Nightwatchman's Song

By W. D. Snodgrass 1926–2009

After Heinrich I. F. Biber


What’s unseen may not exist—   
Or so those secret powers insist   
            That prowl past nightfall,   
Enabled by the brain’s blacklist   
            To fester out of sight,   

So we streak from bad to worse,   
Through an expanding universe   
            And see no evil.   
On my rounds like a night nurse   
            Or sentry on qui vive,   

I make, through murkier hours, my way   
Where the sun patrolled all day   
            Toward stone-blind midnight   
To poke this flickering flashlamp’s ray   
            At what’s hushed up and hidden.   

Lacking all leave or protocol,   
Things, one by one, hear my footfall,   
            Blank out their faces,   
Dodge between trees, find cracks in walls   
            Or lock down offices.   

Still, though scuttling forces flee   
Just as far stars recede from me   
            To outmost boundaries,   
I stalk through ruins and debris,   
            Graveyard and underground.   

Led by their helmetlantern’s light   
Miners inch through anthracite;   
            I’m the unblinking mole   
That sniffs out what gets lost or might   
            Slip down the world’s black hole.   


(ending his rounds, the watchman, somewhat tipsy, returns)

What’s obscene?—just our obsessed,   
Incessant itch and interest   
      In things found frightful:   
In bestial tortures, rape, incest;   
      In ripe forbidden fruit   

Dangling, lush, just out of reach;   
Dim cellars nailed up under each   
      Towering success,   
The loser’s envy that will teach   
      A fierce vindictiveness,   

The victors’ high court that insures   
Pardon for winners and procures   
      Little that’s needed   
But all we lust for. What endures?—   
      Exponential greed   

And trash containers overflowing   
With shredded memos, records showing   
      What, who, when, why   
’Til there’s no sure way of knowing   
      What’s clear to every eye:   

The heart’s delight in hatred, runny   
As the gold drip from combs of honey;   
      The rectal intercourse   
Of power politics and money   
      That slimes both goal and source.   

What’s obscured?—what’s abscessed.   
After inspection, I’d suggest   
      It’s time we got our head   
Rewired. I plan to just get pissed,   
      Shitfaced and brain-dead.

W.D. Snodgrass, “Nightwatchman’s Song” from Poetry 183 (2003). Copyright © 2003 by W.D. Snodgrass. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Poetry (October 2003).


This poem originally appeared in the October 2003 issue of Poetry magazine

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October 2003
 W. D. Snodgrass


W. D. Snodgrass is often credited with being one of the founding members of the "confessional" school of poetry, even though he dislikes the term confessional and does not regard his work as such. Nevertheless, his Pulitzer Prize-winning first collection, Heart's Needle, has had a tremendous impact on that particular facet of contemporary poetry. "Like other confessional poets, Snodgrass is at pains to reveal the repressed, . . .

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