Peter Austin is a poet who lives with his wife and three daughters in Toronto, Canada, where he teaches English at Seneca College. Over
of his poems have been published, in magazines and anthologies in the USA (including The New Formalist, Contemporary Sonnet, The Lyric,
Iambs & Trochees, The Pennsylvania Review, The Barefoot Muse, 14 by 14, The Raintown Review, The Shit Creek Review, Lucid Rhythms,
The Chimaera, Road not Taken and Trinacria), Canada and elsewhere. He was December ’08’s poet of the month at the
Formalist Portal and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He also writes plays, and his musical adaptation of The Wind in
the Willows has enjoyed four productions, the most recent in Worcester, Massachusetts. Anyone who wishes to purchase one of his books, or
who wishes to correspond with him, may do so via email, at email@example.com.
Retired from selling meat or making pills,
With hollow cheek and wrathful eye, he stands,
A placard held between sclerotic hands
Emblazoned, red on white, “ABORTION KILLS!”
Did an unrighteous granddaughter forget
Or trifle with the reproductive laws
And, bloodying a knitting needle, cause
This animus toward vacuum and curette?
Is he a conduit of Jehovah’s ire
At those who, seeking infamy on earth
Or riches, make a mockery of birth,
Disdainful of the lake of endless fire?
Or does he burn, remembering the thrill
Of filching some patootie’s cherry pie,
This tawdry daub one last, despairing try
At bending woman’s body to his will?
This was her tenth. Producing eight
And nine had been an awful trial.
Couldn’t the doctor—operate?
Then they could put the word around
She’d lost it. (Here, he closed her file).
—What if she had an ultrasound
That showed it was deformed or dead?
—She could, of course, but even if
It was, what could he do? he said;
Every miscarriage was perused,
And even at the merest whiff
That policy had been abused....
In short, he told her that unless
She could afford to take a trip
To Florida, a shamaness
Was ... they were mostly bona fide,
And five cordobas filled their scrip....
She followed his advice and died.
[In 2006, Daniel Ortega’s government
legislated a total ban on abortions. The
gold cordoba is Nicaragua’s currency.]
Aissatou at nine began a diet
Under her pappy’s eye, of camel’s milk
(Sweetened) and millet porridge. Her disquiet
(Shared with unnumbered thousands of her ilk)
Crescendoed when he plopped her on a sumpter
(Fat enough now to market as a bride)
And led her to Nouakchott, where he dumped her
On Auntie Oumelkhary. Here, she’d bide
Till sold to someone rich. But Cousin Noori
Entered her room one night with loins aflame
(Mistaking it for heaven, her a houri)
And made of her a worthless lump of shame,
So Auntie Ou opined, as too did pappy
Who added, “let him wed her!” This at least
Made one of them comparatively happy
Though harnessing the other to a beast.
[In Mauritania, it is commonplace for preadolescent
girls to be sold as brides, usually to wealthy Saudi
men. Nouakchott is Mauritania’s capital city.]
Upon a platform set with pearl
And emerald, she danced for him—
His favoured one, his Fragrant Girl.
A dozen springs had wilted, since
The calculated snap of limb
Had scotched her toddling innocence.
Now, in the harem, right trumped wrong,
For the elected one, that is,
Her with the feet three inches long;
As for that ugly sisterhood,
The once-or-never-would-be his,
Let them unseat her, if they could!
Hadn’t she won the right to gloat,
Learning to walk on broken toes
Till, like a feather, she could float,
Daily was called to entertain
(Lovely, they murmured, as a rose)
An embassy from France or Spain?
Cool as a cat, her rivals said.
Little they knew that, like a rhyme
(When she was summoned to his bed,
Slathered in fragrance, sickly sweet),
Time she recited after time,
Let him not smell my septic feet!
[Foot binding was practised for 1,000 years in
China. In its most severe form, in included
breaking the insteps of its young victims. Their
bound feet commonly became ulcerated and/or
gangrenous, causing a notorious stench.]
The Harlot’s Ways
Mahimbo’s Deux Chevaux
Sits idle, hood aloft. His wife is ill;
None knows with what. He wanders to and fro,
Balancing doctor’s bill and druggist’s bill,
Wearied by blow on blow.
His eye falls on the ditch
That runs behind their house. His daughter Flore
Fills a container, waves a limba switch
Over it twice, mutters some made-up lore,
Pretending she’s ... a witch?
Could she have hexed the clutch,
Stricken Picel with fainting spells and fits?
A girl of—wait, hadn’t he heard of such?
Hadn’t Zawadi turned her father’s wits,
Just with a single touch?...
Dropping a red-hot gleed
Onto her naked belly (“mark the howl!”)
Pastor Nzenze (eagered by his greed)
Trumpets, when Flore evacuates her bowel:
“Praise Jesus: she is freed!...
Later by sixty days,
Picel is dead, Mahimbo destitute.
Haunting Kinshasa’s streets with dead-eyed gaze,
Flore gives passing drivers a lewd salute,
Learning the harlot’s ways.
[Fifteen thousand homeless children live on the streets
of Kinshasa, 70% as a result of being declared witches.
An ‘exorcism’ costs half the average yearly salary.]
“Aribert? Doctor Heim?” the devil purred;
I knew I’d seen those cyanotic eyes,
That whipcord mouth, before. Come in! My word,
Your work at Mauthausen gave me a rise!
Those chutzpahdik experiments on Jews,
Injecting—was it naphtha?—to the heart,
Without an anesthetic—was it booze?
Bev Allitt, with a dash of Bonaparte!
“The thing is, where to seat you?... Table one?
With Mengele? Can’t do it. Don’t you see?
That twin-biz was as black as Acheron,
Worthy of Vlad, or Lizzie Báthory....
Ah! Here’s a spot, at table six-four-seven.
Cheer up, old chap, at least you’re not in heaven!”
[Heim was at Mauhhausen concentration camp, between
October and December, 1941. Transylvanians Vlad the
Impaler (also known as Count Dracula) and Countess
Báthory were sadistic serial killers. Beverley Allitt was
an English nurse who murdered children by injecting them
with insulin or potassium.]
The ghetto: dawn. A deathly light
Distempers, in the cobbled square,
The spindly scarecrows, stiff with fright,
Assembled at attention there.
A truck, usurped for Nazi use,
Brings lumber, men who hammer, brace,
Raise up a gallows, hang a noose,
Depart. The kapitän, his face
A mask of granite, spits commands.
A stick man, while his fellows watch,
Is frog-marched to the gibbet, stands,
A pee stain darkening his crotch.
—“A loaf, a life [the hands make mime]
Possess, in Warsaw, equal weight.
That contrabandage is a crime
Who dares to question shares his fate!”
The hangmen, by a finger cued,
Lift stick-man with impassive eyes;
Too flaccid, he’s at last lassoed,
Left there to dangle till he dies.
They could have snapped his neck, no doubt
(It’s how they would have killed a hen),
As quickly put the crowd to rout,
But who’d have learned a lesson, then?
Beech Wood: can you see it?
In among the trees?
Cricket-chirr and crow-caw,
Linnet song and thrush,
Skittering of chipmunks
In the underbrush;
Bees, among the bluebells,
Drunk upon their scent,
Drifting in a zigzag,
Pretty; but the truth? No.
Picture this, instead:
At a place near Weimar
Fifty thousand, dead:
Communists and gypsies,
Homos and the like,
Jews and Slavs and half-wits—
Foemen of the Reich;
Starved or shot or poisoned,
Rotting in a pile,
Maggots in their nostrils
Pallid, fat and vile.
In Karl Otto’s beech wood,
Songbirds never sung;
Inmates in disfavor
Here were herded, hung
By their wrists or ankles
From the limbs of trees
Till they shrank and blackened
This was entertainment;
This was the gestalt,
At the Nazi death camp
Known as Buchenwald.
[Buchenwald means beech wood.
Karl Otto Koch was commandant
from 1938 to 1942.]
She was a Jehovah’s Witness,
Umbrous as a double bass;
No disputing her unfitness
For the Nazi master race.
They’d have barked: “The quarry with her!”
Lined her up and, rat-a-tat!
Watched her somersault and slither,
Swell the rotting welcome mat;
Or, perhaps: “The railway station:
“All aboard, and seal the door!”
Birkenau, her destination,
Maidanek, or Sobibor,
Where decease by gas awaited,
And the gang that shattered jaws,
Stole the gold of those they hated,
To finance the Nazi cause….
“Thank the Lord!” we might have caroled,
“That they didn’t overlap,”
Had she not, in hope appareled,
Stepped into the perfect trap,
Met a clique of blue-eyed juvies,
On the margin of a creek,
Thinking, Dairy Queen? the movies?
Till a ciggy burned her cheek,
And, as if by this empowered,
All the others gathered round,
Kicked her silly, while she cowered,
Held her under, till she drowned….
Who needs jackboots, whips, Alsatians,
Hitler’s psychopathic smirk?
We, the most benign of nations,
Did away with Reena Virk.
[Reena Virk was murdered in
British Columbia in 1997.]
See the St Louis
See the St Louis, departing from Hamburg,
Jewry, her passengers—spat upon, spurned,
Fleeing the land where the witches of Bamberg,
Centuries earlier, gibbered and burned.
Hear, in Havana, the rumblings of riot:
“No! to asylum for job-stealing Jews!”
President Bru, to subdue the disquiet,
Sends an aviso: regret; must refuse.
North to Miami, these sea-wearied sailors
(Surely to God, in the land of the free?…)
See, though, the coastguards, with braying loud-hailers,
Herding them round, till they face out to sea!
Back, then, to Europe (for all but a quorum,
Gone, in extremity, over the side);
Hundreds will burn, like the witches before them;
Thanks to the gas, they’ll already have died.
[The St Louis sailed from Hamburg in May, 1939. The 938
passengers were refused entry by Cuba’s president, Federico
Bru, and by the USA and had to return to Europe, where most
ended up in Nazi hands. In Bamberg, in 1628, a chain-reaction
witch hunt led to the burning of several hundred victims.]
One is famous, one forgotten;
Both, however, had to sup
And to drain its bitter cup.
Though the least enlightened layman
Knows that ‘Anne’ belongs with ‘Frank’,
Should you mention ‘Eva Heyman’
He’ll repay you with a blank.
If it’s framed as an enquiry,
You can answer that, like Anne,
She confided in a diary
When her holocaust began,
Though she didn’t find an attic
In Varad (near Budapest),
So her life was less dramatic,
Less surprising her arrest.
Her opinions—so observant
Of a world so inhumane—
She’d entrusted to a servant
From a window on the train;
They’d be thought of as a treasure
Not forgotten in a drawer,
If she’d only had the leisure
To record a hundred more.
[Eva Heyman began her diary in February,
1944. Less than four months later, she was
deported to Auschwitz and put to death.]
The Older Sisters Wittgenstein
Vienna, nineteen thirty-nine:
Convinced that they are safe, despite
The Anschluss—even Crystal Night—
The older sisters Wittgenstein
Ignore advice from brother Paul
To emigrate without delay
(They’re rich as Midas: what care they?
While he just likes to caterwaul).
Unable to achieve their move
To some less judophobic land,
He sways their sister Gretl and
Their brother Ludwig to approve
A ransom payment, of the clan’s
Old Country assets. In return,
The Nazis, that they shall not burn,
Declare the sisters Aryans.
Eight billion is the figure paid,
Yet, had it been the world entire,
To save one sister from the fire,
Who, in their place, had not obeyed?
And, yet, without so vast a sum,
How fewer were the maimed, the dead,
The throng who lost their wits instead?
How sooner stilled, the kettledrum?
[The eight billion is in US
their 1940 value.]
“Quiet!” rasps the doctor, at
The softly crying twin,
As, with practiced scalpel, he
Bisects her olive skin;
“What’s a little … Scheisse!” at
A knocking on the door.
Entering, an orderly
(Accustomed to the gore,
Turning, though, at Mengele,
A sickly shade of green)
Stammers: “Lice—run riot, sir,
In women’s block thirteen!
“Just as you’d dictated, we
Deterged them, twice, with lye;
Guess it didn’t work, sir, though
I couldn’t tell you why.”
“Gas them!” … “ All,
Herr Doktor?” “All!
You hear me? Every one!”
“Yes sir!” says the orderly;
A heel-click, and he’s gone.
“Parasites!” the doctor spits,
Returning to his task;
What, or who, he has in mind,
The patient doesn’t ask.
[Mengele is notorious for his inhumane experiments
on identical twins. He also, once, ‘solved’ a lice
problem by sending every occupant of a particular
barrack—over 700 women—to the gas chamber.]
Rabinowitz, who played the violin,
Was needed for the band. His wife and daughter
Were herded, white and silent, to their slaughter,
While he rehearsed, ‘ Auf Wiedersehen Berlin’.
In forty-eight, he made it to the States
And bought himself an antiquated Singer,
Contriving, so adept was he of finger,
To handle thread as nimbly as the Fates.
He prospered, married, sired a tribe of sons,
Forgot their names and, later on, their faces.
The nursing home is full of just such cases:
They fight like fiends, or dote like simpletons.
His trademark is tormentedly to cower
At sound, or even mention of, a shower.
The Sowing of the Seed
Eighteen years of talking, till
They exercised their power,
Did to death the crippled, blind
And backward baby Knauer;
Thus, the sowing of the seed
Of so obscene a flower:
Naked spawn of Abraham,
In line to take a ‘shower’.
[In 1920, in Germany, the euthanasia debate
began with the publishing of Permission to
Destroy Life Unworthy of Life. In 1941,
implementation of the final solution began.]
in memory of Fritz Haber
“Your mother was a Jewish cunt,”
The jackbooted inquisitor
Advised his mousy ‘visitor’.
—“Herr Hauptmann, on the Western Front
“I personally supervised
The killing of the foe, en masse,
By dousing them in poison gas
That I, myself, had formulized.
“Within a week, my precious wife,
My lovely, fourteen summers’ bride
Clara, committed suicide
In protest at the loss of life,
“And yet, despite a broken heart,
I journeyed to the Russian front,
To oversee …”—“You don’t like ‘cunt’?
I’ll change it, if you’d like, to ‘tart’;
“My wish, in this, is your command.”
—“I—I received the Nobel prize—
My work on how to fertilize—
I mean to feed the Fatherland,
“By … and, sir, there’s a pesticide:
Perhaps you’ve heard of Zyklon B?
It’s used in mill and granary
To kill … we’re on the selfsame side,
“Herr Hauptmann! For the love of Mike,
I’ve been converted to—immersed—
I’m German as a liverwurst,
A … ”—“Would you go for Jewish dyke?”
[Albert Einstein said that Fritz Haber’s
tragedy was the tragedy of Jews in
Germany, the tragedy of unrequited love.]
Cain was Killed by Abel
And Holocaust deniers
Are selling falsities, galore,
To reams of eager buyers.
It’s salutary, knowing that
The madness didn’t happen—
That Hitler, Heydrich, Hess and Hoess,
von Ribbentrop, von Pappen
Admired the Slav, adored the Jew,
Delighted in the gypsy,
And thought no more of genocide
Than Lala, Po and Dipsy,
That crops manured with human ash
Were nothing but a rumor,
And Zyklon-B was laughing gas
(How’s that for Nazi humour?),
While what is told of Babi Yar,
The cattle trucks, the ghetto,
Was lifted from a little-known
So reader, spread the welcome news:
A cadre of your species
Made nobody deny his creed
Or eat his brother’s feces,
From human skin, no lampshade wrought,
From human bone, no table.
And, while you’re at it, why not add
That Cain was killed by Abel?
[Zyklon-B was used in the Nazi gas chambers.
Babi Yar was a ravine, near Kiev, where thousands
of Jews were executed by the Nazis. Lala, Po and
Dipsy feature in the children’s tv show Teletubbies.]
On Holocaust Memorial Day
in memory of Professor Liviu Librescu
On Holocaust Memorial Day,
In Eilat, Haifa, Tel Aviv,
The sunset siren-sound cries, “stay
Your doings—bow—be silent—grieve.”
From Galilee to Olivet
Is heard its ghostly swell and swoop:
“Remember, lest the world forget;
Be wary, lest the foe regroup!”…
In Blacksburg, on that very day,
A pistol’s frenzied semaphore
Quells Liv Librescu’s repartee,
Propels him, yelling, for the door;
To exit? No: to shut its gape.
“The window!—break it!—gai shoyn, gai!”
His students—all but one—escape,
Before a bullet stills his cry….
Is it for this, that he endures
The ghetto, as a ten years boy,
The shame of secret Yom Kippurs,
The catcalls of the crowd-brave goy?...
He died a death from Grand Guignol—
His fingers round the doorknob furled,
His blood upon the chalk-white wall—
But, saving twenty, saved the world.
[At Virginia Tech, on April 16, 2007, when
Seung-Hoi Cho went on a shooting rampage,
Librescu held his classroom door shut while
his students escaped through the windows.
He was shot, through the door, five times.
In the Talmud, it is said, ‘whoever saves
one life, saves the world entire’.]
The irony, I guess she never got
Of kenneling her grandson in a space
Tight-fitting as a turtle’s carapace
Where, while his nose accumulated snot
Till runoff hung in ribbons on his chin,
He cowered endless hours unreprieved
And sometimes (in a heat-wave) sourly heaved
And felt the sudor pooling on his skin.
She was at work, of course, and couldn’t hear
The mumbles as they mushroomed into rage,
The shrieking and the shaking of the cage
That ended when exhaustion mastered fear;
And maybe, back at home, with him on bail
And bedded, she was too done in to gauge
The irony of how she made her wage—
Counseling the discomfited in jail.
For three years, Colorado’s June Candalario locked her
grandson in a metre-square dog kennel from 3 PM to
2 AM four nights a week, while she went to work as
a counselor of prisoners with emotional problems.
“Cannot take it!” cried Jonava,
Face a paste of dusty brine,
As she bit the raw cassava,
Sourness shuddering her spine.
She’d been made a
As a sop to godly wrath
When her nna
(grown old and greedy)
Stole a bolt of golden cloth.
“You are mine, now, sorrow’s daughter
And will work at my behest,
Chopping wood and fetching water,”
Said the togbe (tallow-tressed,
Eyes as small and sharp as gannets’);
“There’s the hoeing of a field,
And a grove of pomegranates
To be harvested and peeled....”
She’d been weaver, planter, picker,
Never paid and never fed;
At a pond she’d knelt for liquor,
At a refuse heap for bread;
Mute submissiveness, she’d studied,
But the mat that was her bed
(He would see it soon) was bloodied,
And she knew what lay ahead....
In Ghana, a fiashidi is a virgin girl given
to a shrine (and, by extension, to its priest,
the togbe). Nna means grandmother. Raw
cassava is poisonous.
The Next One
The next one drives a Fiat, far from new,
Whose windows aren’t electric.—“Quanto?”—“Venti.”...
While he progresses, oddly lentamente,
Oddly romantic, wanting to undo
Each hook and eye, with lithe musician’s fingers,
Your focus strays ... upon an uncle lingers
Who pledged you an apprenticeship in Rome
To Maestro Gallotoro, Esthetician
(You even had a passing premonition,
Eclipsed, though, by the chance to cable home
Regular cheques to jobless mom and sister
While adding, to your life, a lick of glister....)
Learning that meretricio was your trade,
Your beauty shop a strada in Milano,
Your Maestro a reptilian ruffiano
Who swore he’d pocket everything you made
Till you were out of debt—i.e. forever
(You were so unsuspecting, they so clever,
Your uncle and this Zonda-driving boss
Who made you suck him off for food and clothing....);
This you could bear, but mom and Faraa’s loathing
For sending nothing—nothing—home to Jos
(But even if you slept with every Romeo
From—?) Stop it, stop! That way the manicomio!
See, now, he’s finished: paid you what he owes;
Didn’t mistake your tonsils for a teether;
Didn’t try for the servant’s entrance, either;
The next one could be Mister Right: who knows?...
Approximately 15,000 Nigerian women are working
Italy’s streets, many lured there under false pretenses.
Jos is Nigeria’s tenth largest city. Ruffiano means pimp,
manicomio insane asylum.
Gisberta left behind
Transphobia the day she quit Brazil
For Portugal. Encouraged by her kind,
She made it as a dancer, topped the bill,
Her raunchy bump-n-grind
Earning a roomy flat,
A hunk with a Ducati, clothes to
But no one likes a girl who runs
Loses her bloom, her muscle
tone, her hair,
So that, at length, was that.
Reduced to selling sex
To men as rough with tico
as with tongue,
Over each eye a sagging
She now slept on a building
A clutch of lesser wrecks;
And there they found her, those
Boys from St Joseph’s home for orphaned youth.
They used her as an ashtray,
tore her clothes,
Then, “shit!” said one,
uncovering the truth:
“She’s got a fucking hose!”
When she’d been gagged and bound
(The coroner’s report took time
They reamed her with a spar that
And, on a three-count, dropped
her down a well,
Where, unremarked, she drowned.
Gisberta (née Gisberto) Neto was murdered in February,
2005, by a gang of boys aged between 10 and 16, who
lived at a nearby orphanage. Tico is slang for penis.
The Sequelae of Withdrawal
They put her on Effexor, for depression
(Post-partum, which she’d wrestled with before)
And, when she mentioned moments of aggression
The answer was, “they’ll vanish: have some more.”
They didn’t, and in dread of its dominion,
The damage that, its creature, she might do,
She sought out an alternative opinion
Which told her that her dosage was askew.
She cut it by a third and, on the morrow
(Unwarned of the sequelae of withdrawal)
Stilettoed, to her consequential sorrow
Her newborn and its siblings with an awl….
While she, in prison, still misunderstands.
The makers and the medics wash their hands.
Homicidal ideation as a ‘rare adverse event’ was added to
Effexor RX’s label and the manufacturer’s website in 2005.
The manufacturer told no doctors, issued no warning labels
and still denies that there is a causal link between the drug
“Three sisters”—squash, and beans, and corn—
The Ouendat grew. In peace they dwelt
And hunted game and netted fish
And played lacrosse and “straw” and “dish”.
No dread of dreams or death, they felt,
Nor need in Christ to be reborn.
Enter les jésuites, clad like death,
To save these hapless savages,
With stowaways beneath their frocks—
Rubella, small—and chicken-pox—
Against whose lethal ravages
The shaman learned to save his breath.
Of those the germs did not destroy,
The crucifix by half was kissed;
And thus it fell that piety
Divided their society
And left them helpless to resist
The blood-lust of the Iroquois.
The Ouendat were the so-called Huron Indians.
“Straw” and “dish” were gambling games, played,
respectively, with straws of differing lengths and
painted plum-stones. The massacre referred to
took place at Ste Marie among the Hurons, in 1649.
The Slough and the Stars
What shall I sing of—the crow or the finch?
Chuckle of children or grumble of grinch?
Nudes by da Vinci or same in the jakes?
Hoedowns at weddings or howling at wakes?
What shall I sing of—the sewer? the sea?
Winter in Timmins or spring in Capri?
Serfs wearing sackcloth or ermined boyars?
Sacred libations or benders in bars?
I’ll sing of all of them—Löwchen and tyke,
Nightingale’s vesper, reveille of shrike,
Tulips in vases and tumors in jars,
Rubies and refuse—the slough and the stars.
Timmins is a small, bleak town in northern Ontario. A
Löwchen is a very expensive dog breed.