“Guillotine” and “Even the ghosts”

Nicky Beer


Pictorial Webster’s: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities

In the illustration, the executioner stands
furthest back. The condemned stoops with hands
bound behind. There are two other figures:
a man pushing the prisoner towards the grim
apparatus, and a priest in a frock, his back to us.
In the foreground a coffin has been laid.
You can spot the soft hint of a wicker basket
on the guillotine’s far side. The whole scene
readied for the schoolhouse is so neatly done
the clouds’ inked lines seem to promise
a kind of steadiness, as if you could safely
walk on them . . . I could say something
about history being a terrible blade. Or perhaps
it’s the raised crucifix in the priest’s right hand,
the ineffective witness. But the truth is
it’s the basket, its bloodstains crosshatched
just out of view, still fresh enough to raise the scent
of iron to the condemned when they kneel
as the student’s head bends to the page.

Even the ghosts

Even the ghosts of police need
something to do. They take careful
inventories of the insects trespassing
our ears as we sleep. They surveil
the silent, splayed footprints of raccoons.
They are threatened by the rain, its sheer
numbers. A soul is trapped in a plastic bag
and must be duly interrogated. There
are too many windows in this city, say
the ghosts of police. Too many
tire tracks trapped in high branches,
too many red lights cut open.
The ghosts of police cannot play
music, cannot remember the feeling
of their own hands brushing against
their necks. They leap out of our faucets
and command us to stop. They pull
their hands out of their empty pockets
over and over.
                                 And the moon turns away
from us all, shows us the cold target of its back.

Nicky Beer is the author of The Octopus Game (2015) and The Diminishing House (2010), both winners of the Colorado Book Award for Poetry. Her honors include an NEA, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a scholarship and fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is an associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver, where she is a poetry editor for Copper Nickel.