Reading the Bones

As April, Poetry Month, comes to a close, this will be my last posting of a poem instead of prose on the blog (for a while, at least). Throughout the past month, I’ve chosen poems of mine that are about the making of art, specifically poetry, itself. That’s true, too, of the work below.

“Reading the Bones” is from my latest book of poems, Dark Matter: New Poems, published by Spinifex Press and available in print and all e-book formats wherever books are sold.

Reading the Bones

for MN

I glimpse lines crazing my face in the windowglass,
crone’s bones emerging. My eyes are growing larger;
soon they will perch on stalks and swivel, crustacean.
The better to see how others do it:
this last chance at living.

I watch them, agnostics entangled in their roots:
Jews reclaimed by feminist seders; African Americans
by Sunday church. The atheists study history, showing
a sudden personal interest in the past, as they prepare
to enter it. As for the ones who’ve left already, they
and we, the dead and living, share mutual disbelief.

The message is we’re too fatigued to change the myths
of ourselves at this stage, preferring to die, unmake
the world, in the familiar. Understandable. Yet I persist
in lusting to be seamless with the universe while still aware
of it—so I suspect a future darkly bright, kaleidoscopic
as symmetries glittering beneath eyelids rubbed dry of tears.

Time intimate as an embalmer. Deep Time. A passion
there so vast it flows inseparable from indifference, unlike
any passions I have known. Not those of my youth, when I longed
to read the bones, thinking I knew the cost of literacy.
Not zeal to save the world. Not desire in a lover
with the heat-seeking lips of a blood python.

No, this fire burns as ice, melts only for metaphors
that puzzle into patterns not of meaning but of beauty,
not of beauty but of till-that-moment the unthinkable.
For instance, retreating from Russia’s winter, Napoleon saw
they had stuffed the broken windows of hospitals
with their frozen dead–feet, limbs, heads–to fit the apertures.

Decades ago, in Rome’s Capuchin catacombs, I took notes
to play with in my private funeral games, then dared not
use them–until now. Now they remind me that such crypts
are not to be confused with Phnom Penh’s neat pyramids of skulls,
the tidy skeletons stacked in Vukovar, remains beyond wounded
at Wounded Knee, or Kigali’s ossuary pits.

These catacombs are galleries for works of art. The medium
is human bone, room after small room, layered in the thousands.
Rosettes of sacrum framed by vertebrae. Jawbone
maxillae as vaulted triangles. Garlands woven of ribs
and carpals, arches of crossed femurs, roses tiled
with shoulder scapula and kneecap patella.

No inch of cornice, wall, or ceiling is left unskulled. Smiles
of these fragmented, nameless dead form wallpaper
against which featured exhibits are displayed: the eight-pointed
star of foot phalanges, the winged skull flanked by a sacrum.
A boss of pelvises. An hourglass. Metatarsal flowers, tibia stars–
the full palette is used, all 206 bones of the human body.

And in the foreground, the named dead lie whole
and mummified on cushions plumped with bone.
Capuchin monks full-robed, a doctor who died ministering to
victims of the plague, elaborately shrouded nieces of a pope,
and, postured dancing, naked, the skeletons of three
small children. Breath catches suddenly. The air is dusty.

Another tourist, a priest, claims this artistry by friars was done
in waves, across centuries, to celebrate the resurrection.
Considering their chosen medium, I doubt that motive,
although John Donne did wrap himself in a winding sheet
while burning candles in the human skull he kept on his desk
as he wrote the devotions called the Holy Sonnets.

His own devotion, however, he reserved for poetry. I too
have a skull above my desk, a photograph of the shape
formed by rose petals, delicate, dissonant. Each day I pay
respect to death. Respect was simpler, I admit, when death was
an abstraction. Now, friends in the ICU need visits,
and entrust me with defending their DNR directives.

So here’s another lament for the makers: Muriel, Dorothy, Florika,
Simone, Eve, Pauli, June, Carolyn, Audre, Bella, Barbara, Andrea,
Wilma, Adrienne, Grace, Gerda, Mary, Lesley, Koryne, Kate . . .
naming my dead, the women who made mischief, poems, laws,
pies, incremental seismic change. All the arguments, the laughter,
The suffering, silenced now. Whoever’s next, I’m done with eulogies.

Nevertheless, I understand more deeply than I would prefer
why those obsessive friars, assured by the reliable supply
of their materials, built that world. Don’t you and I
construct our days using what we drag back from nights
spent foraging our losses? What other materials
does anyone ever really have? The catacombs are everywhere.

Look! Do you see? A rose, a star! The hourglass fills,
drains. Ignore the tourists, look away from the window.
Here, wear the garland; it’s meant for you. So are these
fragments, assembled with passion, indifference, reliable pain.
Look! Do you see? A poem, layer on layer, words puzzled together,
bones from the catacomb of a brain.

Copyright 2018 by Robin Morgan. All rights reserved.