The HyperTexts

Tom Riley

Tom Riley is an American poet. He was born in 1958 and grew up in Western New York. He was educated at Hartwick College and at the University of Notre Dame. He teaches English literature and Classical languages in Napa, California, where he lives with his wife, Mary, a stepdaughter, three small children, his in-laws, and a timid Belgian shepherd. He exercises way too much for a man his age and enjoys the potation of whiskey, cursing his enemies, and shooting the bow. He is not well practiced in the art of smiling.

D.C Heroes As Competing Emblems of Reality

We all know that we can’t be Superman.
Reality descends the day we know
We can’t be Batman, either. Yes, I can!
You say inside, so fast that thought is slow.
But someday you will know the truth — and go
Forward beneath its shadow, darker far
Than Batman’s. Still, if you would have it so,
Go on believing. Wish upon a star.
Train, train: lift weights and run, skip rope and spar.
Learn how to memorize those license plates.
Know every crook’s particular cigar
By sniffing. Pumped like hell, the mind inflates.
I’m praying hard for too-ambitious you.
If you can pull it off, then I can, too.

Be a Man

He told his inner child to be a man.
His inner self responded with a whine:
“You say I should! It doesn’t mean I can!”

“When the sun’s hot as hell, boy, get a tan!
A stop sign shouts? Then nap—and bless that sign!”
He told his inner child to be a man.

“If you will only run the way I ran
And fight the way I fought, then you’ll be fine!”
“You say I should: it doesn’t mean I can!”

“Keep your soul and your body spic-and-span!
When fraeuleins say, Come here, joe, tell them nein!”
He told his inner child to be a man

Untouched by human weaknesses.“Just ban
The pesky things and soon you’ll feel divine!”
“You say I should. It doesn’t mean I can.

Of fantasy ideals I’m not a fan.
My elements refuse to get in line.”
He told his inner child to be a man.
“You say I should! It doesn’t mean I can!”

Live By the Sword

“Geseah tha on searwum sigeeadig bill,
Ealdsweord eotenisc ecgum thyhtig,
Wigena weorthmynd….”
—Beowulf, 1557-1559

Beowulf into hell hath dared to dive—
Where Grendel’s hellish mother waits in wrath.
Deep in the realm of death, lad, look alive!
Do right, although you’re on the leftward path!
One against one? You think you’ve done the math?
Beloved Beowulf, you’ve done it wrong.
When you’re immersed there in that hellish bath,
The partisans of death are doubly strong.
You’re sentenced now to dwell your whole life long
Among the monsters that you think you slay.
Though you be victor in the minstrel’s song,
Apparent victory will pass away.
You’ve won a treasure you cannot afford.
Tested in depths, you used the wrong damn sword.

Little Fingers

They worked their little fingers to the bone.
The sweat poured off their faces, made a lake.
The value of the product stayed unknown.

“In industry, let man not be alone!”
The god of labor made his first mistake.
They worked their little fingers to the bone.

They hammered at a vast, unyielding stone.
Their shoulders melted, one gigantic ache.
The value of the product stayed unknown.

They modified their attitude and tone.
They made their very agitation shake.
They worked their little fingers to the bone.

They told their pain that they were in the zone.
They made such noises as the hopeful make.
The value of the product stayed unknown.

Self-sacrifice we do not quite condone—
But we accept it for our selfish sake.
They worked their little fingers to the bone.
The value of the product stayed unknown.

Two Babes
I flirted first with Ultimate Despair.
I flirted afterward with Inner Peace.
Despair had lots of long, rich, raven hair.
Peace had a pair of boobs that wouldn’t cease
Impressing. Both ignored the verbal grease
That I laid down — but neither seemed to be
Standoffish. Buddy: you don’t need to lease!
They seemed to say. The experts all agree
That you can own! The possibility
On either side was more than mere temptation.
I was prepared to fall on bended knee.
I was prepared to opt for osculation.
But, torn between the two of them, and hurting,
I couldn’t fix on one — and went on flirting.

Lake Serpent

The legendary serpent of the lake
Offers no fruit, sir, to the likes of you!
Though for temptation you may truly ache,
The legendary serpent of the lake
Regards your presence as a mere mistake,
A meaningless obstruction of his view.
The legendary serpent of the lake
Offers no fruit, sir, to the likes of you.

Homo Troglodytes

Linnaeus classified the chimpanzee as a member of the human genus.

“Though you think me a mere chimpanzee,
Karl von Linné would surely agree
           We were closely related.
           You are far from elated?
Hey, don’t think the truth’s thrilling to me!“

The Book of False Virtue

"Virtue! Virtue's the thing I adore.
I find vice an unbearable bore.
    I find doubts to be crap.
    All that stuff's a damn trap...."
"So I've heard now from many a whore."


1.        Two-Headed Man

Actually, we believe that our effect
on those poor souls who come to see us is
more edifying than the tripe they get
on TV, educational or not.
Through our association we beget
in them a sense of brotherhood, effect
a change in lonely psyches that are not
aware how deep their isolation is.

Of course, we don’t suppose their single heads
accept at once such elevating thoughts.
We feel the wrappers that they throw at us.
But we have faith that all are separate heads
on a great friendly body — just like us —
and that the body thinks enlightened thoughts.

2.        Living Skeleton

You beefy people always gawk at me
as if I were the freak, but I don’t feel
that way. It seems to me that good, strong bones
make for a good, strong man — that muscles are
intended principally to shore up bones.
And mine stand up quite well. Just look at me.
Behold how graceful all my movements are.
Can’t you perceive how wonderful I feel?

But you, you carry all that extra flesh
wherever you go — a burden, I should think,
a man would gladly give his life to shed.
Recall it was the too too solid flesh,
not the fine bones, that Hamlet longed to shed,
and you’ll begin to think the way I think.

3.        Fat Lady
I offer no excuses. All my glands
are normal — or they were before I made
the only wise decision of my life
and started my professional career.
I was fifteen when I determined life
was far too valuable to waste on glands
that lusted after skinny boys. Career
advancement was my goal. I am self-made.

To tell the truth, I do not like to eat
at all, but it’s a sacrifice I have
to make, like any athlete. Would you like
to join me now that it is time to eat
again? I welcome guests. I do not like
to think my work is all the life I have.

4.      Mathematical Horse

I tire of yokels asking me to count
out answers to their empty-headed sums
with hesitant hoof.(They’re never satisfied
unless I hesitate the way they do
when using their brains.)I’m barely satisfied,
in fact, with full professors who recount
at needless length how they themselves would do
their dull Boolean proofs or zero-sums.

I, who was contemplating hyperspace
while at my mother’s teat, am not the type
to savor this ridiculous routine
I’m forced to, being trapped in time and space.
If I could publish just the most routine
of my ideas....But I can’t even type.

5.        India Rubber Man

Call me up any time. I’m flexible.
Hey, hey, folks! Do you like my monologue?
When young I always dreamed of growing up
to be a stand-up comic, but I found
I had a lot of trouble standing up.
Hey, hey! Well, failures must be flexible,
enjoying such success as can be found
in making life itself a monologue.

But I don’t want to get you people down —
except that little lady there. Hey, hey!
For all I know, you too have uttered sighs
on seeing fond ambitions tumble down.
Well, take your cue from me. I’m done with sighs.
I can bounce back from anything. Hey, hey!

6.        Giant

I like to think the world is growing up
at last. I like to think that, someday soon,
pretty much everyone will be my size,
and that new movie-houses will be built
for us. I like to think I’ll get to size
up girls who in their turn will size me up
without sheer terror at the way I’m built.
I like to think I’ll see these changes soon.

Improbable, you say? You’re not the first
of my petite acquaintances to think
it was his duty to discourage me.
Such carping really got to me at first,
but now I never let it bother me.
I think exactly what I like to think.

7.      Human Pincushion

It doesn’t hurt. It’s just like acupuncture,
except it isn’t accurate. I feel
a kind of pleasant tickle when they first
slide a new needle in, but that’s soon gone.
During my placid youth, I felt at first
that my sedate reaction to a puncture
was normal, and that feeling’s not quite gone:
I still can’t figure out what others feel.

What makes them hoot and holler so? I guess
I’ll never know. Although I’m sensitive
to language, people just can’t seem to say
what pain is like, and I can’t seem to guess.
A shame, but nonetheless, I’d like to say
it’s not so bad being insensitive.

8.        Wild Man

The chains don’t really bother me. I feel
they give my gestures an impressive weight.
An ordinary man in chains becomes
a spectacle, so how much more so I?
I’m not offended when the tame crowd comes
to pay its tame respects. I always find
something quite entertaining in what I
regard as its essential lack of weight.

What bothers me, what makes me truly wild,
is the long loneliness. I’ve heard enough
about how different women are today:
athletic, fiercely independent, wild —
all lies. I know. Watching them day by day,
I’ve never seen a woman wild enough.

9.        Musical Pig

My one regret is that my mom and dad
never appreciated what their son
could do. Their quick but far-from-silken ears
just weren’t attuned to music such as mine.
I still recall with terror how my ears
were tortured by that country stuff that Dad
would listen to, saying, “No kid of mine
is going to play that long-haired music, son.”

But that’s all over now. Lord bless them both,
they’re gone. I travel with a different crowd,
and all the critics love me. But I’d give
up rave reviews and worldwide travel both
for compliments two pigs alone could give,
sweeter than the applause of any crowd.

10.       Geek

It makes me smile inside to see that look
of mingled satisfaction and disgust,
familiar to me from my decades in
this business, light the mugs of upright folks
when I pick up a chicken and sink in
my teeth: they fight to get a better look
then go home grinning, sure they’re just plain folks,
content with their vicarious disgust.

I take mine straight. Oh, yes, I feel it, too.
Who wouldn’t? But I know there is a point
to doing it, so I go through with it:
I show them, who bite into chickens too,
just what they are, although they launder it
of its essential nature. Get my point?

11.       Bearded Lady

When I was just a girl, I used to shave
each morning, and I got my share of dates.
When boys that age feel whiskers on their cheeks,
they think, with pride, the whiskers are their own.
But when I grew to womanhood, my cheeks
waxed heavy with their fruit. I couldn’t shave
often enough, and soon I had to own
up to the fact that joys all have their dates.

I shed no tears. I only learned in youth
what others are condemned to learn in age.
And now I have the time to cultivate
my beard — the sort that every downy youth
would love to have a chance to cultivate,
though not on me.(Come on, girl.Act your age.)

12.       Talking Dog

That’s not polite. Would I call you a trick
if you ran after cars or wet the bark
on neighborhood trees? And how do you suppose,
Mr. Superior, this trick is done
if not by me? What pinhead would suppose
that my poor owner here could stage a trick
so far beyond the best he’s ever done?
Why, he can’t even give a decent bark.

So that convinces you? Well, pull my tail!
Who cares what you believe? I’d like to hang
your whole two-legged race for teaching me
its speech. When I go out now chasing tail,
the bitches know I’m strange and bolt from me
to romp with handsome dogs whose tongues just hang.

13.       Human Magnet

There isn’t anything remarkable
in what I do — or rather, what I am.
Oh, to be sure, in me a common power
is magnified to do uncommon things.
But everyone possesses that same power
deep in his bones. It is remarkable
to my mind that you all can’t do the things
which make me seem more freakish than I am.

You’ve seen how iron filings act around
an ordinary magnet. Don’t your friends
and enemies react the same to you,
attracted and repelled? Just look around
and see the pattern that envelops you.
We’re not so very different. Let’s be friends.

14.       Dog-Faced Boy

Keep your fat fingers, thick with butter from
your popcorn, off my nose. It’s cold enough,
I guarantee you, and its sense of smell
is far too penetrating for my taste.
I can’t avoid you idiots. I smell
you even in my sleep. You yank me from
my deepest reveries with your poor taste
and raucous voices. I have had enough.

Nevertheless, I stay. I do not know
exactly why. That great and famous men
had canine faces all through history
just doesn’t move me.“Stick to what you know,”
I tell myself.“To hell with history.
Your field of expertise is ape-faced men.”

Published in Plains Poetry Journal

The HyperTexts