Poem of the Week | June 16, 2014

This week we’re featuring a new poem by Paisley Rekdal. Rekdal is the author of a book of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee; a hybrid-genre photo-text memoir that combines poetry, fiction, nonfiction and photography entitled Intimate; and four books of poetry: A Crash of Rhinos, Six Girls Without Pants, The Invention of the Kaleidoscope, and Animal Eye, which was a finalist for the 2013 Kingsley Tufts Prize, the Balcones Prize and winner of the UNT Rilke Prize.

 
Author’s note:

In 1993, hundreds of skeletons were unearthed from the grounds of The Colorado State Mental Institution, tagged and numbered over the years by the late forensic anthropologist Dr. J. Michael Hoffman. While little to nothing is known about the individuals interred in the grounds, several of the skulls bore marks of syphilis, and were likely the remains of patients who had been abandoned or forgotten by their families. Many of the skulls were later photographed by the artist Andrea Modica, and published in a monograph titled Human Being.
 
I came across these skulls’ histories via Modica’s work, and became fascinated by the ways these skulls—for whatever reason—reminded me of other people from my life who have been “lost” through wartime violence to me, whether literally or figuratively. The entire collection of skulls is, accidentally, a monument to the patients at the institution, which got me thinking about the work that monuments attempt to do: to memorialize individuals, in a way that ultimately renders them anonymous. To look at these skulls is to be reminded that the individual, in death, is stripped of his or her humanity at the same time his or her remnants become surprisingly poignant to us. The skull resides between individuality and anonymity. I wrote a series of sonnets that explores that, in part through the stories of my uncle, my cousin, and other men in my life: soldiers who fought in wars and whose real suffering and service has been in part “absorbed” into the monuments that we prefer to erect in soldiers’ honor.

 

C4: male, 74 years-old

 

What dreams remain encased inside the freckled
gourd, this ostrich eggs cradled on cardboard
like the pate of a man caught catnapping on stacks
of factory cartons? Bob, our line’s humored,
grizzled hero, who’d survived Dien Cai Dau
to find he couldn’t work a paint gun trigger
to spray down t-shirts neon for Costco. Shadows
from morgue lights fissure the cracks: the skull shivers
on its paper mantel. I only think the rest
of a man’s attached: crouched, fetal inside
his nightmare’s flak that drifts into a mist
of candied paints. I squint, but cannot find
the hairline hasp forensics says was groined
by lobes that tried, and failed, to fuse to one join.

 

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