The Circle of Tyrants (selections from Caligulan)

On March 4, 2017 by admin

Ernest Hilbert


Siege of Fort Mifflin (Battle of Mud Island)

A squadron of the vaunted British empire

Fell prey to mud, to wind and vengeful fire.

A ship-of-the-line ran aground and burned here,

Bombed by batteries on shore. Seeking to retire,

A sloop named Merlin stuck fast in the mire,

As Isis, Roebuck, and Pearl circled near.


Today, sparkling like swirls of fish spawn,

Undulating armadas of plastic—

Unsinkable cups, trays, strips, and bottles,

Restless, as if alive. When we are gone,

Will these tokens foretell drastic

Efforts to win new kinds of battles?


The air is heavy and wet, and I stand

Uneasily in this humid marshland.

I float in the aura of a gas giant,

Cast in its corona, watching vacant

Spacecraft cluster like trash into orbit,

Like casings of shells that failed in flight.



Save Earth

We thought they came from distant moons.

We couldn’t tell at first if they had eyes,

But we learned they have mouths. Big ones. Good God!

A storm of great worms squirms across the skies.

We wondered if they were loosed by ancient runes

Or slithered through some blurry dimensional door.

Then we thought maybe earth, that they had clawed

From a blistering crack in the seafloor.


Now we know they were planted eons ago,

Right here, and come to claim their rightful place.

They pour into our wrecked cities and grow.

They smash bridges, dams, and soon this very base.

They’ve neutralized our weapons, but we’re one

Step from being saved! Behold, Mr. President,

One of these will save us. Just one, and they’re done.

We’re ready. We need only your permission

To deploy, and drive these things away,

But we have to do it now, now, before they . . .


Apparition at Moss-Hanne

Ospreys orbit here, ruling as lords

Their drowned domains. We row watercourses

Through miles of lily pads, hoards

Of hemlock, spruce groves, and grim fortresses

Of alder swamp. Millions of years flood

This place, where salamanders slide in mud.

Our Depression-era log cabin warms

When we return in rain. As the storm passes,

We stir fire from damp wood. It squirms and thirsts

In muggy air, struggles up and catches barks.

The pit smokes. A winding helix of sparks

Climbs when a wet log pops and bursts

Its musty treasure of grubs to the furnace.

Above, a colonnade of oak glows and forms

Like candles on cathedral triforia.

The flames are my phantasmagoria.

Higher, a cloud, like a skull, with a grin

Too mild to scare, masks the moon.

It sheers Apart in light to frost, feather, fin—

A thing that never slows and always nears.


The Victory Stele of Narām-Sîn

This lecture insults the king. Is he merely

One more item to be addressed as if not

Present or no longer alive? His force

Is renewed by death. He knows what is yearly

Replanted will grow best from mud and rot,

What pours long enough returns to a source.

The surly king storms out, eager for rebirth,

Quick dawn from darkness, but this equinox

Is one of misalliance, disarray.

There is no eclipse. No magic is worth

This much. No longer the waking and long walks,

No longer the sun to etch the skies, weigh

The hours with consequence, mark the slow

End of things. Not now. His is a sour star,

A sick land, thimble ziggurats by which flow

Veins of black space, singing, and no longer far.



Circle of the Tyrants

Unscrew the metal pegs that spur the stock.

The strings go slack and spool from courses,

Unwind and curl useless as railway track

Pulled up by an army. Embrace the neck

And swab from fret to saddle, feel forces

Vanished but yearning always to fly back.

For now, tuneless, the black body stretches

Like a swan murdered on a muddy bank,

Songless until restrung. Unleash new strings.

Pull high E to a finger joint. It etches

Small lines in skin, thin enough to kill. Still lank,

Low E, gold wound for kings, binds like a ring;

The strings are tools, tribute to horse and swan,

Till, tensed and tuned, transmuted to weapon.


Your bank calls. Events begin to register

Some unwelcome forecast. The dreamy nurses

Switch to Goodfellas on the overhead TV.

The omens come and signs are sinister.

Texts go unreturned. You’re out of coffee.

The Olympian Jupiter curses.

In sleep, a great toe kicks you back to earth.

The slaves stage a play about the Under

World. The smoke alarm fails, and your computer crashes.

Your favorite gladiator is lashed

For theft, lightning blackens your temple,

thunder Sinks your song, because, like the day of birth,

The day you’ll wake and have your death is set,

But just hasn’t, just hasn’t happened yet.



Behind us all an ancient king gone blind,
Who gropes at books, beside a queen who’s lost
Her once-worshiped beauties, her taunting songs,
And all her appetites, save that for sleep.
Conceits as well have dimmed, lost hawk and hind,
And what was spent is only felt as cost.
They find they hear no more the wind that long
Ago propelled their fields to drought, put sheep
Into the earth, when rainfall loosened soil,
And, if they still recall our names and days
We took the games and shook the eaves with roars,
And laughed until we were emptied of breath,
They know we carried with us hurt and toil,
And voyaged far to get where flocks could graze,
Found humor, even happiness, in wars,
And kindness, as well, and life, in kind, in death.



Ice Dwellers Watching the Invaders

The ship is locked beneath frozen mountains.
It crunches by inches against white floes.
Its masts are bare cold poles of long-stripped tents,
Its silhouette a stalagmite, its rows

Of furled sails, half-mast, sagging like bellies
Over the black pedestal of the hull.
Five seals splash and plunge near the icy shore.
Tubes of blood and blubber, they oar

The arctic waters, float in the ship’s reflection
As it leans and groans on the frozen
Depths. In its dark hold are harpoons, clubs, one gun.
Snow that took the color of the late sun

Just as easily accepts its absence.
Nothing seems to happen. A polar bear
Is unconcerned with the peculiar presence.
Nothing would dare challenge

The terrible essence of his deadly kingdom.
What could kill more easily? And what for?


O, our expressions grim, so serious!

And menacing, as if we’re benching weights

Or gravely working at a car’s engine.

We strive to seem mysterious

And sometimes truly entered altered states,

Burned up with rude bolts of adrenaline.

The drums command the stage like big black guns

Upon a fortress. Dwarfed by Marshall stacks,

We swing our greasy hair like myrmidons

Thrashing at rival columns. Ten hot suns

Assembled above make steam of sweat, axe

And archery, broadsword, emblem, and bronze

Armor. We swarm in smoke, crude ghosts, chthonic,

Striving, one solstice, to make ourselves mythic.



The water gives nothing back. A child squeals

“Where’s the monster?” She’s jubilant

But braced impatiently for disappointment.


I track the peat-blackened surface but glimpse

Nothing in its fossil depths, just froth

From screws that churn the loch to cola fizz.


We chug toward the coral reaches of the castle,

Hugged by mountains, buoyed on the abyssal trench,

Oil-bath sheen all around. Saurian cumuli


Lumber down the sky. Hidden in the black, I know,

Lurk centuries of eel, char, and fanged pike,

But where is our monster, the one we thought


Would always be there somewhere, though hidden?

The tiny girl in pink stamps her silver slippers.

No monster today, or ever. I catch the shallow

Smudges of my face in the cabin window.



Ernest Hilbert is a poet, rare book dealer, and opera librettist. He lives in Philadelphia. He is also Professor at World of Versecraft: Western State Colorado University’s MA/MFA in Poetry.

Comments are closed.