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Pugnax Gives Notice


From The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2009, edited by A.F. Moritz (series editor Molly Peacock) and published by Tightrope Books; and This Way Out, published by Gaspereau Press (2009).

He’s done with it, the tridents and tigers,

the manager’s greed, the sumptuous beds

of noble women who please their own moods.

He’s done with dogging it for the crowds,

the stabbing, the slashing, the strangling,

the poor pay, the chintzy palm branch prizes.

Make no mistake. Pugnax is a real fierceosaurus.

Winner of 26 matches, a forum favourite.

Yet his yob genes have, it seems, gone quiet.

Fatigue has called his soul back to his body.

Circles under his eyes; he sleeps badly.

Late-night cigs lit from the dog-end of the last,

cutwork of the clock nibbling him small.

In the barracks around him his friends snore,

lucky returnees of the last hard hacking,

dead to the world, free of a weapon in the fist.

Priscus face-down in the crook of his arm.

Triumphus flung open, caught on a bad turn.

Verus collapsed, whacked, against the cot.

Flamma, doomed by down-thumbing shadows,

lies in a stain of his final shape and size.

Pugnax loves them all, chasers and net-fighters,

fish-men and javelin-throwers, carefree

despite punishing practices, screaming orders,

despite limbs trained to turn lethal for mobs

unable to bear the thought of two men

clinging to life, but here it’s only the thock

of wooden sword against wooden sword,

the racket as they fall on each other’s shields

in joy. Pugnax’s heart breaks for them.

Understand, he has inflicted pain and felt pain,

but now wants to go native, move into a flat,

experiment with fashionable clothes,

dawdle at the baths, tame his nights with tea,

be spellbound by the smell of soap, find a wife.

Our boy dreams of joining the crowd,

shouting himself hoarse as some bonehead

gets knocked down and the blade pushed

through his chest, stapling him to the ground.

At intermission, he’ll watch as the blood

is raked over with sand, thinking chore thoughts:

yard work, paint jobs, weekend projects.

Ten facts I couldn’t fit into the poem. The “thumbs down” response—the audience’s declaration of the death for a wounded fighter—is a myth (decision was left to a single judge). Most gladiators who died were between eighteen and twenty-five. Not all gladiators were bumped off; only criminals, the superstars were too profitable to die. Out-of-work Romans signed up to gladiator schools for the free food, clean lodgings, and medical care; in exchange, they agreed “to endure branding, chains, flogging or death by the sword.” The Colosseum floor was sometimes flooded to create conditions for a sea-fight with gladiators fighting on the deck of ships. According to one story, twenty depressed gladiators committed group suicide rather than enter the arena. Emperor Trajan is responsible for the Colosseum’s largest imperial show, which spanned 123 days and included 5,000 pairs of fighters. The gladiatorial games got their start as funeral rituals: combats were staged in honor of the deceased. Action figures of popular fighters could be purchased outside the arena. Some Romans believed gladiator blood cured epilepsy.

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Carmine Starnino has published five collections of poetry and has received numerous awards, including the CAA Prize for Poetry, the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry and the F.G. Bressani Prize. He lives in Montréal.



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