“The Bonfire”

“The Bonfire”
(c) 2022 by Michael L. Utley

in our exuberance to burn the words
Bradbury sagely nods and Orwell sighs
as shock-troopers corral the motley herds
and churlish masses watch with sullen eyes

bonfires glow red in every city square
eight thousand million names recited there
black smoke and fetid fumes assault the air
as filthy faces flicker in the glare

the Keepers of the Words arrive anon
in every town and burg in all the lands
and silence drops like cluster bombs upon
the billions gathered, and within their hands

the Keepers of the Words display The Tome
wherein all words of man have found their home
brought forth from dark cob-webby catacomb
a vade mecum in the darkling gloam

and with the fall of night the Keeper speaks
to all assembled round the burning pyre
“The time has come for every man who seeks
to purge his mind and cleanse his soul in fire.

“To speak one’s mind is tantamount to sin;
tomes with the thoughts of others writ within
shall lead you to the darkness and the din
of hellfire and the madness found therein.

“And so, to save your soul and cleanse your heart
Dear Leader, in his love and lenity,
has offered you a choice: from words depart
and rollick in silent indemnity,

“or immolate your filthy craven mind
and burn to ashes your pathetic rind–
obedience is bliss; the fire unkind
live silently, or fry in flames refined.”

smoke from the bonfire eddies in the night
as nervous glances dart among the crowd
and hands grip slips of paper, knuckles tight
where words are scrawled to soon be read aloud

the Keeper of the Words begins the rite
and summons forth the first name of the night
and from the crowd a man steps toward the light
his gait unsure, his face an ashen white

“Your word, comrade,” the Keeper’s voice demands
“or else the fire…it’s up to you, good sir…”
and from the paper held in shaking hands
he reads a single solitary word


then with a cry the guards drag him away
and Keeper of the Words calls out to say
“The word ‘freedom’ is stricken forth this day
from mankind’s lexicon…small price to pay…

“…for one’s life, is it not?” and with a grin
announces the next name, and from the pack
a ragged woman, elderly and thin
approaches bravely, never looking back

“Your word, comrade…” the Keeper starts to say
“You’ll have no word of mine, not on this day
or any day!” the woman says, a fey
expression of defiance aimed his way

and crumpling her paper in her ire
she drops it on the ground and cries aloud
then launches her old body toward the fire
and burns as horror overwhelms the crowd

“Her word was “love,’” the Keeper says, amused,
“and though this woman steadfastly refused
to sacrifice this word, someone will choose
to strike it from existence,” and bemused

he calls another name, and then the next
and on it went throughout the endless night
as words like hope and peace fell from the text
of Keeper’s Tome, and love faded from sight

and in the end, at breaking of the day
we all depart and make our solemn way
into a silent world of empty grey
with nothing left for anyone to say


(This poem is inspired by the recent rash of censorship being pushed by the republican party here in America, where books are being banned and even burned as right-wing radicals promote fear, lies and hatred aimed at people of color and marginalized groups. Also, in many places across the globe, freedom of speech is under siege as authoritarian regimes crack down on those who speak truth and expose their evil deeds. As writers, we cannot allow this to happen. We have voices; we must use them to ensure all people are free to speak their minds.)

“Red Hats”

“Red Hats”
(c) 2021 by Michael L. Utley

“The end came just like the fella predicted,”
The old man said. “They were legion,
Wrapped in flags and carrying crosses,
And they were insane.”

He regarded me with a resigned calmness
Across the flames of the campfire,
Studying me intently as his eyes flickered,
His haggard face ensconced in a fiery
Red-yellow glow. At his feet, a small black dog
Lay curled in a tight ball of oblivious slumber
Beneath frigid late-autumn stars,
Occasionally twitching in some
Alien canine dream. The denuded woods
Surrounding us were silent save for
Sporadic cries that echoed remotely in the dark.

“They caught us unaware,” the old man continued.
“Their lies were slippery and darkly enticing,
And they awoke a feral animal bloodlust
In the gullible low-hanging fruit. It was
Modern-day sorcery, a triggering of
Mass psychosis, a mental blitzkrieg,
A philosophical paradigm shift of
Cult-like proportions.”

He stirred the fire with a stick as he
Gazed into the embers, scrying memories
Of the end of all things. The dog let out a
Muffed whimper and kicked weakly in its sleep.

“You never know a man’s heart until you
Dangle a piece of raw meat in front of him,”
The old man said, still lost in his contemplation
Of the embers. “All it took was the raw meat
Of lies and fear and hate, bow-tied in a
Pretty box of false patriotism. Guns and ammo

At this, he looked at me through the fire,
His eyes burning. “And they had all the guns.
And when they ran out of bullets, they
Used their fists. And when they ran out of
Enemies, they fell on each other like a
Pack of rabid hyenas…and their
Mad orange god was pleased…”

To the east, the bilious moon climbed
Above the bony fingers of the trees
As a gust of wind kicked up sparks
In the fire, sending them heavenward
Like a swarm of hellish fireflies.

“After that, it was just mop-up duty
For the shock troops,” the old man said.
“The base had fulfilled its sacred duty
Of wanton slaughter and blasphemous
Self-sacrifice. The plutocrats performed
Their symbolic fellatio on the
Mad orange god, then everyone hunkered
And bunkered down. And this…” he said,
Nodding at the cold dead woods,
At the distant insensate stars, at the bloated moon
Clawing its way up the night sky,
At the howls of the damned echoing
In the darkness, at the utter extinction
Of all hope, “…is what’s left…”