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C.N.P Poetry 

  • Writer's pictureCathexis Northwest Press

The Three Virtues; Tipping the Scales

By: Raymond P. Hammond

The Three Virtues


Cold steel running through my lips— 22-short

rounds pointed at my uvula, the bullets

starring at me eye-to-eye, my thumb resting,

shaking on the trigger, my crotch quivering,

afraid of being almost sixteen, the sick

smell of my mom’s salmon cakes seeping under

my locked door like poison gas in a chamber

my back against the bed, facing the window

watching dust in the beam float effortlessly

through the afternoon sun into the shadows

the shot, though, that rang through my head was music—

crystal pure musical tones intoned in me

religion is all such a convenient sin

and i belonged nowhere but right there, right then


it was a hokey dance at a marching band

competition held in bristol, virginia

they let the competing bands mingle and you,

beautiful, just standing there so i bucked-up

because i loved the song three times a lady

and i was damned determined to dance with you

i had never danced with anyone before

so your holding me close and your head resting

on my chest, my warm breath breathing in your hair

gave me a blue-burning body memory—

when triggered that day in my sun-beamed bedroom

would give me pleasure and pause and a prayer

that i could not find in any religion

i am sorry, i don’t remember your name


Could Mr. Lowe have known that each song he chose

for my high school jazz band’s musical folder

would always bring me back to those heavy days—

peg and percolator and get back —sound waves

when energized now snap me into a trance

of panic and fear and conscious remembrance

like a hypnotist’s implanted instructions,

that feeling that if i had not had music

to save me instead of religion, i would

have definitely pulled the trigger that day

in my room, my back against the bottom bunk

facing the windows when religion left me

untethered as dust in my sun-beamed bedroom,

music gave me language for something greater

Tipping the Scales

i constantly, vigilantly wait

for the other shoe of the other

side of god to drop as punishment

for any minor sin that i missed

any tiny infraction of sin

that i didn’t even know was a sin

even for a sin i knew about

confessed, prayed, begged to be forgiven

to go ahead, begin already

i need that punishment to commence

perpetual penance in silence

always uttering under my breath

god forgive me, have mercy on me

for whatever i did or didn’t do

or i might have done, or saw, or thought

from birth i was taught that each action

has its own diabolically

opposed reaction that is random,

summary, whimsical, fanciful,

demolish any good that has come

into my life, or send me to hell

where the fire burns my flesh forever

while some demon sticks a hot poker

up my ass and i start to like it

because i punish myself for good

as well as sin because after all

the act of something good happening

requires me to flop another pound

of flesh on the scalepan in order

to offset the weight of god’s finger


Raymond P. Hammond is the editor-in-chief of both The New York Quarterly and NYQ Books. He holds an MA in American Poetry from NYU's Gallatin School and is the author of Poetic Amusement, a book of literary criticism. He lives in Beacon, NY with his wife, the poet Amanda J. Bradley, and their dog Hank.


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