What the Ventriloquists Said

By Cole Swensen b. 1955 Cole Swensen
amid the growing craze for automatons
The voice within the device that moves      is not
                                                              (as if nothing human
could be quite that moving) My precious edgling: though
the answers be given by a man concealed,
                                        these are speaking machines.
                                        They were risking their lives.
Usually a woman or a child, who woke up inside the oracle,
who swallowed the burning oil, and who forces the idols to speak?
                                        Though when the bishop Theophilus
broke open the statues at Alexandria, he found them hollow
                                        it does not necessarily follow that
The penalty for trickery was death.
                                        Such is the wealth of belief.
                                        Behind a finely painted sheet of shell
a voice unlatched surrounds the world.

Cole Swensen, “What the Ventriloquists Said” from Goest. Copyright © 2004 by Cole Swensen. Reprinted by permission of Alice James Books.

Source: Goest (Alice James Books, 2004)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Cole Swensen b. 1955

Subjects Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Mythology & Folklore

Poetic Terms Free Verse


Poet Cole Swensen was born and raised near San Francisco, and has since lived in Santa Cruz, California, London, England, Paris, France, and Denver, Colorado, working as a translator, editor, copywriter, and teacher. She began teaching at an alternative high school while in her early twenties and has since taught in community colleges and universities. She began teaching full-time at the University of Denver in 1996 and is the . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Mythology & Folklore

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.