{An Umbrella Special Feature}

George Witte

has published two collections of poems, The Apparitioners (2005) and Deniability (2009), both from Orchises Press.

Poems from a third manuscript in progress have been published or are forthcoming in Nimrod, Ploughshares, Southwest Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Yale Review.

He works as the editor in chief of St. Martin’s Press, and lives with his wife and their two daughters in New Jersey.

—Back to CSM Contents/Issue Links—

Classical Subjects

In the painting, Apollo flays
the beast that challenged his divine
supremacy of song. Bright-eyed
as a child, curious to know,
he peels back flaps of skin. Each cut’s
calculated, screams extracted
like purest harp notes, lines of verse
in every fresh incision.
Delicate but firm, his pale hands
play upon the hairy body
swart with dirt, disagreeable,
miscast at foot and ear, brow lined
with origins still unrefined.
He would gladly heal this creature
if surgery cured presumption,
remove whatever gland or lobe
aspired beyond its rightful sphere.
His technique is impeccable.
His instrument glitters with fire.
A crowd has gathered to admire
his work, enlightened by a guide.
Notice the cunning little cat
to lap the blood—an artist’s touch.
Behind the tree that binds the beast
(impastoed bark so thick its grain
seems real), rich Tuscan land recedes,
an exercise in perspective.
The god pauses. His masterpiece
might require another brush stroke.
He stays the sun for better light.
These things take time if they’re to last.

It wasn’t what you people think.
The pictures made us animals,
our tongues protruding red and slick,
eyes too, like they’d been fingernailed.
You can’t imagine what it’s like,
I’ve never felt so in control,
so free, outside myself but there,
invisible, the camera
my magic shield or spy’s disguise.
Things got out of hand, whatever—
some itch that didn’t satisfy.
We stripped and hosed the terrorists,
positioned them curled sixty nine,
you know the drill. We trained the dogs
to ask the whereabouts of ___________:
that name they fear and won’t reveal,
like God’s. No names for anything.
We were following procedure.
When you’re starved for information
even screaming sounds like music.


In the subway’s fecund coffin
I planned this poem like a brief,
collecting evidence against
humanity’s inheritance.
My thinking was distracted when
a beggar entering the car
announced his plight in quiet song.
(Why can’t he get a job? one said.)
He walked the aisle; all watched but none
acknowledged him. In front of me—
beneath my notebook’s tidy lines
his feet were flayed—he paused: Yo, chief.
I wouldn’t look. He touched my arm,
a violation. Summoning
my coldest gaze, superior
with intellect, I met his eyes:
all blood and mucous, the body’s
last-ditch desperate remedies.
I don’t know what he saw in mine.
He shuffled on. My poem lost,
I cursed his touch until my stop.


[Originally published in Deniability, Orchises Press, 2009.]