Sweeney Among the Straight Razors
after T.S. Eliot
Switchblade Sweeney sweeps his floors—
grey curls and stubbly foam, stray molars'
snaggle roots, their pitted tops decayed
down to the stringing pulp. He hums
balladeer; Scarborough Fair, Greensleeves,
lampblack hair bound back to scrub and scour,
lips summer-chapped, eyes sleepless-rubbed, but clear.
The nightingales are singing in the eaves
and from the shop below, the swirl of starch
the onion sting and clink of ale, the chop
chop chop of carrot, shell of peas.
The unmistakable waft of oregano.
On palm and knee he pigeon-picks each hair,
each fleck of flesh, each shred of cuticle,
a writhing leech replaced in her glass bowl.
So much work to be done with surgeon's care
he near forgets the bigger mess—the man
ash-cheeked, exsanguinate, distressed
upon the chair. His fingers cramped to claws
even in death. The blood spreads everywhere.
Straight-edged Sweeney sighs like bakehouse smoke
and dips his rag into the lavabo.
The water drizzles gristle—like the pulp
that Mrs. Lovett folds into her pies.
Hair, teeth and surgery; the little things
school one in patience and respect. The way
the razor pares the flesh, the fallow bones
blasted from age and bodily neglect;
musculature of thorax, thigh and back;
mucous-machinery of myelin;
gut avenues beneath the stomach trap;
ghost lungs that in their silence lie
like lovers in dread of discovery.
The steel-jawed barber wonders, what is man
(steadily as he carves), but sallow skin
gilding all this gross anatomy
as truth is buttered up in flattery
and crust covers Mrs. Lovett's pies?
How easy, then, it is to slice the meat,
drop it down the shaft, fetch broom and sweep?
His work almost complete, serrated Sweeney
Magpie-picks the leavings for the gruel.
The day is done, and cruel things still are cruel.
The day is done, and smoke churns from the chimney.
From bone to skin, men are monstrosities.
The nightingales sing in the laurel trees.