a useless death
by patti smith
[originally published as a small chapbook by the Gotham Book Mart, 1972]
I am on the scaffold. What excitement!
What glitter! What is going on?
I know so little of this country.
I suspect its the coronation of the queen.
NO. Oh god. I’m wrong.
Its the execution of the queen!
and I’m trapped.
there’s no way I can help.
there’s no way I can avoid watching.
perched on this scaffold.
I gotta bird’s eye view.
The king calls for action. like the
director of some blown out passion play.
He makes a weary gesture.
its clear he hasn’t slept in ages.
first come the ladies in waiting.
there they are. thirty of them.
dressed alike. high-waisted
green taffeta gowns.
moving alike. medieval majorettes.
that flemish air. nose in air.
thirty pairs of tiny hands folded
over protruding bellies.
why are condemned women affecting
a pregnant woman’s gesture?
and how comical it is. thirty sentenced
women swaying. some very pretty indeed.
many on the brink of collapse.
The king is muttering. what is he saying?
seems my hearing has become as acute as my view.
"god damn ladies-in-waiting. get rid
of them. how I’ve despised them. always
clutter up the castle. cluck cluck."
He seems to object to them more than
the queen. but as the saying goes:
kill me ya kill my dogs. and vice versa.
its a package deal. its the rules of
the game. and a king sticks to them.
the ladies are in tears. tearing tissues.
they approach a sizeable block of land.
its roped off and seasoned with fresh
topsoil. 3l shovels are lined up face
The king decrees that they are to dig
their own grave. Jesus what a rucas.
The women lose what composure they
had in the procession. They sob openly.
they wring their hands and cling to
one another. several fall prostrate.
those more distraught tear their hair
and rip their gowns.
This is getting ridiculous. The prince
is embarrassed. I throw a quick glance
toward the castle. Backdrop. There
is the queen. No one has noticed her.
She moves as if a dream. listless.
weightless. she seems to have little
to do with the proceedings. does she
understand that death is near?
she seems completely unaware.
How I admire her! She is a true heroine.
Oblivious of her power. how power, love
and death revolve around her! as though
she had never stood before a mirror.
The king is exasperated. her lack of
recognition. does his word mean nothing?
The ladies-in-waiting make up for it.
they weep harder at the sight of their
gentle queen. they beat their breasts in
unison. a few onlookers swoon. The
cook has to be carried off.
The queen is handed a spade. Was that a
smile that crossed her face? its impossible
to tell now.
Suddenly she shivers and says, "I’m cold".
Instantly I feel the intense cold.
everyone does. god, its below zero.
I’m confused. wasn’t it just spring?
everyone has on thin wraps.
Even the king has but a simple velvet cloak
and not his usual ermine.
The ladies’ teeth chatter. the only way
to keep warm is to move. they begin to
dig like the devil. thirty women working
hard in the soil creates great warmth.
if they stop to rest they’ll freeze
The queen can’t seem to get in the swing
of things. she helps a bit. loosens a
chunk of hard clay or helps excavate a
huge rock. occasionally a smooth stone
or a pretty piece of crystal will attract
her. she handles it. examines it. turns
it over. drops it in her train which she
has gathered up smiling.
her childish delight in serving herself.
Frost is making it harder to dig. yet
the women are working like madmen to
The king has lost interest. the queen is
wandering off. everyone is going home.
I lose my footing
fall off the scaffold
everything in slow motion.
crime without passion
Copyright © Patti Smith 1972