Flammeus Gladius

Carmina et Verba pro Discipulis Meis

Month: November, 2012






(for Ben Hatke)




His mortal eyes are looking through your heart.

You’re dumb enough to think that you can hide.

But you will learn there is no cryptic art

His glance can’t penetrate.  If you have tried,

And if with your attempt you’re satisfied,

It only means he’s still two moves ahead.

When your soul dared to flash a grin, it lied.

It should have trembled, little man, instead.

The sum of all your subtlety he’s read

Already: he reads all such pages fast.

He makes himself the shadow that you dread.

Your inner sky is swiftly overcast.

He knows the thoughts you haven’t yet confessed.

At least you’ve figured out he’s not impressed.



–Tom Riley









(for Anna and Ben Hatke)




Look: here she comes, a wanderer on the earth.

Who knows the secret of her inner might?

Who knows the hidden island of her birth?

Who knows the course of her impending flight?

The wrongs that she is destined to put right

Are the wrongs most beloved of guys like you.

Her clear day will undo your furtive night.

There’s not much in the end that you can do.

Bound in her aura, you’ll at last speak true—

And some of you will probably reform.

Her wisdom doesn’t need a wise guy’s clue.

The summer of her heart is rich and warm.

You’ll wish she’d stay.  You’ll wish for all you’re worth.

But there she goes, a wanderer on the earth.



–Tom Riley









(for Ben Hatke)




He’s smiling, and he wears a jaunty cape.

The “S” there on his chest is shining bright.

He may be stronger than a giant ape—

But still the engine of his heart is light.

The lasers of his eyes, his soaring flight,

The never-ending battle: it’s a game

That he enjoys, in spite of kryptonite.

Call him a fool – but never say he’s lame.

Good cheer is what he’s striving to proclaim

As he saves lives.  I say that Santa Claus

Has a more solemn air, a grayer aim.

If Supes has flaws, they’re clear and happy flaws.

And, when he laughs, the laughter isn’t canned.

Still, I’ll be careful when I shake his hand.



–Tom Riley




Wise Doctor Calvin


Wise Doctor Calvin thought decapitation

adequate, but the hotter heads prevailed.

Servetus had denied the Trinity:

the flames would have this tasteless heretic.

It was an unexpected mercy: he

would feel no flames; before the red points nailed

his nerves, he would enjoy asphyxiation–

and, afterward, whatever he was due.

Now history declares all burnings sick

except in utero: though understated,

history, there for everyone to read,

is something we must pay attention to,

even accept. So now we’re all agreed:

Servetus should have been decapitated.

–Tom Riley

(First appeared in Art:Mag, November 1988.)

Early Polls





The early polls rule sacrifice absurd.

What does Christ think he’s doing on the Cross,

hanging between a pair of groaning thieves

whom even fellow thieves regard as fools

for being caught? How this suspension grieves

well-wishers who will always mourn the loss

of one who offered word on golden word,

of one who once seemed absolutely wise!

Philosophers can’t found enduring schools

from such a base. The experts all agree

that Christ has climbed Golgotha to a blunder

from which his once-bright fortunes cannot rise.

How sad to see such promise falling under

a fatal cloud! But then, that’s history.







(First appeared in The Lyric, v. 75, n. 3, Spring 1995.)

Democracy in Hell





Before the votes are tallied, you can tell

how wrong you were to bring things to a vote:

the Devil has democracy in Hell


and loves it. Keeping easily afloat

upon the Lake of Fire, he works the crowd:

“How wrong you were to bring things to a vote,


my friend! Down here, where everything’s allowed,

a fallen angel rises to the top:

upon the Lake of Fire, he works the crowd


confidently, just like a traffic cop.

Because they know they’re worked and love to know,

a fallen angel rises to the top


without dissimulation. On the go

forever, lost souls know that I’m their man

because they know they’re worked and love to know


I’ll wield the whip as freely as I can

forever. Lost souls know that I’m their man

before the votes are tallied: you can tell

the Devil has democracy in Hell.”




–Tom Riley



(First appeared in The Lyric, Summer 1988.)

Over Books

Over Books



Over books, they pretend they understand.

The lonely king, the monster of the waste—

These are motifs, no more.  Readers demand

Motifs – but pain you feel and blood you taste

Are fierce, unfriendly things, not to be faced

Except, beloved Beowulf, by you.

The frightened queen, the royal court disgraced:

They too are real, and give your strength its cue.

In such a place, a hero has to do

Heroic deeds – and you will do your share.

About these weighty acts, the classroom crew

Will read.  Some will convince themselves they care.

But you’ll have paid the price that dragons claim—

And known at last the emptiness of fame.



–Tom Riley



(for Mary Bisconer)

I saw you running, Mary, on page one

Of the sports section.  Ah, for that we’re made!

Our primal fathers thought that it was fun

To run across the sun-baked plains.  Afraid

Of something new, the beasts that made the grade

In strength and swiftness gathered breath and fled.

The patient game that early humans played

Left many of those mighty monsters dead.

Hunted beasts, when they hear your rhythmic tread,

Your measured breath, can sense their peril.  See

Alarm in their wide eyes – and smell the red

Blood as it rushes through them hopelessly.

Yours is a primal sport, my dear: no lie.

I know you’d kill the same damn beasts as I.

–Tom Riley

(See http://napavalleyregister.com/mary-bisconer/image_a28010c8-0eb2-11e2-830b-0019bb2963f4.html !)




(for W. Gregory Stewart)


Of course you want to smash them. So did I

when my hand, independent of my will,

splattered them all around you, the sick spawn

of something not my own imagination,

babies with wings. Like you, I wished them gone

in words I now hold unrepeatable:

I begged wings of my own, that I might fly

to where such images could never be.

But then they spoke to me, and, in elation,

I understood at last: this wasn’t how

they’d always look, but just their larval stage.

Give them, at most, another century,

and they’ll be full-grown agents of God’s rage,

world-rending kerubhim. Feel better now?



–Tom Riley


(First appeared in Star*Line, May-June 1987.)