The Devil’s Étude

An Exercise in Polyphony

by Jeffrey Burghauser (August 2022)

Crows in Winter, N. C. Wyeth, 1941



This song of Lucifer’s was a dwelling on his own beauty, an instressing of his own inscape, and like performance on the organ and instrument of his own being[.]—Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Notes From a Long Retreat”[*]


The glances of women say I am the pin
….Existence stuck into itself till it hurt.
I’m sipping espresso, and fastened within
….A pucker-necked infantry sweater, alert,
Commanding, inside a repurposed château—
….An affable, elderly interviewee
Who (decades ago) ran a gas chamber. Oh,
….I love how this résearcher marvels at me!

She’s sketching my essence’s arches & camp-
….Ӑníli. However, there’s something amiss:
That cornice, that turret, that octagon lamp,
….That spire. For reasons that silently hiss,
She cannot gain purchase on all of my damp
….Divisions. She’s frustrated (pity the youth!)—
Upset as a dentist who struggles to clamp
….Her pliers upon a decay-softened tooth.

For I am the pin whose proximity pricks.
….According to Radner, august, middle-aged
Rousseau wrote to Boswell in seventeen six-
….Ty-something (…and just before Boswell engaged
The Master aware that a language foresees
….Its matrix, as Time must occasion the Clock):
“Although you’re malicious, I find it’s a pleas-
….Ĭng malice—a malice I do not dislike.”[†]

And Boswell himself was a sketcher of men;
….His Life of the Master, as good as may be
Expected from someone whose competent pen
….Lacked all sense of irony. She isn’t he,
However; and Johnson, I’m not. [Flames confess
….Christ’s Majesty.] Johnson says where words belong,
And I am the doer of what, were it less
….Inevitable, would be Perfectly Wrong.

“You ask what I think I deserve—I, who stood,
….Defending my people…without me—I’ll show
Statistics, reports—the catastrophe would
….Have turned out, believe me, a hundred—or no:
A thousand times bloodier. I had the nerve,
….A Soldier, restoring respect for the Laws,
For Heritage. What do I think I deserve?
….A good place to start: this Tribunal’s applause.”

However, my register’s intimate now:
….“You never will know me unless you agree
The loveliest smell that a life may allow
….Is cigarette smoke in the summer. Some tea?”
My anger is racing with more absolute
….Dispatch than a droplet of sweat through a square
Of terrycloth. Every passion is brute,
….And every name is a lame nom de guerre.

The glances of women [O Heaven above!]
….Say I am the pin [Sweet Jerusalem’s pen]
Existence stuck into [composed me for love.]
….Itself till it hurt. [Glory, find me again,
] I’m sipping espresso, [the quote
….You noticed & mastered
] and fastened within
A pucker-necked infantry sweater, [by rote,
….Undone with errata.
] alert, [Thus, begin,]

Commanding, [Salvation! Some mercy, my Lord;
….Some mercy.
] inside a repurposed château—
An affable, [There, on the emerald sward
….The maidens are
] elderly [dancing. So show
Me everything
] interviewee [Jesu has.
….So show me some mercy consistent as snow,
Who (decades ago) ran [astonishing as]
….A gas chamber. [treason. Some mercy, Lord.] Oh,

I love how this résearcher marvels at me,
….Conjecturing what I might do in the night,
For I am inventive & lethally free,
….The panic of those asking “Who?” in the night.
Behold her examining one of the tin
….And amethyst brooches I strew in the night.
The supplicant’s story transparently in-
….Sincere in the daytime is true in the night.

A nocturne. O listen. It’s either the din
….Of innocent love or a coup in the night.
unrighteousness moistly was shedding its skin,
….And leaving it drifting, a clue in the night.
I grin at your wince at this harrowing grin;
….You shiver. I recognize you in the night.
O frozen moon, [Let me be Your violin,
….O Heaven!] alone as a Jew in the night.

The glances of women say I am the site
….Where Roux bottles culture this genus of Sin.
Unfortunate questioner, try as you might,
….Alas, neither you nor your scholarly kin
Shall tally amid such disordering, light—
….Bewildered & damp Dionysian spin
Exactly how many of Heaven’s despite—
….Ĕd angels can dance on the head of a pin.


[*] Quoted in Ellsberg, Margaret R. The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins. (Walden, New York: Plough Publishing House, 2017). p. 186.
[†] Radner, John B. Johnson and Boswell: A Biography of a Friendship. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. p. 42.


Table of Contents


Jeffrey Burghauser is a teacher in Columbus, OH. He was educated at SUNY-Buffalo and the University of Leeds. He currently studies the five-string banjo with a focus on pre-WWII picking styles. A former artist-in-residence at the Arad Arts Project (Israel), his poems have appeared (or are forthcoming) in Appalachian Journal, Fearsome Critters, Iceview, Lehrhaus, and New English Review. Jeffrey’s book-length collections are available on Amazon, and his website is

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast


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