Until The Beast Was Slain

Until The Beast Was Slain

for residents of the Wicomico County Almshouse, 1871-1923


I beheld until the beast was slain
and its body destroyed and given
to the blazing flame.

-Daniel 7:11


Every person within the confines
of Wicomico or Somerset Counties,
Maryland, not being insane,
who has no visible means of maintenance
from property or personal labor
or is not permanently supported
by his or her friends or relatives,
who lives idle, without employment,
& every person who leads
a dissolute or disorderly course
of life & cannot give account
of the means by which he or she procures
a legitimate livelihood, & every nomad,
gypsy, or other person practicing
that which is commonly called
fortune-telling by acts, signs, or omens,
for value or otherwise, or any common
gambler, shall be deemed a vagabond;
& every person who wanders
begging in the limits
of Wicomico or Somerset Counties
from house to house or sits or stands
or takes position in any place
or begs from passersby, either by words
or gestures, shall be deemed
a beggar; & every person who wanders
& lodges in outhouses, sheds,
marketplaces, barracks, barns
or in any public building or in the open air
& has no permanent place
of abode or visible means of maintenance
shall be deemed a vagrant.

II. Preliminary

there are two      small frame
buildings      dilapidated
slave quarters      unsuccessfully
repurposed      rubble erect
for these      dirt counties’
mad whelps      reluctantly
the pity funds      trickle
three colored      & a lone
white patient      my candids
two attendants sir      appearing
almost hostile      there is nothing
wherefore      the deranged
restrained      their countenances
toad-eyed       by my flash


my cold hominy
between the bars for
Herbert who yellow
because the kernels
his feathers like them
boy they say boy
you stare that bird down
like it saint it heal
your slow ass so
when they fist
back my batter-stars
swirling as I keel
whispering Herbert if
they hurt you Jesus
will rend heaven though
mama said no beasts
of air nor land nor sea nor
lilies spinning not
in glory is they arrayed

IV. Wind

a hand      need not splay
near a sash nor      baseboard nor
cracked plaster gaps      one
can sit or      stand or
take position here      & know
the vicious      whip-rush
whoosh of wind      ripping
crusted meal-sack      blankets
off cots to      splay over
floorboards      stooping sir
despite      repugnancy I folded
one wants      an arsenal
of soap      the smears
of feces blood      & there
under one      a pile of teeth

V. Cuffed

stink like shore shad | like cabbage
boiled | July outhouse reeking these
teeth if teeth could grind the slop
my wrists | both them | gnaw them
& rub the stumps against my neck

VI. Orderly

at night her moans to shrieking
sheered you must understand
feeble-minded like the rest
she had these fits her nails
opened forearms like gutted
shad she would lift
her gown & stroke herself
before us without
regard for shame or
propriety you cannot bring
the governor’s little camera
to this remove pretending
that any goodly Christian
elsewhere could stand
the infernal odor or
the pussing scratches night
after goddamn night sir
some liberties I took I
I took until she hushed

VII. Plummet

the deceased      left
bedded      one two days &
the swale skin      jading
a convenience      common
practice      for the undertaker
field gloves      stripping down
this dawn      batty Margaret
ajar I witnessed        the window
her ruffle-rush      plummeting
from stories      up it is
difficult      to conceive sir
that anything      worse in
this state      exists

VIII. Rash

behold the abandonment
down seven country miles
a parched stalk nation

where irrigators flake
vermillion in September’s
relentless drought obliterating

where razor grass weeps
over the concrete blob-base
& headstone skewed

roadside for the asylum
so long reclaimed by weeds
one could fist them out forever

until a rust-dusk blazes
up the spectered rash
its tyranny to deem

there the carriage-creased lane
there the drooped porch stoop
snaggletooth shingles slanting

& there the length of chain
kinked about the throat
of midnight gagging

Adam Tavel recently won the inaugural Permafrost Book Prize for his collection Plash & Levitation, which will be published by the University of Alaska Press in spring 2015. He is also the author of The Fawn Abyss (Salmon Poetry, forthcoming) and the epistolary chapbook Red Flag Up (Kattywompus). Tavel won the 2010 Robert Frost Award, and his recent poems appear in The Massachusetts Review, The Journal, Quarterly West, Passages North, Southern Indiana Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Salamander, among others. At Length previously published his sequence “Where His Lines Run.”

“Until the Beast Was Slain” was inspired in part by “The Use and Implications of Photographs for Mental Health Care Reform: The Maryland State Lunacy Commission State Care Campaign, 1908-1910,” an online exhibit by Dr. Robert W. Schoeberlein, Director of Special Collections at the Maryland State Archives.


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