The Beating of the Falsely Accused

in response to the painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, from his series The Temptations of Solitude

This ash-colored immigrant come
to steal an honest man’s job —
give him the business, why don’t you.
Let every slack muscle learn

what real work feels like,
how it aches & bruises.
Then let him go swimming
with a cast-iron kettle around his neck.

The sanitarium should’ve known better,
trying to hire orderlies from outside.
We’re hungry here.
The sun itself only gets in

a few licks each day,
& the sea eats like a drunk —
a nibble here & a nibble there
to steady itself against the shore.

We’ve all been tenderized.
We marinate in the tall salt cellars —
the rapeseed oil cans —
the cold ovens of our houses,

watch the flickering pilot light
in the corner of the room
& dream of an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Let us pray for the firm

flesh of angels, white,
with eyes that can sprout,
that can finger, that can shove
green fists through the dirt.

Series Navigation← The Righteous Man Surprised by the Devil“Tempations of Solitude” series now half as solitary →

9 Comments


  1. This is powerful and unexpected. The last stanza is a real in-your-face challenge to back up, think again, start over: it reminded me suddenly of Karl Elder’s angel corpses, the same sudden challenging corporeality. Hicks-Jenkins does that too, of course. It’s all flesh.

    Is there something I don’t know about marinades and salt cellars and canisters of rapeseed oil? I have a feeling I may be missing some background there. (I know, you don’t think poems should have footnotes, but humor me, eh? :->)

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  2. Hi Dale – It’s true, I’m about as far from Manichaeism as one can get. All flesh is grass; all grass is holy. Or something like that.

    Is there something I don’t know about marinades and salt cellars and canisters of rapeseed oil?
    Not really. Salt cellar, oil can and oven were what the houses in the painting suggested to me (and of course the one long building remided me of a sanitarium, in part because the lonely landscape seemed like the sort of place in which we prefer to put such things). “Marinate” seemed more fitting than “stew,” as in the expression “stew in his own juices,” because only the longed-for land symbolized by the flickerering pilot light/television ever really gets hot. This is a return to the rawness I’ve felt in some of the other poems.

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  3. It’s a damn fine poem and a powerful partner to Hicks-Jenkins’ painting. You should send him a copy.

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    1. Thanks, Dick. In fact, Clive has generously offered to repost these on his website, along with some poems that other people have written in response to his works. I’ve just asked for a two-month delay on that so I can let the poems, uh, marinate a bit.

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  4. Ah ha! Dick, you clearly don’t know that I’ve been haunting Via Negativa, following the progress of these poems like a stalker. It’s been a wild ride, and exciting to witness Dave succeeding triumphantly with the themes that caused me such endless headaches when I was working on the series back in 2004. Always good to have done with your own work when someone else is burning the midnight oil. (-; Sorry Dave!

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  5. I think it’s rare that two art forms make a successful marriage, but it’s definitely happening in this series. Very exciting.

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  6. Hey Dave–

    Finally getting around to reading the Clive-poems. I’m just as buried as before but it’s been niggling at me! Shall come back and read more later. This one I’d like with the image because of stanza 5 especially. I like those enormous things, sun and sea, licking and nibbling and made at once small and large.

    Why is it that Clive’s paintings are such fun to write about? They seem to have a lot of room for rambling in them–secrets and extra corners. Is that it? Also, they’re so narrative, something that’s been o-u-t for too long in painting.

    I’ll be back for more…

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    1. Hi, Marly! Thanks for letting me know which parts worked for you. I think you’re right about the secrets and odd corners. The narrative aspect made them challenging for me, but I do enjoy a good challenge.

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