• R.M. Haines

New Poem: "Death Prime"

Updated: Jul 20, 2020

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the first atomic blast. In Portland, federal officers in unmarked vehicles have been illegally detaining citizens, shooting at least one protestor in the face with a "less lethal" projectile. And in the last three days, we saw the first two federal executions in seventeen years. With these things in mind, I share this unpublished poem from my manuscript, Interrogation Days.

Content warning for references to suicide, torture, and state violence.


Death Prime

At twelve, at the video store, I wrecked my bike

(My face is a hood. Flies crawl across my eyes.)

and then I got two stitches on my dick. Now

the film is lost, the future is an glitch on the test.

(A camera in Hades. The message gets cut.)

Here, a hurt boy, scared of how bad it might be,

hunches over and holds himself, staring up

at rows of horror films, demons, Faces of Death II.


They designed the experiment so that subjects

thought unconsciously of dying. (On camera,

the Senator opens an envelope, removes a gun,

and puts it to his head.) Thus, subjects were sensitized

to symbols of immortality: a flag, a cross. (His face

recording nothing but noise.) The detainee

locked in a box and told he would die emerged

with nothing of use. And nothing is what we wrote.


“Tell us a story.” For my parents’ generation,

a siren was normal. Normal was hiding

beneath ones desk, dreaming a bomb.

On screen, the anchor quotes a dead poet

while our rockets launch. Syria. Beautiful

is a word we still use. Virtue is a word we use.

The interrogator’s textbook says not to look

for symmetry. Not to get attached to a source.


In our name, the Mother who breeds All Bombs

is dropped, and night-vision watches her give birth

to nothing. Explain: “What I’m going to do to you

is going to be fucking disgusting.” Explain:



reminded they will die, resists the intelligence.

(The patient repeatedly collapsed.) On screen,


the candidate goes off script. This is “greatness,”

this is “humiliation.” Now the homework is due.

We read The Denial of Death on Kindle. “Sure,

but what is your death count?” asks the executive.

(Nation is a word we still use). Elsewhere,

inside the poem, Oppenheimer is a boy

sitting at the table, watching his mother’s

gloved, prosthetic hand pass the knife.



“Death Prime” draws on the work of Ernest Becker and Terror Management Theory (as elaborated by Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon). According to the Ernest Becker foundation website’s statement on the “death prime” concept:

Making death salient by asking people to think about themselves dying (or viewing graphic depictions of death, being interviewed in front of a funeral parlor, or subliminal exposure to the word “dead” or “death”) intensifies strivings to defend their cultural worldviews by increasing positive reactions to similar others, and negative reactions toward those who are different.

Direct quotes are taken from Michael Cohen’s abusive voicemails to a female journalist and from Donald Trump’s full page ad in the wake of the Central Park Five case.

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