. No current love-interest. 
The guys in his unit think he’s special.
Larger questions are raised,
about fire, fear, God; all
receive from the Fireman the same sort of answers.
The eyes neither plead nor command. The voice,
though always thoughtful, never hesitates
or lies. Where is this going. Politics doesn’t
grab him. Nor Hollywood. He walks
onstage at talk shows 
neither smiling nor waving, nor acknowledging
the mad applause, except with
that gaze. He talks about fear,
damage, hurt, the need
to help. Religion in various forms
picks him up. Not the fundies
but liberal-sensitive types and the easily-
sparked cult-spirit. Word gets around
that he’s Jesus. He denies this.
Word gets around he’s 
the Antichrist. The Fireman very seriously
considers this, asks, “How would I know?” Then —

Langton writes that some of my poems
read like notes for a story. He may be right,
but actually I don’t feel it as a fault.
Anything to defeat that bloated usurper, 
the novel! But the ultimate aim,
I think, is not only, or not so much, 
to create narratives as to destroy them,
the one that is told us,
the ones we tell ourselves. Imagine the chaos
if stories suddenly disintegrated,
were seen through... it would be bloody marvelous.
I am a mad animal. I have plans.


“Sorry for your loss,” he says.
No pronoun. Is he sorry?
The department? The justice system?
Probably wouldn’t go 
that far. In any case, sorrow

is out there, and will be, 
presumably, renewed, deepened 
when the last box is filed, 
last name signed
on this and all the cases. Meanwhile 

you stare at the cop, because 
there’s nothing else to look at. And
before he thinks 
you’re weird, you find
something to mumble, words,

thanks even, the spirit
pretending to want
decorum, coherence,
and continuation in being,
like the body.

The Untold

Cops, those friendly fellows,
can talk to anyone, however unwilling;
but I must explain myself, smile,
see doors slam, get punched out, a timid
childhood returning whenever I ask,
“Do you know this man?” Holding up
a grainy xeroxed photo,
a failed sketch-artist’s sketch,
a prose passage. I knock on
the doors of those closets where society keeps
its young, interrupt their texting,
and my face must be broadcast to the world
before they’ll check their only form of memory.
Sometimes he’s there, on their phones. “What’d he do?”
they ask, but don’t complain
when I’m vague; their role is to be out
of the loop. That face on their screens,
behind dancers whose arms 
seem raised in surrender, is full of character,
but which is hard to say:
sardonic-nasty, perhaps, there by the keg 
and pool, turning water into beer.

In Miami, a lawyer
watches closed feed.
The colors, he thinks, are those
of Miami, except for the rust-black
chains and clamps
occluding, in the lights from a submersible,
the gold. The trademark grin
of the famous salvager returns.
“It isn’t the San Miguel or Maria Galante,”
he says. “Still it’s great, thirty million at least.
But what the hell are those?” —
“From the ship?” asks the lawyer. — “Unlikely,” replies
the captain. “And why here?
We can’t film this.” — “I’ll do some checking,” says the lawyer. 
The next time they speak,
he watches machines and divers gather
iron and carry it
over dunes, into murk;
then a vivid narrated clip,
the gold glinting; then
a larger submersible vacuuming up
doubloons. “A slaver from Charleston,”
he says, “ran into bad weather 
in 1820. They made port,
but had to dump half the cargo. There.”
“It’s a good thing bodies don’t last,”
says the captain, without discernible
laughter. But the lawyer laughs,
alarmed by the sight of a reef of irrelevant bones.

At first, in the haven, we imitate
old movie heroes — nice,
orderly, generous, helpful,
stoical I guess you’d say —
too aware of those outside, who are neither
healthy, cool, dry, fed,
or alive. But humanity asserts itself.
Former chairmen of boards who could afford to buy in,
now chairmen of nothing, vie
then duel for seats on committees
that issue quarterly fantasies. Religions spawn,
split, fight, attack labs
and sex. There’s a lot of sex,
and gossip with the astral plane
and the ghost of the Dalai Lama. Great interest
in seeking transmissions — mostly futile,
otherwise depressing. One fool
who was about to reveal our position
is shot. The widow of a CEO
thinks not of him but a long-dead love
he never knew about, then less of him
than of his small green bottle of cologne.
The void between her and that scent
fills up with metaphysics. She spends more
and more time in her quarters, staring
at the wall; reflects:
If there’s nothing on the other side
of a wall, love the wall.

Are You Talking to Me?

History is a function of biology.
Biology as a whole is tragic.
A point worth remembering,
career-wise, when the robot
calls you into its office
to talk about your career.
Its office is, famously, a closet,
with a hint of a desk and one chair,
but the robot looks comfortable there.
Something like flesh has been printed
onto its circuits, and
a suit, but no meat face
is so implacable or sympathetic.
You’ve heard that, if the dark day comes,
and you want to waste time, you can ask it
why it exists. (This glitch
is corrected in later models.)
It says, with its usual cheer,
To project power,
to prevent executive embarrassment, 
to absorb damage if necessary,  
and to provide a human touch.
Then it lists various options
and tells you when you might expect
your check. As you pass whatever eyes
meet yours from other offices,
the bullpen, cubicles, classrooms, cells,
screens, and clean out your desk, you maintain
the expected confident expression.
To be human is not to act out. 
To be human is to work,
if in no other way than being afraid.

They let him write an editorial.
He’s quietly ecstatic.
Not merely a “first draft
of history,” but of political thought!
He begins with the paradox of the Internet
and other social media promising
endless communication but resulting
only in little fortresses (delete
“ghettoes”), where people only listen
to what they already believe. 
Here his prose and interest
soar. Extremism of the left and right —
no. Extremist “voices”
from left and right are what the masses hear.
The thrill of stating this equivalence,
not naming names, transcending names,
and crying for old-fashioned politeness,
“tolerance” in a deeper
than political sense — till at last he invokes
“we,” the unarguable,
the moral pronoun. We must learn
to listen to each other. With this he lands
where thinkers ought to be: above the battle,
the realm of truth, proclaiming which
is in itself both victory and martyrdom.
(Or else, he thinks, not being religious,
the realm of beauty, something like a poem.)

“Mass-murderers”; but the term pertains
more properly to state and quasi-state
actors, and the point
isn’t necessarily body-count.
“Berserkers”? My occult
connection to them is alarming:
on the rare occasions one is taken alive 
and glares at the camera, he glares
at me. But that too isn’t
the point. What is the word
he shouts at the phalanx crouching
behind cars and shields? Or at the snipers
on surrounding roofs, those heights
he should have attained and which are rightfully his? 
Or into the phone
through which they disingenuously
“negotiate”? Money, the helicopter,
peace on a beach
qui reste encore sous le pavé
will never come. That Word is inaudible,
missing, presumed mad,
but I’d like to hear it.
Art also lies behind a yellow tape.
Cops mill and loiter, when the shooting ends,
like critics. He is borne out, cherished by blankets.
“I like to have a few corpses around,”
said Wyndham Lewis; 
“it makes the others look almost alive.”
A point these bodies tacitly dispute.

You have a random vision of someone
two time-zones west, enrapt 
by a later version of the sunset
gilding weeds or bushes
at the edge of his property. It’s unclear
if they are shrubs or weeds, and whether
his yard is full of cars on blocks
or sighing sprinklers, but either way
he’s proud. He lights a smoke.
Two hours since, you sucked a Nicorette.
The Rockies or their foothills call to him;
less so his neighbors and a shuttered mall.
His thoughts are as layered as the grit-,
pig-, and insecticide-rich breeze,
the layers compacted but ill-fitting.
Women are one, wife another,
bad women who abort their babies
or run their mouths a third;
and there are other bad people
whose punishment is long in coming,
but he has waited decades and can wait.
Who is this schmuck? You thought he was
a friend, an opposite number.
You were misled, betrayed. He understands that.

In modern wars, when a conqueror
enters a city, ethnic
or ideological foes
tremble, leave if they can, are sometimes
hidden by the compassionate;
while partisans of the new regime
cheer, wave flags, behead shoot eat
former neighbors. What interests me
(for here what matters is what’s interesting)
are people who are safe and uninvolved.
Whatever happens happens —
whatever the boss believes —
for their entertainment. There is no pleasure
like not being on a list,
not suspect. Only in this way, whether
one lingers at or skirts the stoning-ground,
walking to work or market or the usual
starved idleness, does each day become a gift.
Later they say I didn’t know, i.e.,
I lived in awe of knowing;
we had no power means that I was blessed.
Night and the stars belong to the small and meek.
They inherit, while the great and the despised
trade status. Unconcerned, the uninvolved
sleep the sleep of the just,
like fingers warm and cozy in a fist.

Loving It

If the boss ever rises
to be a real boss he will think
as little and vaguely
about his “team” as any white,
gwai lo, or gringo. But for now

they are to him what spattered grease,
cold fries, thawing meat, unswept
floors are to them. Plus he must schedule
emotionalism, keep apathy
from acting out, rally the drugged

and indebted. In a brown
room somewhere, bunks are stacked
three high. The two women
sleep behind a curtain. The men,
though generally glumly disciplined,

quarrel about what to buy and how much
they owe. The girl who is good
with customers is mother and —
or so the boss imagines —
includes him in her prayers.

Frederick Pollack is the author of two book-length narrative poems, The Adventure and Happiness, both published by Story Line Press.  A collection of shorter poems, A Poverty of Words, was published by Prolific Press in 2015, and another collection, Landscape with Mutant, will be published by Smokestack Books (UK) in 2018. Pollack's poems and essays have appeared in print journals such as Hudson Review, Salmagundi, Poetry Salzburg Review, Die Gazette (Munich), The Fish Anthology (Ireland), Representations, Magma (UK), Bateau, Fulcrum, Chiron Review, and Chicago Quarterly Review; and in electronic journals such as Big Bridge, Hamilton Stone Review, Diagram, BlazeVox, The New Hampshire Review, and Mudlark among many others. He is an adjunct professor of creative writing at George Washington University.

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