Friday, November 19, 2010

POEM: Kissing Corpses

The first time I saw a dead person was my grandpa - the German one.

His face was waxy and his body more clay than flesh.
When we went back to my grandmother's after the wake
I met my Uncle George – grandpa’s brother –
whom i had somehow never met before - sitting in the corner of the room
looking so much like my grandpa, drink in hand, animated as wind,
that I turned to stone.

For that one moment which I remember like light, I believed that when
people died they popped right back up like a cartoon character
whose head is flattened by an anvil and simply re-inflates to its original shape.

On the Italian side of my family there were many wakes
where I learned through breathing the air and eating the marinara
with clams that it was respectful to lean over a corpse,
to kiss it squarely on the forehead.

I made up rules about when I should kiss a corpse and when not to:
if it was someone I kissed while he was alive then I would kiss him at his wake.

The first corpse that I ever kissed was that of my Uncle Al.
I kissed him whenever we met.
He was a brusque Greek with a temper like frayed wire.
I kissed his chocolate skin, felt his white cactus stubble.

Even at the end of his life, I knew what that spongy kiss
on his cheek meant to him.
Even when it was behind the plastic of an oxygen mask,
lungs filling with fluid as he grew smaller and smaller.

It was like kissing marble.

I wondered if it was a safe thing to do but I did it anyway.
I knew that he would approve.

The most difficult corpses of all are babies.
How the leaden appearance of miniature coffins commands attention.
How complete everything looks, tiny as a doll house except
for that one glaring thing you know but cannot shake off:
there is a baby in there.

It is the realization of a razor.

When Conor died it crushed me like an empty paper cup, as wrinkled and small.
A balloon burst deep in my stomach and I thought I smelled the acid.

Teenagers are so full of shit which is why they appear so brave and bold
but underneath you know they are just quaking leaves.

But here in a bundle that resembled laundry, waxy,
more clay than flesh, dried fruit body, shriveled and narrow,
approaching the size of dust, sliding toward disappearance,

I took him for the child that he really was.

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