Sandy McIntosh

Sestina: Against the Painted Corpse

What is this notion we have about preserving the lifeless body
As it was in life? Is it our natural reaction against the personal sentence of death—embalmed
Remains, the defiance of mortality? Or is its sole purpose to honor the ones we loved?
Is it some deep spiritual urging or some baser emotional thing—
This impulse to erase the final travail on the face of the deceased by the painted
Lips, hands, the eyes closed in seeming peace. Is this the archetypal scheme?

Screw the Egyptians! Go back further: The earliest embalming scheme
Appears in the Etruscan body
Of codices (compiled by Prof. Schwerner) first painted
On cave walls. A little-known tribe embalmed
Their dead with sweet water, soup or some such thing
And posed them at table, slurping the meal that, in life, they most loved.

And Romans posed their dead as lovers or as loved,
As they were in life: in the act or scheme
Of bedding the man, the woman (or, possibly some mechanical thing).
A tribute to vitality, to effulgent soul, supple body
The hope we all share, embalmed
In our longing for this life—this one life!—All sorrows to remain un-painted.

But let’s get down to cases. My first view of the Painted
Corpse was that of my uncle James. He loved
Money and, in fact, had his swimming pool embalmed
(As it were) with silver dollars encrusted into its cement sides; a scheme
Made mockery by death on his first swim: his body,
Floating bloated, his swimsuit askew, exposing his shriveled thing.

But, fixed up in a titanium coffin (a thing
Guaranteed never to decay), his pasty painted
Face, hands joined across his body
His morning coat, collar mounting firmly to the chin—as he loved
To dress! This artificial thing, embalmed,
Would rest eternal until Resurrection, that most formal, if perhaps imaginary scheme.

Then, through my life in quick succession, a parade of relatives embalmed:
An aunt, and then another, and then my father, each transformed into this scary thing:
This dead one not really dead, but only sleeping, thanks to mortician’s scheme.
In nightmares they would chase me, grotesque visions, purple-painted
Dreams, obliterating true memories of those I had loved
Compressing their individuality into something packaged, a sameness: Out of many, one.

A body not embalmed, after a day or two, may still be recognized and loved,
Appearing only slightly green—not a bad thing, really, with features left un-painted,
Body clothed and accessorized to complete a natural, peaceful aesthetic scheme.

Military School Thug
       —for Bill Maguire

My greatest fear as a boy: my parents shoving me
onto a train heading upstate—“Up the river,” they called it—
to military school.

How prescient! That’s exactly what happened,

Yes, I was a little bastard. Every observing adult agreed.
Yes, I did set fire to the vacant lot on Holyoake Road
causing a four alarmer. Yes, I did pull a traffic cop’s gun
from his holster on a Manhattan street.
And more! (Just Google me under “little bastard.”)

So, for six years, hazing, beating, lots of military drill,
pushups up your ass, and so on. About 400 cadet inmates.
Terror, but little joy.

I coped.

I swore
that, graduated, I wouldn’t give them a cent.
I stayed true to my promise.

(But here’s the reason I bring this up:)
They were closing the school doors,
blaming the alumni for meager contributions.
Even so, they would hold a last Alumni Day
perhaps to shame us.

My wife and I drove there.
Yes, I had been a bastard.
Yes the goddamn military school
was punishment. But I’d survived it!

Survived it! And I was there, having not given them a cent
toward longevity, though the place was now a junk yard,
and absent even a ghost of my personal suffering!

I could not help but join fellow alumni in the Chapel,
for prayer service in memory of the old place.

Cheated! That’s how we felt. Cheated of our heritage!

Ten Engulfed Cathedrals

                              Accompaniment to La cathédrale engloutie, by Claude Debussy
                                                             —for Cathy Callis
La cathédrale engloutie, an ancient Breton myth in which a cathedral, submerged underwater off the coast of the Island of Ys, rises up from the sea on clear mornings when the water is transparent. Sounds can be heard of priests chanting, bells chiming, and the organ playing across the sea.

1. This is the cathedral of the penitents, prostrate before their bishop. The air is choking with incense and though they are cleansed and holy, they're sneaking glances beneath the pews, grasping for light from opaque windows, sniffing for hope in the impenetrable smoky curtain—desperately looking for the way out.

2. This is the cathedral of the Eternal Feast, as painted by Pieter Bruegel, the Elder. The ravenous monks and nuns eat day and night. There is never enough to satisfy them! They are born at table, grow old and die, and are consumed there the next meal. No one is sated and no one pushes away with a satisfied belch!

3. This is the cathedral of the insects. Although in holy robes, there is nothing human about them. They streak from pillar to pole like neurons in the brain, their own agenda compelling them onward. Their mission only to their Holy Queen cosseted deep in the cathedral's reliquary. Foreign to us as are our own thoughts, there is nothing we can learn from them.

4. This is the cathedral where Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses are nailed to the door. This is the cathedral of confrontation and blame, the cathedral where wrongs are righted only to be wronged. The cathedral of the Inquisition, its pliers, it garrotes. This is the cathedral of endless argument and vexation, of contrition that unfolds the mawkish banner of arrogance.

5. This is the cathedral of sunlight through stained glass, of pleasant weather—the day we believed would go on forever! But this cathedral will also sink into the sea, water pouring in through the springtime open windows, too soon, "'Till Human voices wake us and we drown."

6. This cathedral rises to giddy heights, its choirs singing hallelujahs, caught in the rapture of the moment, cradling us in ecstatic embrace. But, inevitably this cathedral sinks, its voices one by one, like fireworks falling into water, extinguished. And then we are alone with the dreary necessities: setting bread and cheese on the lonely dinner table.

7. This is the cathedral in which everything is cataloged——candle holders, patens, chalices, incense, relics of saints, crucifixes, vestments and Gospels. This is the church of learning, of order, and of the Scriptorium where all these things are written down.

8. In the dome of this cathedral, Michelangelo is painting the ceiling. He's embedding messages of brotherhood, tolerance, and freethinking, but artfully, so that the archbishop will not know he is abandoning church dogma. This is his passionate secret and ours. He is absorbed in his realization as we are absorbed in him.

9. This is the cathedral where there are finally gifts worth giving, where sermons make sense, and answers are worth hearing. This is also the cathedral of the quotidian. In this place, chacun passe,/ chacun vient, chacun va. But there is hope, and order, and determination—proof that we can do better.

10. This is the cathedral of all cathedrals in which the hell-bound, the hungry, the insects, the angry, the tranquil, the rapturous, the learned, the realized, and those with aspirations are assembled, a tableaux in the cathedral's shadowbox. The priests are chanting, the bells are chiming, and the organ is playing. We hear it across the sea, a vision engulfed by clouds.

Sandy McIntosh is author of eight collections of poetry. His selected poems, Cemetery Chess, will be published in October 2012 by Marsh Hawk Press.
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Blogger EILEEN said...

fabulous, Sandy. Great to see these,

3:08 AM  

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