Contract Murder

No one is ever quite sure how it’s planned—
What’s clear is that a grievance is expressed
By injured parties, who directly make
Complaints to the Commission, which in turn
Investigates, considers, and decides.
There are some instances where no one brings
Specific charges—bad blood or distrust
Hamper a business, and to clear the air
Someone proposes purgative redress.
In any case, should the Commission find
Cause for coercive measures of the sort
That silence all discussion instantly,
Nothing is done at first. Nothing at all.
Deliberations simply cease, as if
A seminar on Plato’s Dialogues
Came to some small conclusion, and moved on
To deal with matters equally abstruse.
Then slowly, as the weeks pass into months,
Word of the sentence filters through the ranks.
Even now there may be a reprieve:
Someone speaks up defending the accused,
Or points out circumstances that require
Different procedures, or at least delay.
A friend might offer mediation, while
Others may bring up facts that the Commission
Had not known, and so at every step
The thing can be reversed. But, barring these,
Consensus and a general will are formed
About its patent, plain necessity.
What happens now is anybody’s guess—
Myriad factors operate, but gears
Begin to mesh. Small signs can be observed:
The man from Philadelphia who knows
A cousin of the felon in Detroit
Slips out of town discreetly. Or perhaps
An unnamed party visits for a week,
Lives in a basement room, plays solitaire.
The telephone seems quirky in its rings—
Hands rush to silence it, and single words
Constitute conversations. Tempers fray,
There is finality in every sigh.
Soon afterwards, the focus of this stir
Turns an ignition key in his parked car,
Or walks along an unfrequented street,
Or lifts his head before an open window,
Or stops to advise a tall, accosting stranger.
The scene is immaterial, the means
Standard, though pains are taken that they be
Sudden, unlooked for, and unstoppable.
At the Commission, dinner is subdued—
A few quick whispers tie up the loose ends.
And the police, who do not for an instant
Suppose they can unravel what occurred,
Stretch yellow tape to form a small enclosure,
Since that is standardized routine as well.

From Formal Complaints (Somers Rocks Press, 1997)



Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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The Society of Classical Poets does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or commentary.

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17 Responses

  1. Brian A Yapko

    This poem is riveting on multiple levels, Joe. There is, of course, the cinematic narrative: The Decision; The Long Wait; The Execution. But what is extraordinarily chilling about this poem is the use of neutral, legalistic language which makes the entire nefarious, criminal event seem almost clinical. It’s quite frightening in its “business is business” implications — implications which may well have contemporary political reach far beyond the context you’ve depicted (even though you wrote this over 25 years ago.) Who knows what awful things take place in the corridors of power? But when all is said and done, I’m reminded of Hyman Roth chastising Michael Corleone: “This is the profession we have chosen.”

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Brian, I deliberately composed this piece in the most impersonal, neutral, non-judgmental, cold-fish style that I could summon up. I wanted it to be free from all outrage, all moral condemnation, and all oratory.

      You’ve hit the nail right on the head — professional murder by organized crime is a profession like any other in its devotion to efficiency and neatness, and the careful weighing of necessities and requirements. This is why such murders are almost never solved by the police, unless one criminal betrays another (and that is a low-level phenomenon, pretty much unheard of in the upper echelons of racketeering).

      I hadn’t thought of Hyman Roth’s chilling words to Michael Corleone, but they are exactly on point.

  2. Sally Cook

    Like the padded paws of an evil cat, tracking some unsuspecting creature, I follow a plan that is not a plan.
    Joe Salemi excels at this sort of thing, which I like very much.

    Fine poem.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you so much, Sally. Pleasing you poetically is one of my purposes in life.

      • Sally Cook

        Thank you so much, Joe. To have someone like you , who already knows everything, say something like that to me == — well you have my deepest thanks !.

  3. Shaun C. Duncan

    I’m so glad to see this published online so I can send the link to some of my friends! I commented under Margaret Coats’ most recent piece that when I first read your poem many years ago it completely changed my idea of what poetry could be. It’s not just that it seemed an unusual and exciting subject matter for a poem to me, but that the cool, metered verse, the sparse yet carefully-selected detail and the detached, almost bureaucratic tone, actually managed to breathe new life into a subject so burdened with Hollywood cliche. I have re-read it several times since then and it’s lost none of its power. I’m sure you’ve written many better in the intervening years, but this is a magnificent poem.

  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    Thank you, Shaun. It was your exchange with Margaret Coats that prompted me to submit the poem to Evan Mantyk here at the SCP.

    I also hoped it might show readers that poems can be coolly impersonal and calm, no matter how incendiary or controversial the topic might be. In my view a major problem that some poets today face is their compulsion to center one’s feelings and reactions and moral opinions in every poem, as if it were part of some ad campaign. There is an exception, of course, for the many contemporary satiric and political pieces that appear at the SCP. But even in those cases, the most effective satiric-political pieces are ones that express savage, stinging contempt — not the ones that try earnestly to get the reader to join the poet’s team.

  5. Margaret Coats

    As Shaun suggested with his reference to it, this poem reveals the power of blank verse, where even the pattern of accents is often overridden, such that the many metrical substitutions give the effect of reading prose (as in the opening non-iambic line). But the fundamental iambic pattern occasionally reappears, as in “What happens next is anybody’s guess.” I would suggest that in lines like, “An [un]named PARty VIsits [for] a WEEK,” the bracketed syllables are “stressed by position,” just as syllables in classical quantitative meter are sometimes “long by position” (not because the vowel is truly long or even long as a recognized substitution). With this effect, the lines can all be seen as belonging to the chosen meter, without imposing an undesirable music. “Contract Murder” is therefore an excellent example of unrhymed iambic pentameter where the meter is just perceptible, but allows the mood to be set by the diction. Great work, Joe, and thanks again for your gift of the book.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, Margaret. I was happy to send you the book. If I had the mailing addresses of several other poets here at the SCP, I’d send copies to them as well.

      • Mike Bryant

        Joe, Susan and I would love to have a copy of your book. Thanks.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Yes, I’ll send you and Susan a copy tomorrow, along with the ones to Kip and Sally.

  6. C.B. Anderson

    I think, Joseph, that Formal Complaints is one of the few books of yours that I don’t actually own. Blank verse is striking for its lack of adornment — the message is the message, and that’s it. Phrases such as “purgative redress” are so understated that the specter of underlying brutality shines forth all the more brightly.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Kip, it will be in the mail to you by Monday of next week.

  7. Sally Cook

    Joe, this is is not in the nature of a formal complaint.

    However, since things continue to be in disarray in this house, I must ask if you will send a second copy of the book I bought from you so long ago.

    I can’t find the first one.

  8. Paul Freeman

    A very procedural piece that sets out murder for hire as it is. I enjoyed it. Thanks for the read.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      “Procedural piece” is a good way to describe it. When I taught advanced poetry classes, I would always ask students to produce a poem (in some fixed form) that did nothing but outline the procedure for doing something in great detail, and without a shred of commentary or opinion or judgement. There were certain freaky types who simply COULD NOT DO IT. They thought it was impossible to write a poem without expressing some kind of sentiment or emotional reaction.


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