Finest: Tom Sastry – “A suburban accountant remembers his whipping boy”

Tom Sastry Finest

A suburban accountant remembers his whipping boy

Dear Mish,

I tell people I had a brother who went away
and I mean you. I tell them the house
was cruel to him. I say we were friends.

I tell them about the night we stood
on top of the Black Hole Box, under the skylight.
I showed you which house was Joe’s.
You asked me what Joe’s house was like inside
so I gave you the piece of kitchen roll which Joe’s mother
had wrapped around the cake.
I could tell you loved it and I felt like a king.
Do you remember? It had pictures on.
You must have liked them
because when I went up again you showed me
the outlines of rabbits and cups in the stars.
This is hard for me to write but I think I showed you my space book
so you would know you were wrong
and you cried. I was scared when you cried
I shouted at you to stop but you wouldn’t.
I shouted and shouted and I was crying too
so they came up and after a while
they asked if I would like it
if they sent you away and I said


I’m sorry.

I have not always had a good life.
I hope you have.

Your brother,


An earlier version of this poem was published in the Writers Café Magazine. The Writers’ Cafe Magazine – ISSUE 15 “Letters” – The Writers’ Cafe Magazine (

“Most of my poems are deleted within days of being written. Most of my writing is training for the rare moment I produce something I like. On those happy occasions, it usually feels effortless because I have been working towards it without realising. Then it’s just a question of polishing (and removing polish, and adding it, and so on).

“But there are also poems which come into focus very slowly, through thinking hard about what they are, how they work, and what they need to be. Those are my favourites. I feel I have really earned them. This is one of those. I know exactly what I am trying to do in it.

“Its title demands that you take the poem as a fiction. Suburban accountants are not literally raised with whipping boys to take punishments for their misdeeds. It was a deliberate choice to use a fanciful scenario, to oblige my reader to look for a story here, not a confession.

“Although fictional, the story is a version of something real. A man, at a point of crisis in his life, is looking back at his childhood and remembering someone who was abused and scapegoated in the house he was raised in.

“He shows evidence both of feeling responsible and of evading the issue of responsibility (“the house” was cruel to Mish). We may feel the responsibility lies squarely with the adults.

“It matters that it is written as a letter. Rex is sitting down and putting his thoughts on paper. It’s clear there has been little or no contact since they were children; probably he has no address. The letter won’t be sent. But it is evidence of a wish to speak, to atone, to reach out. It is a meaningful act.

“There are 214 words in the poem and twenty of them are ‘I’. If the poem were not written in character, there would be far fewer. The self-centeredness of Rex’s writing is another hint that his apparently privileged position has damaged him. He says he has ‘not always had a good life’. The poem, if it succeeds, gives the reader all they need to imagine why.”

Tom Sastry’s collection A Man’s House Catches Fire (Nine Arches Press, 2019was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney First Collection Prize. His pamphlet, Complicity (smith|doorstop, 2016), was a Poetry Book Society pamphlet choice and a Poetry School Book of the Year. He has been highly commended in the Forward Prize and his poems have appeared (among other places) in The Guardian, Magma and The North. Tom is currently working on a second collection.

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