Death Revises Badly

Claire Schwartz

In the Old Dictator's obituary, a charming anecdote—When the Old Dictator was a boy, his father saved his wagesfor a month to buy his son a watch. The boy, in turn,turned back the watch's hands every day for a monthso his father wouldn't lose time on his account.Remember—Before he was the Old Dictator, he was a babybabbling. Now he speaks three languages,thanks to his time in the army. After genocide,he took up painting. "His paintings manifest a mangrappling," the Curator attests, buys seven.When the Dictator scorned the Old Dictator,the townspeople awarded the Old Dictatora new title: Empathetic."Look at that soft power," a townswoman cooed."Bruised like peaches from the half-off bin."The townspeople collected their best languageto offer the Empathetic Dictator.The Empathetic Dictator was not home.(He had gone to play golf with the Dictator.)The townspeople left their gift on his stoop.When the Empathetic Dictator returned, he adorned himselfwith the townspeople's best language. He commissioned a photo,which he turned into Christmas cards. The townspeopledisplayed the cards on their mantlepieces.One day, the photo finds the homepage. The Empathetic Dictator has died,the newspaper reports. The townspeople are sad. The townspeople readof their sadness on tiny screens.How tender the old rule appears when you hold it up to the present like a cashierturning a hundred-dollar bill toward the light, squinting, proclaiming it Real.

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Beowulf Sheehan

Claire Schwartz is the author of Civil Service (Graywolf Press, 2022) and the culture editor of Jewish Currents. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Nation, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. Claire is the recipient of a Whiting Award for Poetry and a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Brooklyn.

“Part of Schwartz’s undertaking here is to dissect the role of language in empire and, in so doing, to consider poetry’s ability to communicate directly with the reader and keep them from turning away.”
—Layla Benitez-James, Harriet Books

Civil Service is a palimpsest of our injured and injurious time. . . . Claire Schwartz reveals the potent work of language that distills the clutter of the world’s corrupt orders into an urgent wisdom. Here is a poet of astonishing openness, who flees no corner where power lurks unexamined.”
—Canisia Lubrin

“We’ve all heard the cliché ‘poems are bombs.’ But Claire Schwartz’s incendiaries whisper hard truths and harder questions, beckoning us closer, seeping gently into our consciousness before exploding the passive and placid thinking that allow us to go about our ‘normal’ lives. Civil Service shines a bright light onto a dark world ruled by property, prisons, patriarchy, and profit.”
—Robin D. G. Kelley

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