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Young John

He is afraid of me
and I of him
Who might tear each other
limb from limb

Or compel each other
heart to heart
never to tear again
locked limbs apart


“Limb from Limb” by Charles Brasch.

It’s difficult to create something so sublime in thirty-one words. This poem is notable first for its simplicity (you already have it memorized) and its symmetry (the two strophes play perfect foils to each other). But Brasch’s work is also striking because of the identities — or lack thereof — given to both speaker and subject. This is surely a deliberate move on the part of the writer, as it makes the poem universal: we all have a “he” to whom we are simultaneously drawn and repelled. Brasch condenses this conflicting relationship in his brilliantly agile opposition of ‘limb from limb’ and ‘heart to heart’. It’s difficult to think of images which are, at the same time, so soft and yet so sinewy, so sublime and still so crudely human.

The lone edit I would perhaps make to the poem would be to remove ‘again’ from the second stanza. The work moves with more momentum into the final line if you read it without those two syllables, which create more melodic friction than poetic force.

To read another equally brilliant (and coincidentally thirty-one word) poem, check out “High Country Weather” by James K. Baxter.

The photograph is of a portrait which hangs in my house.