I composed this poem after attending a poetry workshop sponsored by the Poetry Foundation at the Intuit Art Museum. During the workshop we were asked to consider a time when we felt like an outsider, and then we walked the galleries identifying a work of art that spoke to us. After the workshop, I was immensely affected and couldn’t write for about 2 weeks. I have always considered poetry to be like sculpture, and this one was definitely chiseled, with great labor and intensity, out of one solid piece of thought-granite.
The physical certainty and mortality of our bodies connects us to one another, and is a central part of what constructs a human story. The workings of the brain, and its symbolic representative, the head, are particularly fascinating to me as I have developed a theology of embodiment, and a theology that considers the realities and implications of scientific fact.
Here is the picture of the Torso Murder victim.
Your eyelashes curled,
The way smokestacks punctuate Cleveland’s skyline
At dusk, sending blue graceful flame upward.
By that point the Cuyahoga had scattered
From the intricately tattooed temple
Of your torso.
your head was found
Yet further downstream from
the artful rest of your flesh.
Vertebrae surgically separated
They laid your head on a crisp, white sheet.
You, beautiful boy. first of the “torso murders”
Disquieting and tender.
Your occupation spoken of, in euphemism,
you knew your knees on wet pavement.
Mouth opened and drooling
My head throbbed
Against packing tape
Tintinnabulation of thought against skull,
Met hallway bells
Feet and screams and laughter.
My bullies taped my mouth, hands, and feet.
delighting in the intricacy of their torture.
This was before my beard became a
Sign of privilege, a measure of safety.
At this point, it burned violently, excuse for cruelty
Standing in front of my AP English class, my teacher removed the tape swiftly, mercifully.
Most human skulls
Weigh approximately 10 lbs.
When removing a head from a body bag
Only latex and a thin barrier of electrons
Separate you from the reality of that weight
Of the meat and matter of who we are.
Charles. I matched the name
To the chart/to the tag.
His wife would arrive shortly
As chaplain, I presided over the
I would, of course, have conversations
With those I was preparing.
That day, the topic was transition
His and mine.
Sheen of oil, anointed his forehead
I laid a pillow beneath him.
Folded the white sheet neatly, down
Just below his collarbone.
His skin shimmered caramel
When I saw your art.
The human skulls you made on humid,
Dark nights. When large moths hover like 16th notes
Against any light hot enough to have them.
Something in cotton, tin foil, human teeth
said you understood madness,
From where it arrives, and what constructs
The meat and matter of our lives.
Expressed through misshapen,
our heads are
The same stuff as the dirt,
A road, lined with weeping willows
chorus of crickets
A sky of stars singing and burning above.