The Truth, Mainly - 08/26/1991

Examples of poetic justice can be found everywhere
by Leon Satterfield

"Whose heart," I ask, holding up the newspaper, "is not soon made glad by this AP story?"

"Robert Browning," my wife says, her nose still in the crossword puzzle. "'My Last Duchess.'"

"Huh?" I say.

"You're quoting poetry again," she says. "The Duke says the Duchess' heart is 'too soon made glad' so he kills her off. You've been teaching English so long you quote poetry without even knowing it. That's why you sound so funny when you talk. What AP story?"

"This one," I say, "about the Seattle boy who tried to steal gasoline out of a motor home but stuck his siphon hose in the sewage tank instead of the gasoline tank."

"You would like that story," she says. "Just like you liked the one about the Iowa Pork Queen getting hit in the face with a pie by someone wearing a pig suit. You saw archetypal patterns in that one."

"Listen," I say. "This sewage tank story is a classic case of poetic justice. You know — where vice gets punished and virtue gets rewarded and the punishment grows out of the vice and the reward grows out of the virtue."

"Nice arrangement," she says. "Is it called poetic justice because it only happens in poetry?"

"Not at all," I say. "It happens all around us every day, but only poets and English teachers are sensitive enough to see it."

She sighs and looks at something on the ceiling.

"It's clear, isn't it," I say, "that the boy is so blinded spiritually by his lust for gasoline that he physically cannot distinguish between potent fossil fuel and impotent waste left over from the burning of human fuel. The corruption in the sewage tank is an apt metaphor for the corruption in his soul, so it's altogether fitting that he be humiliated by having it befoul his lips. It's as allegorically charged as passages in 'The Inferno' or 'The Miller's Tale.'"

"Is this going to be on the test?" she asks.

"And moreover," I say, "This is not just a piece of late 20th century grotesquery as it were; it's a reaffirmation of an eternal verity, a stunning demonstration that even in our crass and jaded post-Christian modern world of today, vice gives birth to its own punishment as surely as virtue initiates its own reward. It's all fearfully symmetrical."

I pause to let that sink in and she raises her hand.

"Yes," I say. "You in the front row."

"Does that mean, sir," she says, "that nice guys finish first and rotten guys finish last?"

"On a laughably elementary level," I say, "that formulation would not be inconsistent with the theory of poetic justice."

'That," she says. "is the silliest damned thing I ever heard of. And it explains why you're so befuddled all the time. You must be constantly confused when rotten guys finish first and nice guys finish last What about some of the other stories in the paper? Do you see poetic justice in them?"

"Here's one," I say, "about a farm boy who fell off his John Deere and it kept going without him right through the chicken house and killed 18 hens and three roosters."

"Wicked chickens?" she asks. "Evil farm boy?"

"No, I guess not," I say. "They're all from Kansas."

"Read another one," she says.

"Here's a guy who won $2 million in the New Jersey lottery," I say.

"A guy who really deserved it?" she says. "Reward for his virtue and all that?"

"I don't think so," I say. "He's from New Jersey."

"Well turn to the financial page," she says. "Surely there's poetic justice in American capitalism."

"Here's a story about ConAgra," I say. "Record profits in fiscal 1991."

She sighs and looks at the ceiling again.

"You know what I think?" she says finally. "I think English teachers made up poetic justice so they wouldn't have to worry about real justice. That way, they can lay around reading dead poets and tell themselves that everything's going to be all right."

"Lie," I say. "You need an intransitive verb there. In the present tense 'lay' is transitive. 'Lie' is intransitive."

"I take that back," she says. "You lay around reading dead poets and worrying about whether people say 'lay' or 'lie.' But you don't worry about real justice because you figure everybody gets what they deserve through poetic justice. You think like Republicans."

"That," I say, "is the most unkindest cut of all."

"'Julius Caesar,' Act III, scene 2," she says, her voice growing weary. "Would it be poetic justice to stuff one of those redundant superlatives up each of your nostrils? You're a pretty good husband, but if you can't stop talking funny, why don't you just stop talking?"

I stop talking.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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