Ritual One

By David Ignatow 1914–1997 David Ignatow
As I enter the theatre the play is going on.   
I hear the father say to the son on stage,   
You’ve taken the motor apart.
The son replies, The roof is leaking.
The father retorts, The tire is flat.
Tiptoeing down the aisle, I find my seat,   
edge my way in across a dozen kneecaps   
as I tremble for my sanity.
I have heard doomed voices calling on god the electrode.   
Sure enough, as I start to sit
a scream rises from beneath me.
It is one of the players.
If I come down, I’ll break his neck,
caught between the seat and the backrest.   
Now the audience and the players on stage,   
their heads turned towards me, are waiting   
for the sound of the break. Must I?
Those in my aisle nod slowly, reading my mind,   
their eyes fixed on me, and I understand   
that each has done the same.
Must I kill this man as the price of my admission   
to this play? His screams continue loud and long.   
I am at a loss as to what to do,
I panic, I freeze.

My training has been to eat the flesh of pig.   
I might even have been able to slit a throat.   
As a child I witnessed the dead chickens
over a barrel of sawdust absorbing their blood.   
I then brought them in a bag to my father   
who sold them across his counter. Liking him,
I learned to like people and enjoy their company too,
which of course brought me to this play.   
But how angry I become.
Now everybody is shouting at me to sit down,   
sit down or I’ll be thrown out.
The father and son have stepped off stage
and come striding down the aisle side by side.   
They reach me, grab me by the shoulder   
and force me down. I scream, I scream,   
as if to cover the sound of the neck breaking.

All through the play I scream
and am invited on stage to take a bow.
I lose my senses and kick the actors in the teeth.

There is more laughter
and the actors acknowledge my performance with a bow.   
How should I understand this?
Is it to say that if I machine-gun the theatre
from left to right they will respond with applause   
that would only gradually diminish with each death?   
I wonder then whether logically I should kill myself   
too out of admiration. A question indeed,
as I return to my seat and observe a new act
of children playfully aiming their kicks
at each other’s groins.

David Ignatow, “Ritual One” from Against the Evidence: Selected Poems 1934-1994. Copyright © 1993 by David Ignatow. Reprinted with the permission of Wesleyan University Press.

Source: Against the Evidence: Selected Poems 1934-1994 (Wesleyan University Press, 1993)

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Poet David Ignatow 1914–1997

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Subjects Arts & Sciences, Theater & Dance

 David  Ignatow


David Ignatow is remembered as a poet who wrote popular verse about the common man and the issues encountered in daily life. In all, he wrote or edited more than twenty-five books and was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial Prize and Robert Frost Medal, the Bollingen Prize, and the John Steinbeck Award. Early in his career he worked in a butcher shop. He also helped out in . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Arts & Sciences, Theater & Dance

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

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