“The Word-Swallower” by Eric Paul Shaffer

Eric Paul Shaffer


There is no charge for admission to the green, mildewed tent
staked slackly in an alley of the midway between a cotton candy
cart and ping-pong toss. Billed an attraction, the word-swallower

is not. Few come to observe him, seated on a steel, folding chair,
beneath a single spot in a vacant, shadowed, curtained room,
enshrined in silence. He swallows words. His silence is golden.

No matter how keen the verbiage rising to his tongue, no matter
how many edges on each unspoken word that comes to mind,

his tent is hushed but for the whispers of visitors who mark well
his silent line of lips. He answers no questions, retorts to no quip,
responds to no riposte, and his attendant dog-faced boy at the door

tells every dusty bumpkin a grim, dismal tale. Says the boy,
“If there were a king of the carnival, a lord of the boardwalk,

the word-swallower is not he. He hasn’t spoken since he learned
to talk. With no words for his wisdom, he speaks none.
Philosophers divide our sullen species from the other chimpanzees

          by the power of speech, but the word-swallower knows finer
and says naught on this or any other subject.” The word-swallower

denies nothing. He fears no loss in lack of speech. He keeps peace
battened like a castle under siege and guards an armory of lustrous
weapons best left beyond reach. From imaginary battlements, each

word slips behind the tongue, lies sunk in the gullet, plummets
to the gut. Lips sealed, tongue unbitten, his thought hardens

beneath the red fist beating the bars of his chest and the bellows
burning breath into a world soundless and pointless without words.
At dusk, the word-swallower and dog-faced boy stroll into the hills

          of a trim town noisy with streetlit night. The boy barks.
The word-swallower strokes the curly fur on the boy’s ears,
creeping through charged darkness and the grandiloquence of stars.

from Rattle #40, Summer 2013

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Eric Paul Shaffer: “I’m a great lover of carnivals, and my eye gravitates to stories about them. In one, as I read a list of performers, I misread ‘the sword-swallower,’ and the complete central image for the poem appeared full-blown before me. Luckily, the dog-faced boy arrived when I—understandably—needed someone to speak for the word-swallower. I’m a fan of serendipity, too.”

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