This poem came out of a writing exercise where we had to describe someone brushing their teeth in such a way as to reveal character. I failed — the story crept in and overwhelmed the exercise!
On days like these everything makes him feel
Like a murderer. He is, at least,
Part of a team. It helps.
The routine of waking burns:
Dressing is too banal, so he dresses for scrutiny:
The smartest uniform, his medals.
It’s not enough.
So he scrubs, furious, but meticulously
At shoes and buckles, and teeth.
Good teeth; good diet; good dental plan.
He brushes and flosses and gnashes for the mirror.
Admires their clack and tries not to think
Of them cracking.
He catches his own eye and in a blink
Is face to blurred face with his little boy self,
Playing the baddie:
A werewolf tonguing out minty foam.
A jagged breath holds the weeping in.
No breakfast today – and in the gap
His wife condemns his tie and sooths
Non-existent dust from his shoulder,
Mentions that she loves him and that
There will be beer in the fridge
When he gets done with whisky
And comes home.
Then, in that deep, tender Mississippi drawl,
She reminds him:
“It’s an honour, John. Not for frail men with mean hearts or shaking hands.”
So he leaves – dawn still far enough away.
He plays another boy game.
The car is a train. He is the driver.
He will follow the tracks down the line to the prison.
Execution day, they call it. Justice.
But in the privacy of his own locked conscience,
It is a wet night.
A red neon sign points the way to the bar In the basement.
Swinging and crackling over the light-bloodied stairs, it says