Nonfiction > Upton Sinclair, ed. > The Cry for Justice

Upton Sinclair, ed. (1878–1968).
The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest.  1915.
The Butcher’s Stall
(From “Les Villes Tentaculaires:” The Octopus Cities)

By Émile Verhaeren

(Belgian poet, 1855–1916. When Maurice Maeterlinck was suggested as a member of the French Academy, he recommended that the honor should be conferred upon Verhaeren instead. Beginning his career as a decadent and victim of disease, Verhaeren evolved into a rhapsodist of modern civilization. No poet has ever approached him in the portrayal and interpretation of factories, forges, railroads, and all the phenomena of industrialism. Of late he has become an ardent Socialist. The poem here quoted is from a book portraying the sins and agonies of great cities. Only portions of the poem could be printed in a work intended for general circulation in English; but even of these passages the editor will venture the assertion that never before has the horror of prostitution been so packed into human speech)
HARD by the docks, soon as the shadows fold
The dizzy mansion-fronts that soar aloft,
When eyes of lamps are burning soft,
The shy, dark quarter lights again its old
Allurement of red vice and gold.        5
Women, blocks of heaped, blown meat,
Stand on low thresholds down the narrow street,
Calling to every man that passes;
Behind them, at the end of corridors,
Shine fires, a curtain stirs        10
And gives a glimpse of masses
Of mad and naked flesh in looking-glasses.
Hard by the docks
The street upon the left is ended by
A tangle of high masts and shrouds that blocks        15
A sheet of sky;
Upon the right a net of grovelling alleys
Falls from the town—and here the black crowd rallies
And reels to rotten revelry.
It is the flabby, fulsome butcher’s stall of luxury,        20
Time out of mind erected on the frontiers
Of the city and the sea.
Far-sailing melancholy mariners
Who, wet with spray, thru grey mists peer,
Cabin-boys cradled among the rigging, and they who steer        25
Hallucinated by the blue eyes of the vast sea-spaces,
All dream of it, evoke it when the evening falls;
Their raw desire to madness galls;
The wind’s soft kisses hover on their faces;
The wave awakens rolling images of soft embraces;        30
And their two arms implore
Stretched in a frantic cry towards the shore.
And they of offices and shops, the city tribes,
Merchants precise, keen reckoners, haggard scribes,
Who sell their brains for hire, and tame their brows,        35
When the keys of desks are hanging on the wall,
Feel the same galling rut at even-fall,
And run like hunted dogs to the carouse.
Out of the depths of dusk come their dark flocks,
And in their hearts debauch so rudely shocks        40
Their ingrained greed and old accustomed care,
That they are racked and ruined by despair.
It is the flabby, fulsome butcher’s stall of luxury,
Time out of mind erected on the frontiers
Of the city and the sea.        45
Come from what far sea-isles or pestilent parts?
Come from what feverish or methodic marts?
Their eyes are filled with bitter, cunning hate,
They fight their instincts that they cannot sate;
Around red females who befool them, they        50
Herd frenzied till the dawn of sober day.
The panelling is fiery with lewd art;
Out of the wall nitescent knick-knacks dart;
Fat Bacchuses and leaping satyrs in
Wan mirrors freeze an unremitting grin.…        55
And women with spent loins and sleeping croups
Are piled on sofas and arm-chairs in groups,
With sodden flesh grown vague, and black and blue
With the first trampling of the evening’s crew.
One of them slides a gold coin in her stocking;        60
Another yawns, and some their knees are rocking;
Others by bacchanalia worn out,
Feeling old age, and, sniffing them, Death’s snout,
Stare with wide-open eyes, torches extinct,
And smooth their legs with hands together linked.…        65
It is the flabby, fulsome butcher’s stall of luxury,
Wherein Crime plants his knives that bleed,
Where lightning madness stains
Foreheads with rotting pains,
Time out of mind erected on frontiers that feed        70
The city and the sea.

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