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Poetry

Audio: Read by the author.

 

Silver, shaped
_____ like a heart but now
empty, holding only some air,
_____ a lungful of sour breath

from someone who last breathed
_____ before the metal hinge
clicked shut. Or this, in the shape
_____ of a saint’s forearm—

fashioned from gilded silver, niello,
_____ and gems, with a wood core—
how lifelike it looks: creased where the fingers
_____ fold, the half-moon of each

fingernail slightly raised…
_____ In procession, the lacquered
arm was raised high so that
_____ the crowds could see—

having waited in whirls of dust
_____ on the road, families straining
for a glimpse of what luck
_____ was promised to them.

Sometimes, small windows
_____ worked into the design—
miniature hinges and faux panes—
_____ opened

to show the bones inside:
_____ femur, forearm, shard
of clavicle and hip, knobs
_____ of knees and ankles,

rolling knucklebones:
_____ a piece
could make a township famous.
_____ But most precious

were the skulls, for which they
_____ also built likenesses,
hollowed busts elaborately
_____ painted, preserving lip

and eye color, the particular
_____ slope of a nose,
blond braids coiled like rope
_____ dipped in gold.

In Siena’s basilica, Saint
_____ Catherine’s head,
freed from its reliquary,
_____ now stands in its own

skin, incorrupt on the silver
_____ altar, the teeth still visible
in that open air. To get the head,
_____ the Sienese had to sever

it from the body and smuggle
_____ it out of Rome—
a pious mutilation ordained
_____ by the papacy.

Hatchet, saw, and blade
_____ sharpened for this work,
then the heft that leaned
_____ into the neck

to break the spinal cord.
_____ Catherine, patron
saint of safety
_____ from fire—

Once, smugglers
_____ hid the severed head
in a sack and, when the guards
_____ approached, prayed

for a miracle: their sack
_____ lightened, filled now
with rose petals—the color of
_____ a heart still burning.

 

 

 


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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