21st Century Cures in “So We Beat Them”

Ed Shacklee’s “So We Beat Them” is a contemporary poem that questions the choice of punishment as a means to make people better. The continuous use of “one” makes these people distant, genderless, and inhuman. The use of “one” also makes it seem like the punishers only have one more person to fix before the utopia is found. The narrator does not tolerate any of the physical or mental differences other people have.

The first reference to food is when the narrator is shaping people like “pretzels” in order to make them fit a pre-determined box (l. 4). The “wire” can represent several objects, the barbed wire fences of prisons or the wires in braces to straighten teeth. The sounds of a “hammer” links to both an idea of metalwork, that these people must be fashioned into a different shape, and a judge’s hammer, declaring that a decision has been made.

Instead of sympathizing with the challenges these people face, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Tourette’s Syndrome are simplified into “hyper” and “tic” (l. 7). A “rolling pin” is used as a club, but the typical use of a rolling pin as way to roll out dough brings the idea that the narrator wants to flatten and straighten these people out (l. 8).

In the next stanza, “one lived in mother’s cellar” (l. 11). With the presence of “cell” within “cellar” and “mother” preceding and “eggs” following in the next two lines, is the notion of an embryo cell. Coming next to the “manacled” legs, the cell can also be a prison cell as the person is trapped by dependency in mother’s cellar (l. 14).  And “so we beat them in a mixing bowl till minds were scrambled eggs” is the most dramatic food line because it references thought control and eugenics (l. 13). These people are no longer individuals, but globs all mixed together. The imagery of multiple people becoming one shows that people are a like enough to be blended together, but the narrator is in control, and so it shows the control the narrator wields over the public.

The first three stanzas are each one sentence. The last two stanzas are a dramatic switch because they are linked together to make a long sentence, and then the final line is a short sentence. The fourth stanza shifts from physical and mental ailments to religion. The “ankh” is an Egyptian symbol of life, a cross with a handle (l. 18). The crucifix, the ankh, and the shepherd’s crook are all long objects that have been turned into weapons. A sword pointed towards the ground looks like a cross.

Instead of pearly gates, the modern day heaven is “beaches,” which is reminiscent of the desire to take vacations in tropical areas (l. 21). These people wear “uniforms” to show that they are devoid of any personality; they are like workers in a machine (l. 22). Instead of holy water, the modern day purification is “holy bleaches” where chemicals are valued for being able to kill 99.9% of germs (l. 22).

In the last stanza, there is no longer a “so” before “we beat them,” which is a change from a casual manner of talking about what is going on to a definitive action (l. 23). Line 24 suggests that the narrator only punished these people in order to bring them towards enlightenment. But all of this work is usurped by the last line.

The balm of Gilead was from a plant near the Jordan River believed to have healing properties. The term “serpent oil” refers to fraudulent health medicine (l. 25). During the medieval ages, leeches were used for bloodletting, which was a medicinal practice believed to cure most illnesses; they thought removing blood would remove the disease. In reality, people died from blood loss. Although bloodletting is no longer practiced, leeches are still used today, often on burns. While it seems like the balm, oil, and leeches should work to cure people that are different, in reality, they do not.