by Clayton Arble
“The Dead Father’s head. The main thing is, his eyes are open.”
– Donald Barthelme, The Dead Father
It’s Wednesday. I’ve been given the burden of guiding
mommy’s corpse across the ocean to its final resting place.
Her body is a continent. The tribes will spring out of the
cracked seams of her skull, and slowly, through the centuries,
a language will develop from the songs she sang to me when
I was in the womb. Meanwhile, grandma’s in the kitchen. She
died five years ago. She’s hasn’t been as healthy since she
died, living with her decaying memories: a picture of grandpa
smiling for sixty years, a bible with the names and dates of
her dead in it. If she’s not careful, she’ll die again, this time
for real. She doesn’t want to help me carry her daughter out to
sea. My dad, who’s there but not, said he would, but I know
I’ll have to carry her out there myself, bring her to the middle
of the ocean and let her body bring new life into the world,
letting her skin dissolve as she becomes an island. That’s the
tradition. When she was young, she did it too.
written after a
Using the present tense
five years later,
my sister who was never born tells me
about Grandpa: “You weren’t there for
it, but Papa once met Jean Paul Sartre.”
“Mhmm. He had a dream Sartre had dug
a tunnel in the Earth, because people, as humans,
needed to understand their condition as essentially
underground and subterranean. The next day, Papa
found the tunnel, and he crawled through this
muddy, rubber intestine into an apartment where an
old white man and an old black man were laughing
at him, and he laughed too. This was Sartre’s
and it was identical
This is my sister. She is the
smoke around a fire. When
mom was in the hospital, a
hole in her bladder
the size of a quarter, we ran away
together. I wanted to be caught in the elementary school,
because that was where we’d go sledding every winter,
where I’d push you down the hill, or off your sled, and
you would be too kind to do it back to me. Mom wanted
to have you. She tried for years, but I am an only child
and my parents only share one son. For a page, I knew
my sister as if she was here the whole time. She almost
was. This means she never was.
“Tell me one about mom,” I ask.
My grandma’s official photograph
for the Mount Marie Catholic Hospital
Here’s a picture of my grandma smiling fifty years ago. She’s still
smiling now, fifty years later, trying not to blink, holding her
breath behind her lips. At one time or another I have been in love
with her, my mother, my sister, my unborn daughter and a girl
named Em who shares my birthday. For all of them, both of their
dates are written down in the back of a photograph that was
buried with my grandfather.
Stop calling her your wife. She’s not your wife.
She’s your second self, the sister of your lifetime,
Your first guide in this world and your first love.
Look at her: needles of ice dapple her fur, and
frozen blood rises and falls from her open
“And in one you were my daughter, and I was
pushing you on the swings after school in the
park down the street from our house. You
cracked your skull open when I wasn’t
looking, when a bush of flowers distracted me
just long enough for you to leave again.”
If this poem ends, you will leave again.
I dressed up for my death because I’ve
always said “don’t let reason rule you!”
Death is a form of reason, and reason
Is the death of childhood and
imagination. Don’t let them fool you!
This is a simple and straightforward thought about losing my virginity to a girl who is the reincarnation of my first love.
If you’re not me, or if you’re me and you forgot, you and Jamie Whittaker were in love in preschool, but one day her mother burned her to death with a pot of boiling water and you couldn’t be in love with her anymore. Now you’re a Senior in high school and you’ve found someone whose so similar to her she could have been her. It’s simple arithmetic that it somehow is her, or the reincarnation of her, or the mythologization and manifestation of her.
Like foreign countries in summer,
I don’t know where she came from –if she was born, or if she’s always been here, or if she was invented five minutes ago– but something’s telling me I need to lose my virginity to her. It’s like Maud Gonne trying to give birth to the reincarnation of her brother: the world works on continuity, and the world will find any way to preserve its continuity. I only thought about this girl today, but it feels like I’ve had her my whole life.
Most of your memories are dreams;
Your first dreams are the only memories
That haven’t been revised.
And better yet, I caught her in a hallway putting a bandaid over a hole in the wall that was injured by a doorknob. The fact that she tried to repair a wall shows me that she shares my thinking.
What was it? You’re awake.
The dream is irretrievable,
But I’ll admit I don’t know the roots of things. I grew my hair out for some distant reason, beyond the horizon of my conscious past. But I think it’s more powerful to be given your roots because it means there’s something external to you that can penetrate you. I can’t help but think that introducing myself to this girl will fulfill the love I started with a dead girl a decade and a half ago. But I know it isn’t her. I know it’s a weak ending. But it works.
And the windows
darken as the clouds
[Clayton Arble is a poet from Holyoke, Massachusetts. His poems have been or will be published in Leveler Press, Whiplash Magazine, 805, and The Gyroscope Review. He can be found at clayton.arble850 (at) gmail.com.]