Kenneth Burke

As I entered the room, he was reading one of his poems to a very moth-eaten person. “Catalogus Mulierum,” he grunted at me, and went on with the poem. From which I assumed that the title of the thing he was reading was “Catalogus Mulierum,” or “A Catalogue of Women.”

“Yes, I know the old ones who have had their day.
I have observed them.
Those old wrecked houses;
Those dead craters.”

The next I do not remember. Or rather, I do not want to remember it. It was detestable. And the stanza following. . . . The moth-eaten person clucked after each, and murmured something. When he had read another stanza, I left, while the moth-eaten person clucked—whether at the poem, or at me, I do not know.

“Then there are the little girls,
Recently able to become mothers;
Packages wrapped securely
In the admonitions of their parents.”

Why must men be hog-minded like that, I say. Great heavens! Have we exhausted the play of fresh morning on a lake? Have all the possible documents been written of a star near the horizon? I have seen him sitting monstrously in his chair and leering at me as though I were a whole world to leer at. I remember him in the distillation of my memory as a carcass, so many pounds of throbbing flesh with the requisite organs stuffed in, growling over the raw meat of his ideas.

Is there some gigantic cancer for us to sap with wells, and where we can descend on ladders? Could we spend our holidays here, on the edge of the decaying flesh, with our wives and children? I used to grind my teeth at the mere thought of him, until I had diseased my liver, and I ached from escaping juices. Ossia: There has been Christ, and the saints, and whole libraries of sanctity, and yet there was no law to exterminate this man! What darkness of darknesses have we been plunged into, when pestilence is invited among us, suffered to sit at our table and fester our tongues? But the critics are coming, and the satirists. Soon a wide plague of caterpillars will cover all the green leaves. There will be nothing behind them but naked trees and the scum of intestines. Prepare for a lean season, made meager with excessive insects.

I have sat opposed to him, and remembered the sunlight with a bursting gratitude. I remembered a little town sleeping in the foothills, with a bright clay road working across the countryside, and a green pool with the shadows of trout. I remembered the long, drooping fingers of the chestnuts—for the chestnuts blossom late, and there was a scattered frost of them even though the beards on the corn were already scorched. I remembered all this, while there spread about me the cool, dank mold from the cellar of his brain.


Let us construct a vast hippopotamus to the glorification of our century. Other ages could have constructed hippopotami of equal vastness, but ours will be superior in this: That it is exact within as well as without. A steam heart will beat against the brazen ribs of the brute, and the ooze of the kidneys will have been studied accurately. On the bolsters of his folded hide we shall have blotches and sores proper to the hippopotamus. And when we have finished, we shall have constructed a vast hippopotamus, which will cast its shadows
across the plain, and disfigure the sky to the glorification of our century.

* "Scherzando " originally appeared in Manuscripts 1 (February 1922): 74. [Also in The White Oxen and Other Stories and Here & Elsewhere: The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Burke by Kenneth Burke (Black Sparrow Books, 2005)]

This story has been adapted to video by Jimmy Butts in KB Journal 9.1 (Fall 2013).