RWB Workshop Poem of the Week – Dec 27

Red Wheelbarrow Poets
Poem of the Week 12/27/2016

Arthur Russell



In Jay Meek’s “Walls,” about the imprisoned
poet Chidiock Tichborne, stone and despair
keep close company. Meek says Tichborne
wrote his testament on the wall of his cell,
and laid his head on a cobble to die.

Today, more than half
a million American men live
in solitary confinement, and lacking Tichborne’s
mind, and Jay Meek’s suffrage, they suffer
without landmarks.

They and their jailors are mirrors in despair.
He who minds the forgotten is forgotten himself.

Large prison populations are a luxury item
for an impatient, wealthy society,
purchased like a millionaire
disposing of an automobile
because the tire has gone flat.


The singular Tichborne becomes a generation
of young, American men in putty life,
and jailors, whose key rings
shut whole quadrants of their living brains,
twenty-three hours of dark,
seven days of solitude,
fifty-two weeks of disappointment,
365 ankle-chained skeletons in a row
like dried leaves in the sophist wind,
like coked-up crabs crossing brown, deserted paths
to egg-crates inside prisons, dying.


Chidiock Tichborne was disemboweled
before he was hanged (something ISIS
never seems to do on YouTube)
and the first Queen Elizabeth, when she
found out, banned the practice,
or we Americans might still be doing it today.

Today, we say that making a man watch
his mind drip like a blood sample
into a velvety vinyl bag
advances the public good.


Tichborne was a busker
when he stuffed his sonnets sideways
in a vase that once held tulips
shipped in by boat from Holland,
and he fried an egg by skillet
and tossed two scallions in it,
and the hotel smelled like beeswax,
as the family below him

lit the candles they had carried
from the homeland they had left in the Levant.

They say he had a mistress,
but it never was that simple.
She would bring him ends of sausage
left over by at the café,
and lick her teeth and watch him
eating slowly at the window
as the crows fought on the cobbles
on the street that she had come from,

over something that no longer looked
like anything a crow would want to eat.

And sometimes they had passion,
and sometimes they had nothing,
but the time they sat there passing,
till she stood and took her handbag
from the chair back at the table
where his work, like shoveled dirt
on sidewalks, lay unwanted,
one rhyme short of making good.

As she went back down the stairway,
she heard children laugh in Hebrew,

and she didn’t really want to,
still, she looked back at the window
when she reached the intersection
at the passage to the subway,
but he wasn’t at the window,
and the light had changed to yellow in the sky.

He’d gone back to the table,
spit on his hands and rubbed them,
whittled down his pencil,
listed words that rhymed with ‘orange,’
made a box around ‘syringe,’
then lost twenty minutes thinking
of the friend who’d died of drugs.

His beard grew while he sat there.

Tichborne was a Catholic; though
he didn’t take the sacrament,
he liked to make confession,
and talk to mourning women,
so he went down to St. Peters,
and sat in Francis’s niche,
and a man who he’d seen before
sat beside him in the twilight,

and said the time had come to
assassinate Elizabeth;

and so, at only twenty-eight,
his stupid, thumping heart
insisted on the impossible
continuation of his life,
while his mind played opposites,
and the rhymes came quickly;
“frost of cares” rhymed “field of tares”
“death” with “womb” rhymed “earth” with “tomb.”

“My glasse is full,” he wrote,
“and now my glasse is runne,
“And now I live, and now my life is done.”

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