The Compromised Ventriloquist

1

Gastromancy, vibration in the gut
….. Tuned to the presence of the dead,
Possessed the medium to utter what,
….. Digested, triggered hope or dread

In questioners delighted or aghast
….. At all they thought they finally knew.
To tell the future or reveal the past
….. Was dangerous. The darkest clue

Doomed sacrificial youths and beasts.
….. Dim ravings, guttural, abrupt,
Translated to hexameters by priests
….. In versions polished and corrupt

Proved riddles no less difficult to crack.
….. The truth was rarely clear or kind.
Cautious Lysander wound up stabbed in the back,
….. Croesus conquered, Oedipus blind.

2

What once was supernatural decree
….. Became, in time, a party trick
Crowds at the music halls would pay to see.
….. The animated dumb sidekick,

Charlie McCarthy, Sailor Jim, or Coster Joe,
….. Though just a cheeky, wiseass puppet,
Would show his straight man up throughout the show,
….. Flip every quibble and one up it.

Oracular enshrinement? Oh so past.
….. Ventriloquy was entertainment.
Magic was stagecraft, voice the artful cast.
….. Nobody wondered what the strain meant.

3

Nearing the scribbled end, he took the stage,
….. The compromised ventriloquist,
His bare-bones theater the haunted page.
….. Obscurity, “uncouthe unkiste,”

Held no protection from the talking dead.
….. No charm or curse could exorcise
The choir of sirens singing in his head
….. Inspiring another exercise.

His “own distinctive style” at last? Dream on.
….. Some stuff he made up, sure. But then
Those ghostly demarcations would stream on
….. Flooding his studio again

To wash him up and out and down the drain.
….. Too influential, they impressed
And he was pressed. But why complain
….. About not being self-possessed?

Conspiring to imprison him for years,
….. Through harmony and ornament
The arch conductors of the crystal spheres
….. Abused him as their instrument.

Black magic? Maybe. Cheating? Well, that too.
….. Who’s talking? Uh oh. Hold the phone.
He was the dummy they kept speaking through
….. In words that were and weren’t his own.

Joseph Harrison

Joseph Harrison

Joseph Harrison’s sixth book of poems, Sometimes I Dream That I Am Not Walt Whitman, will be published by Waywiser in March, 2020. He has received a Guggenheim fellowship and an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and his books have twice been a finalist for the Poets’ Prize. He has directed the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize since its inception in 2006. He lives in Baltimore.
Joseph Harrison

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Author: Joseph Harrison

Joseph Harrison’s sixth book of poems, Sometimes I Dream That I Am Not Walt Whitman, will be published by Waywiser in March, 2020. He has received a Guggenheim fellowship and an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and his books have twice been a finalist for the Poets’ Prize. He has directed the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize since its inception in 2006. He lives in Baltimore.