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Capital Punishment

by Maxine Kumin


On the way to his death Benny Demps
complained about what had happened
backstage: when they couldn’t raise a vein
in either arm they went to his groin
which also refused to yield and then
cut his leg open. It was bloody
said the ten o’clock news on tv
but they finally made connection.

We are shown only the flat
uninhabited metal stretcher
but as the black curtain oozed upward
Benny went on calling for justice
from his tidy blue-sheeted gurney
demanding an investigation
into the pain they had caused him
the botch they had made of his exit.

Now we are given pictures
of victims in Sierra Leone.
The thing about the machete
is how quickly bone and gristle
will dull it, how often
you have to sit down and hone it
to hack off those hundreds of limbs
above or below the elbow.

One village elder was spared his thumbs.
On camera he holds out his arms
to show us what you can do
with two thumbs. Some
of the armless dripping blood
ran into the bush after their attackers
crying, come back, I implore you!
Come back and kill us, please kill us.

The newscast goes blank. Silver
streaks jitter across the screen
which finally fills with merciful snow.
Why are we shown mutilations
and denied execution? I long
to go back and hear out Benny Demps
taxing this vengeful world of slash
and burn and inject, I want

to be there for the last act
in his ruthless life, the scene
we were not permitted to witness,
his naive six-minute diatribe
against the state, the vitriol
of his soliloquy running down
like a windup toy:
the gentleness of his exit.

 

Maxine Kumin won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1973 and has published twelve books of poetry, five novels, and four collections of essays, most recently Always Beginning: Essays on a Life in Poetry (Copper Canyon Press, 2000) and Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery (W. W. Norton, 2000). Her latest book of poetry, The Long Marriage, will be published by W. W. Norton in November 2001. Kumin and her husband live on a farm in New Hampshire. (2001)


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