Dear Peter Lorre—

by Jessie Lynn McMains

photo by the author of a writing desk featuring: The Lost One by Stephen Youngkin, the Cult of Weimar tarot deck, a glass of wine, and three zines (a songbook for Peter Lorre’s 21st Century by the World/Inferno Friendship Society, and two by Jack Terricloth)

Lieber Teufel

You are as strong as you are honest. Says the railroad bridge over the river. The graffiti. The river graffitied with all that autumn light. Rust and rusting, golding and gold. Honesty’s not my business. For example: you make a face, a ghastly, blissful grimace, and it sticks. That way. You create a person. A persona—a self-mad scientist—and it is monstrous. Unhinges ghastly, dripping jaws and draws you down its bilious gullet. Then you are the monster, or. Buried so deep inside its flesh that everyone assumes. You’re one and the same. Your gut-muffled voice the monster’s roar.

Liebes Untier

It’s easier to identify a monster when he looks like a monster. It’s easier to name someone Villain when they’re so devil-wonderful at playing one. I wasn’t. You weren’t, always. But they needed someone for the Wanted posters. They gave him your face. Masked him with wild bulging eyes and a breathy, nasal voice hinting at an insatiable lust. For murder, and. They propagandized you. Couldn’t face your mask in the mirror without seeing. Das Untier, der Unmensch, die Ausgeburt.

Dear Unmensch

I have longed to carve your visage on a jack o’lantern. Pumpkin-faced baby with morphine arms. Have you tried, as I have, to unsaint yourself? To excise the last seeds of purity from your rotten pumpkin of a heart? Self-surgery. It would make this world. Easier to take. A sweeter pill to slip between your yellowed teeth. How much have we traded for— I only want to tell you about the trees. Shaking off the last bits of green in all this autumn light. Who was it that said you can’t write about… I hear the policemen coming. Rust-gold leaves crackle-crushed, branches bone-snapped beneath their jackbooted feet.

Lieber Verlorener

The bone-snapped earth. A pile of leaves crushed into confetti. I am writing a poem about trees and the light. Rust on the bridge. Smell of wax and pumpkin guts burning, carved grins casting ghastly shadows on the walls. The lights of a barge cutting through the black sea of the night lake. The lighthouse swinging wide its homing signal. All the old cliches: any port in a storm for us lost ones. We pass each other; ships in the night. I shove my hands deeper into the pockets of my peacoat, looking— What I wouldn’t trade for unbroken sleep. For a drink. Tonight my missing psyche itches like the Devil.

film still of Peter Lorre in Der Verlorene


I’ve been working on a series of epistolary prose poems addressed to Peter Lorre for a couple years now (here’s an earlier one—Mad, Love). As these are prose poems, not an essay, I do not want to overexplain. If you’d like to know more about some of the references in these particular poems, I suggest you watch any Peter Lorre film you can. And read The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre, by Stephen D. Youngkin. And listen to the World/Inferno Friendship Society’s Addicted to Bad Ideas: Peter Lorre’s 20th Century.

Oh, and—it was Bertolt Brecht who said: You can’t write poems about trees when the woods are full of policemen. Brecht was a good friend of Lorre’s.

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