08 August 2009

Featured Poet: Francesco Levato

Elegy for Dead Languages

Simply because an execution method may result in pain
does not establish the sort of “objectively intolerable
risk of harm” that qualifies as cruel and unusual.

There is a town here named boneyard,
Ossaia in its tongue.

I should be vigilant today,
take notice of my surroundings. Waters ran red,

another town became Sanguinetto;
the meaning, river of blood.
I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way—
The number of dead is a politically charged figure.

“That’s very unusual,” he said,
“A hugely disproportionate number of those who died
were intended to.”

Uptick, violence. When the Threat Level breaks
yellow will we rename the spot Freedom Tower,
or Piegaro, the subdued.

Imagine the blood, the bile that would drive war elephants
through the Alps to settle old scores. Imagine the shock,
the awe, the fall of empire.
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way.


The train smells like octopus, of sea salt and burning
rubber, of Fridays when meat was considered a sin.
Thus to his poor he still will give
Just for the present hour;

Today a sack of flour can be had for a bullet,
a belly filled with mud, mixed with butter,
mixed with salt.
But, for tomorrow, they must live
Upon his word and power.
They say the word has been butchered, that nothing
should be called couture unless it has hours of handwork,
and blood and sweat.
Give virtue to my hands, O Lord,
that being cleansed from all stain
I might serve you—
Thirty one rounds of fifty fired came from one single gun.
There was eye contact, an understanding, someone
Make me white, O Lord, and purify my heart
so that being made white—

I may deserve an eternal reward.
We know we are already in negative equity.

Should we ensure the disaster supply kit is stocked
and ready, use terms like violent extremist, like totalitarian;
not compromise our credibility.


Your letter asks whether the meaning of cruel, inhuman
and degrading treatment would depend upon identity.

Red Line to Chinatown.

Next train—no, next. Speak clearly not louder. That test
demands an exact analysis of circumstances in determining
whether the relevant conduct shocks the conscience. A body

lying across the sidewalk is more likely to get stepped over
here than elsewhere.

Was it Wednesday, one of the bloodiest in weeks. It was

an astonishing success. They came in groups of ten,
hands and feet shackled, pleas of guilt via interpreter,
next room—sentencing.

Special arguments might be made
for forms of preventive detention. The trouble

began at 8 a.m., an ad-hoc court at the Cattle Congress,
mobile trailers, a dance hall walled with curtains of black.

It has been called an American vocabulary of misery;
like passing through stages of grief.
O sinners let’s go down,
Down in the river to pray.
I just want you to know that when we talk about war,
we’re really talking about peace.


Notes (Elegy for Dead Languages)

The towns of Ossaia, Sanguineto, and Piegaro take their names from the Battle of Lago Trasimeno in central Italy where the Carthaginian general Hannibal ambushed and defeated the Roman army on June 24th, 217 BCE. That morning over fifteen thousand soldiers were slaughtered in a matter of hours. The water was said to have run red with the blood of the fallen and a stream feeding the lake was named Sanguineto, or Blood River.

War elephants. At the start of the Second Punic War Hannibal marched war elephants over the Alps and into northern Italy to engage the Roman army.

When the United States government’s national threat level is Elevated, Homeland Security recommends that Americans “continue to be vigilant, take notice of their surroundings, and report suspicious items or activities to local authorities immediately.”

“Thus to his poor he still will give [. . .]” is from the Christian hymn, “The Meal and Cruse of Oil,” by John Newton, an Anglican clergyman and onetime slave-ship captain. He was also the author of “Amazing Grace.”

“[. . .] a belly filled with mud, mixed with butter, mixed with salt” references the practice of making mud patties flavored with butter and salt as a way to stave off hunger in modern-day Haiti.

“Give virtue to my hands, O Lord [. . .]” and “Make me white, O Lord [. . .]” are from vesting prayers recited as priests dress for Mass.

“[. . .] use terms like violent extremist, like totalitarian; not compromise our credibility.” references a March 14th, 2008 memo from the Extremist Messaging Branch at the National Counterterrorism Center titled “Words that Work and Words that Don't: A Guide for Counterterrorism Communication.”

“Red Line to Chinatown.” is a reference to both Chicago’s Red Line train and the practice of “redlining” where financial services are arbitrarily denied to specific neighborhoods due to race or poverty level.

“I just want you to know that when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace.” is from a speech given by President George W. Bush on June 18th, 2002. “War is Peace” is one of the slogans of the Party in the novel 1984, by George Orwell.

Works Cited (Elegy for Dead Languages)

Benczkowski , Brian A. Letter to Senator Ron Wyden. 5 March 2008. U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.

Bush, George W. Remarks by the President on homeownership. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Washington, D.C. 18 June 2002.

Epstein, Edward. “How many Iraqis died? We may never know.” San Francisco Chronicle. (3 May 2003). .

Greenhouse, Linda. “Justices Uphold Lethal Injection in Kentucky Case.” New York Times.
(17 April 2008). 17 April 2008. .

Holy Trinity Church Amblecote. The Parish Church of the Holy Trinity. Church of England. 13 May 2008 .

Krauss, Alison. "Down to the River to Pray." O Brother Where Art Thou. Lost Highway, 2000.

Landler, Mark. “Housing Woes in U.S. Spread Around Globe.” New York Times.
(14 April 2008). 14 April 2008. .

Newton, John. Olney Hymns. London: W. Oliver, 1779.

Preston, Julia. “270 Illegal Immigrants Sent to Prison in Federal Push.” New York Times. (24 May 2008). 24 May 2008. .

Saunders, Fr. Williams. “Liturgical Vestments.” Arlington Catholic Herald. (7 June 2001).

United States. State Department. Words that Work and Words that Don’t: A Guide for Counterterrorism Communication. Washington: The Department, 14 March 2008.

Wood, Dana. “Faux Couture.” W magazine. (April 2008). .

© Copyright 2009 Francesco Levato