“I didn’t think of it as killing them,” the executioner
from the late eighteenth century said to Charlie Rose,
still wearing a hood, his axe resting on the wood table
I’ve assumed is oak. “I don’t know how to put this:
it’s as if I loved them in the moment I swung, loved them
and wanted to offer them peace.” Charlie Rose was smiling,
excited. Even more than usual, the joy of an otter
seemed to be swimming through the long river of his body…
I have to admit: I have no idea what’s going on in this surrealist account. I’m pretty sure it’s satire, but that’s about it.
I’m partly hampered by my lack of familiarity with Charlie Rose. My impression, based on his multiple journalism awards for “timely and incisive interviews of leaders from all walks of life,” is that he’s highly respected, as opposed to interviewers who are more or less publicity outlets.
The interview in the poem does, however, sound more like a typical book tour (if an interview with a magically transplanted 18th century executioner can be considered typical anything, but I’d bet it’d come with a book tour), complete with metaphysical-sounding but ultimately nonsensical closing. Is this the sort of interview Charlie Rose would be doing if he were condemned to commercial tv? Or is it highly insightful, the sort of thing Charlie Rose does – is he the only person who would interview an 18th century executioner in this way – and I just don’t see it?
I don’t see the otter, either, but it’s unlikely I would, even if it were there. What does an otteresque person look like, anyway? I’m not sure, but it’s a delicious image. Otters do have this frolicsome quality about them, yet they’re actually quite vicious, which fits perfectly with this poem, with both Charlie Rose as the friendly but incisive (from the Latin, “to cut into”) interviewer, the executioner as the affable and reformed but blood-stained guest.
…I drifted off, half-dreamed I’d arranged a tropical
themed party on a roof without testing how much dancing
and vodka the roof could hold, people were falling
but still laughing, falling but still believing
there was a reason to put umbrellas in their drinks, …
The dream sequence in the middle feels a bit more familiar. I’ve had some pretty surrealistic experiences myself falling asleep watching PBS, most notably when I dozed off during some music program – Peter Paul & Mary, maybe, or an opera, those tend to be the sorts of things I watch – and woke up to a film honoring the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and Steve Reich’s “Different Trains,” which, in addition to moving me deeply at 2 a.m., became my favorite piece of post-modernist music. So I can understand people at a party believing in umbrellas in their drinks. It’s one of those things I’ve never thought about – why do they put umbrellas in tropical drinks, to keep the sun from melting the ice, and though they’re served indoors in the middle of Manhattan winters these days, they remain part of the tradition, like the human appendix or the muscles that give goosebumps or other vestigial traits?
All I can say is that it’s a dark-sounding poem (broad, open vowels, long lines), but hilarious at the same time. An executioner who sees the error of his ways and is hawking his book to prove it – and a guy who can’t stay awake to listen to him. And we’re all on the roof, having a party, believing in umbrellas like truth, justice, and the American way, our consciences clear, while our modern-day executioners swing the axe.