Two Poems

Respectably Transgressive

“Your verse is not transgressive,” said a team
Of editors who oversaw my work.
“It doesn’t cause the bourgeoisie to scream;
It doesn’t flash a cool postmodern smirk
At old assumptions, attitudes, or notions.
A poem has to break down some taboo,
Give vent to dark, implacable emotions—
But that’s just what your poems do not do.”
And so I whetted each line: made them bite
And slash and hack and amputate and slice.
The editors grew tremulous and white,
Coughed gently, and rephrased their first advice:
“No satire, violence, hatred, drugs, or whoring—
Transgression must be decorous, and boring.”

L’Etat C’est Nous

The oddest thing about the
American polity is that it is run
by an arrogant upscale elite
that fancies itself “progressive.”
                   —Derek Burgoyne
O we are the sanctified liberals;
We nurture democracy’s flame—
We point out the pathway to virtue
And make sure you follow the same.
We keep to the tasteful dead center;
We banish from thought and from sight
Those strangely upsetting proposals
You hear from the left and the right.
Responsible leaders and parties
Repair to us, begging for aid—
For we give the Stamp of Approval
To all that is decent and staid.
The publishing houses and networks
Comply with our dictates benign.
We like editorial pages
To follow the moderate line.
There are a few barbarous holdouts.
We haven’t got under our hat
Some renegade radio stations,
But we are still working on that.
Credentialling is our main weapon—
You won’t get ahead in your field
Unless we conclude your intentions
Are congruent with our ideal.
Our watchwords are justice and fairness—
The freedom lamp, lit and aglow,
Is held aloft at our conventions
And yet there’s a thing you should know:
These egalitarian trappings
Do not make us part of the mass.
Our status, our wealth, and our merit
Mean we are the governing class.
We want public schools to be funded
(The poor have in us a great friend)
Though Andover, Groton, and Choate
Are where our own children attend.
We force housing laws down the throats of
The evil white working-class hordes,
While we live in luxury condos
Where tenants are vetted by boards.
We issue all policy guidelines
And say when a war is required,
Though none of our sons will be ordered
To fields where live ammo is fired.
O we are the sanctified liberals;
Remember our rank, and your place—
And never presume for a moment
The world doesn’t run by our grace.

About Joseph S. Salemi

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, the Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.