I’m walking behind my friends after a night on the town,
and they’re not only shambling but weaving from side to side,
sometimes together, like over-the-hill soul singers
trying to regroup after years of pursuing failed solo careers,
and sometimes in different directions, like criminals
who’ve forgotten they’re chained together,
like sailors on their last night of shore leave before a voyage to,
I don’t know, Van Diemen’s Land, and they’ll lose their fingers
in the rigging, and their teeth will fall out,
and they’ll be flogged so hard they won’t remember their own names.
So much pain out there, and almost none of it ours.
the sailors had plenty of it, and so did the aborigines
sleeping naked as babies on the banks of the Ouse
until the white men arrived, hungry and scared
and toothless and looking for somebody to take it out on.
Once my father asked me if I knew what S&M was,
and I was too embarrassed to say yes, so I said no,
and he said he thought it might stand for “Sadism & Masochism,”
but if that’s the case, why not just say so?
Why don’t people say what they mean? Why don’t they behave?
Even in our time, the world is a choir of angels one day,
and the next thing you know, it’s the Raft of the Medusa,
with neither boat nor land on the horizon, not even a bird
in the air to throw a stick at, and everyone
is sizing everyone else up, wondering who’s weak enough to eat.
They’re still shambling, the guys, and not like first-time shamblers,
either. At least they’re not vomiting. That’s the worst, isn’t it,
vomiting? One minute you’re making the most divine conversation,
like Jeremy Northam in some Regency comedy of manners,
the next you’re horking up the contents of your entire stomach.
Now the children of the sailors’ sons and daughters are married
to the children of the daughters and sons of the Big River tribe,
and Van Diemen’s Land is Tasmania, that is to say, Australia.
Yesterday a student told me he likes to take the “drunk bus”
because “it’s fun and you can meet girls on it — drunk girls.”
We’re not allowed to meet drunk girls, my friends and I,
and the drunk girls know it; they sail past in their expensive cars,
and none stops. God, see us to our beds — that’s your job!
And you, Sergeant Sleep, lay on us your scourge,
your knout, your flail, your lash, your many-headed cat.
David Kirby is Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University and a well-known poet who writes what he calls “talk poems.” “Van Diemen’s Land” is reprinted by permission of LSU Press from The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems. Copyright 2007 David Kirby. The drawing of the author was done by Barbara Neely Bourgoyne.