After I wrote New Year of the Trees, I started to contemplate what to write about next. I had heard about how at least 4% of inmates on “Death Row” are found to be innocent of the crimes for which they were sentenced to death.
I started to wonder what it would feel like to be innocent and sentenced to death. I tried to imagine the sense of powerlessness “against the machine” – even if the person had been highly skilled or capable prior to the dreadful moment of arrest and judgement. There would be a true “before” and “after” that terrible day.
I tried to imagine the trepidation with which one might file an appeal: “did I use the right form? Did I use the right wording? Am I appealing to the right person?” Imagine how that would feel with death on the line!
At some point, I started to imagine this wrongly condemned person as Ulysses/Odysseus – I don’t remember why. Thus, this poem is written from the perspective of Ulysses, imagining that after he set off to “strive, seek, find, and not yield” one last time as described in Tennyson’s Ulysses, that he was rounded up somehow, arrested, and condemned to death. The poem Inquest is spoken from his voice, as he struggles in this situation, each stanza a snapshot of a set of feelings I could imagine him voicing.
I used several phrases in this poem from Tennyson’s Ulysses, which was a poem I loved in high school. (See Bereft – Behind the Scenes for more of my feelings about it now.) Phrases in this piece that come from (or echo) Tennyson include:
“That which we are, we are,”
“Weak by time and fate” (here represented as “weak by time and fated ill”),
“As tho’ to breathe were life!” (here represented as “breath is life”), and
“the long day wanes.”
The poem subtitle says it is “after Tennyson” because these events literally come after the imagined events of Tennyson’s poem.
The phrase “Iron heart” echoes wording in Homer’s original, wherein Odysseus says of Penelope before her last trial to verify his identity, “for verily the heart in her breast is of iron.” The axes and arrows in Inquest recall Odysseus proving his ability/identity by firing skillfully through a series of placed axes/ax handles.
Here is an image of an early draft, showing many of the ideas that appeared in the final, finished poem.
Here is a look at Inquest stanza by stanza:
This verse speaks to a sense of powerlessness – for which nothing in the past of even someone highly capable could prepare them.
“Innominate” – made without name. Echoes of the Odysseus returning home incognito/in disguise to his household, but here, truly nameless and powerless.
“Importunate” – echoes of the parable of the Importunate Widow (Luke 18:1-8), though justice was eventually served her after her many appeals.
“Rudderless and anchorless” – these words echo the great sailor, Odysseus. Again, reminding that his past skill and strength is of no value in the present struggle, in which he is powerless, convicted, and facing administrative, state-sanctioned death.
“Against the grain” – echoes the last stanza in Bereft, in which Penelope states that she knows her mettle – the grain of which she is forged.
This verse speaks to the fear I could imagine someone feeling whose life was on the line, where life might depend on filing the right form or standing in the right line, or appealing to the right official. Which queue should I stand in? Which form?
That leads into the next verse. The protagonist says, ok, the forms are filled out in triplicate. I think I got everything stamped right. Now I need to time travel, and there is only one way to time travel, and it’s very slow. “Weak by time and fate”d ill (to capture the phrase from Tennyson’s Ullysses). I imagine this falsely condemned individual shuffling along, acutely listening to the loudspeaker to hear if their number comes up. It’s like the worst day at the DMV, but with life on the line.
This verse is interesting to me. First of all, I woke up one morning with this phrase in my head: “In the atria of low-level officers the press of humanity’s grievances are heard.” That phrase is here because I kept a notebook by my bed and wrote it down. I imagine the protagonist realizing that though life is on the line – the most vital possible consequence – it will be a low-level bureaucrat in a side-office somewhere that will hear the complaint. Totally vital to one party, and mundane work for the other. I loved the contrast. The next line echoes my love for T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song for J. Alfred Prufock:” “I do not think that they will hear me.” In that original, a weary Prufock imagines mermaids (“I do not think that they will sing to me”), just as Odysseus/Ulysses might (Ulysses who had hoped to hear one more siren song) – and knows he’ll be unheard. But here – Ulysses does not believe his appeal will be heard or understood. In fact, there has been a fundamental misunderstanding, as outlined in the end of this verse. “My plowshare, my pruning hook, my winnowing fan mistook.” – This echoes a Biblical verse (Isaiah 2:4),
“they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks,”
and also echoes Odysseus’ last trial – he had to walk inland with his oar, until it was mistaken for a winnowing fan. Then he could do his last sacrifice and be done.
Here – three objects of peace and settled agriculture (plowshare, pruning hook, and winnowing fan) are mistaken for their literary, military counterparts (sword, spear, oar). This verse indicates that some innocent action was mistaken for a criminal one, or that an innocent person was wrongly convicted. And again, that this person does not expect to be heard.
(And yes, there is double poetic license here. Two grammar errors: “press of humanity’s grievances are heard” likely has incongruence with number, and “mistook” should be “mistaken.” But I felt these phrases would lose their power if stated with correct grammar. I am normally a stickler for grammar, but I let these two “ride.” We have a man condemned to death – his mind is racing furiously. His grammar might not be perfect. We’ll forgive him.)
This verse indicates that no one is completely innocent. In this case, Ulysses/Odysseus has his crimes, but as he exclaims, “Guilty, yes! I don’t deny! But not of these!” I imagine the mind of someone condemned to death racing through a lifetime of actions, and being well aware of their wrongs, and perhaps fearing a divine judgement for these, and yet feeling painfully aware that they are not guilty of the crime for which they are convicted, and feeling desperate for life, desperate to be heard.
As noted, the axes and arrows remind of the trial showing Odysseus’ skill in Homer’s Odyssey. Additionally, the image of an axe ominously placed at the root of a tree is Biblical and betokens judgement (see Matthew 3:10).
“dies infaustus” – The lament of sailors (“unlucky day”), who did not like to set sail on a Friday. He, a sailor, has reached an untimely end – the truest of unlucky days.
“to learn too late that breath is life” – in Tennyson’s Ulysses, Ulysses exclaims “As tho’ to breathe were life!” Here he learns, when facing death, that in fact each breath has tremendous value, and that it is, in fact, life.
“I miss the earth. I miss my wife” – These words are from Elton John’s/Bernie Taupin’s “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time).” This has a personal connection: when I worked long days while I was a chiropractor in the VA about 50 miles from home – often leaving before 7 AM and returning home at 8 PM, I would say this phrase to myself: “I miss the earth so much. I miss my wife” (lyrics from Rocket Man). Here, I imagine the condemned person, staring at cement and iron, missing the earth, and missing the companionship of his wife. Penelope had been faithful for the 20 years he was absent, and he left again (per Tennyson’s Ulysses). And here he realizes that he misses her.
“I came to you a beggar once – a stranger and you took me in.” – This recalls Odysseus returning incognito to his home, as well as Jesus’ language in Matthew 25 (boldface added):
34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Here, the condemned realizes how much he has lost, that he should never have left, that he misses the earth, his wife, his center.
“Your faithfulness should have kept my prow” – Here, he wishes he could take back every action after Tennyson’s Ulysses, and perhaps even the original events in Homer’s Odyssey. He should have “stayed.” (For a powerful lesson on the word “Stay,” see the movie “Interstellar” by Christopher Nolan and the accompanying score by Zimmer, featuring a powerful song titled “Stay.”)
“Iron Heart, the long day wanes. You can move the bed now.” As already described, Odysseus had previously said Penelope had a heart of iron, but here the context has changed. The term is used as a term of endearment, echoing her strength and faithfulness. “The long day wanes” is from Tennyson’s Ulysses, but here the protagonist is facing imminent death. The appeals have failed. And at last, the heart-breaking line: “You can move the bed now.” In Homer’s Odyssey, the last test of Odysseus’ identity is Penelope telling a servant to move the marriage bed for Odysseus to sleep in. He erupts in anger, knowing that the bed cannot be moved – that it is built of a rooted tree, with the house built around it. Here, in Inquest, he says that he will not return. He despairs that their marriage is dissolved in his death, and that the marriage bed is no longer rooted. “You can move the bed now” – after their 20 years of separation, and Penelope’s faithfulness, and all of the trials and journeys – death has found him.
After I finished this poem, unexpectedly writing about Odysseus when I started out contemplating what it would feel like to be innocently condemned, I then wrote a poem imagining Penelope’s reaction to hearing of Odysseus’ demise. That poem is Bereft. Essentially, I imagined Ulysses leaving as Tennyson said he did, being condemned to death here in Inquest, and then Penelope hearing of these events in Bereft. I invite you to read that poem as well. Bereft also has six stanzas, though it is in iambic pentameter to echo Tennyson’s Ulysses.
So, one last note: I really like this poem. However, as seen in the blog post reflecting on 2018, this piece tied for the record of the most rejections in 2018: 11. Here it is in all its despairing contemplation of an inexorable fate. With 11 rejections, it may truly be poetry maybe only my mother might say she loved.