Sunday Poetry: An Ex-Judge at the Bar, by Melvin Tolson

An Ex-Judge at the Bar

Bartender, make it straight and make it two—
One for the you in me and the me in you.
Now let us put our heads together: one
Is half enough for malice, sense, or fun.

I know, Bartender, yes, I know when the Law
Should wag its tail or rip with fang and claw.
When Pilate washed his hands, that neat event
Set for us judges a Caesarean precedent.

What I shall tell you know, as man is man,
You’ll find neither in Bible nor Koran.
It happened after my return from France
At the bar in Tony’s Lady of Romance.

We boys drank pros and cons, sang Dixie; and then,
The bar a Sahara, we pledged to meet again.
But lo, on the bar there stood in naked scorn
The Goddess Justice, like September Morn.

Who blindfolds Justice on the courthouse roof
While the lawyers weave the sleight-of-hand of proof?
I listened, Bartender, with my heart and head,
As the Goddess Justice unbandaged her eyes and said:

“To make the world safe for Democracy,
You lost a leg in Flanders fields—oui, oui?
To gain the judge’s seat, you twined the noose
That swung the Negro higher than a goose.”

Bartender, who has dotted every i?
Crossed every t? Put legs on every y?
Therefore, I challenged her: “Lay on, Macduff,
And damned be him who cries first, ‘Hold, enough!”

The boys guffawed, and Justice began to laugh
Like a manic on a broken phonograph.
Bartender, make it straight and make it three—
One for the Negro…one for you and me.

- by Melvin B. Tolson

Not many poets get portrayed in film, but Melvin Tolson was played by Denzel Washington in The Great Debaters. That movie, of course, focuses on his role as a successful debate coach, rather than his role as one of the great poets of America.

This poem begins with a pun – the ex-judge is not at the bar in court, he is at a drinking hole, where he attempts to deal with the guilt of injustice. This judge knows that he went along with society – the boys – and made a mockery of justice. Even though the judge had fought for democracy and lost a leg in Flanders Fields (the subject of another famous poem, of course), he returned home and abused democracy and justice by hanging a negro “to gain a judge’s seat.”

Melvin Tolson was born in Moberly, Missouri, raised in northern Missouri and Iowa, and graduated from Lincoln High School here in Kansas City in 1919. He undoubtedly saw first hand the corrosive effects of racism on justice. Indeed, Lady Justice is not merely blindfolded in the poem, it is bandages that cover her eyes, and she is manic at the end of the poem.

This is an ugly subject for a poem, and it is made bearable only by the skill of the poet. The regular rhyming couplets provide a breezy tone, and the pun at the very beginning relaxes the reader. When read by the poet, the piece seems almost comical, despite its bleak subject.

Tolson shows off a bit of erudition as he quotes one of my favorite Shakespearean lines. MacBeth, who has been assured that he will not be killed by man “of woman born” has just found out that MacDuff was born by a Caesarean delivery, and is thus uncommonly qualified to kill him. Just as MacBeth undertook his doomed battle, the ex-judge knows that Lady Justice has defeated him, and he finds himself an ex-judge, drinking with a bartender and the memory of a hanged man.

It’s an astonishingly gentle poem, given the author and given the subject matter. Where’s the rage? Where are the calls for vengeance? Instead, Tolson satisfies himself with the humbling of the ex-judge, and his too-late awareness that his participation in injustice has left him a lesser man.

2 Responses to “Sunday Poetry: An Ex-Judge at the Bar, by Melvin Tolson”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

  2. yo says:

    i really enjoy this poem

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