Sculptor Mortician

by Bryan Owens


Optimus Prime(!) I want to know
what you were teaching me
those days before school
my brother & I rocked together
in our father’s brown recliner
in the light of our mother’s cream curtains.

Before school taught me
adulthood means molting
into dorkness; that algebra
lifts for you like a tissue in the wind
or not at all.

When I knew the piercing pleasure
of pushing gold brads
into joints of paper skeletons
I felt the generative prick of the demiurge

& drew an indiscriminate U
on the pelvis—but erased it
when Jack Clark showed me his
anatomically correct erection
sketched in fine black ink & J.C.
tattooed in cracks on the skull.

How was I to know Ms Gratzer’d
hang the skeletons from paper ropes
over each corresponding student’s desk?
I remember shoving mine into my backpack
in embarrassment, but I don’t remember
the rest of the year
the empty space over my head
the simultaneity of paper bones
flapping at me in a/c breezes. Real wind

never breaks so evenly on the spine—
I remember the prisoner in Megiddo
digging for early parole, his spine
striking like a serpent
each time he hit the mundane earth
with his pickaxe, until
he discovered the temple of the first Jesus cult
breathing into the prison yard
through a straw of falling sand & sunlight.

Now tourist believers surround the prison
like suburbs, fixing binoculars on dust clouds
rubbing away barbwire fences
& all the prisoners

flickering like ghosts. I’ve learned

we have no power
over what we conceal—when Sonny
hanged himself from the basketball hoop
I pinballed through the school asking ‘Sonny who?’
& cried too when teachers dismissed students
to grow together like moss along the cold lockers

because death meant Ms. Gratzer removing
the skeletons from their nooses
before we came in the next day & I
only accidentally preceded the curve.

Nights before I imagined Coach Greenshield
nearing the body swaying like a sandbag in the gym,
the doughiness of the purpling skin,
I thought it’d be cool to be a mortician
& a sculptor & sometimes
I’d pretend in my own decrepit art studio
the grieving bring me their dead;
I’d cast the cadavers in bronze,
pose them in places they felt most at home—

like the man on the jogging trail
this morning bearing
a Christ-sized cross over his shoulder,
training wheels fastened
where the Lord’s feet should be—when he dies
I’ll bronze him like a pair of baby shoes,
wheel him back to install him
where he was happiest, nailing
his personal best
on the imaginary march to Calvary.

If we’d been taught
to deal with death as an art form,
I never would have learned to be white-knuckle timid
of semi-trucks on the highway, instead

I would fly to the prison cemetery
in Megiddo, dip
the exhumed corpse
bone by bone into a copper sulfate bath,
make of his pickaxe a fountain
for prisoners to wash their hands & drink
& look between the glowing bones
to see the sun;

I’d go back to school
cast Sonny in electrolytic nickel,
place him peeping around the corner
in the natatorium hallway
where girls drip
between the pool & the locker room.

& I’d request my own burial
to be twisted with my wife, coppered in sheets,
kissing every letter in the word ENDURE
tattooed in sky blue between her collarbones.

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