That day when I stood
at the bedside
  where the old woman lay,

her last breath drifting
  in the room, her skin

  still warm and flushed,
I knew I must learn the names
  of the body, to find

a language for holding it
  in my hands,

  using a moist cloth
to wash its scent,
  then sealing the bag

and wheeling it on a gurney
  to the vault.

  I yearned for a way
to make her more than a vessel
  of tissue and bone.

So I lifted the cloth to her face
  and began:

  across the mandible
which housed the worn teeth;
  along her neck and jugulars

where blood had stopped,
  the cells already clustered

  in thick, dark clots;
along the edge
  of each clavicle;

across her breasts
  that were no longer full,

  their form and desire
long vanished; down
  the sternum, its soft cartilage

clinging to ribs;
  over the abdomen's

  flaccid muscles;
across the pelvic ridges,
  gently between her legs

where a last stream of urine
  had entered the sheets;

  then turning her to the side,
moving the cloth over
  her scapula, along the tired,

crooked spine; and finally
  against the lumbar's slow curve,

  all her weight
having fallen away,
  allowing her to drift out

beyond the body.
  It seemed a small task,

  articulating names of the things
which were the woman
  who lay in a room,

no longer lonely
  and in need of love,

  released of her gender
and history.
  But as I moved the cloth

along those places, I knew
  it would not be easy,

  this attending to the flesh,
on its way toward death
  and after, even if I could

summon the words,
  giving them a place in the world.


Poems by Richard Callin:

A New Life
Nine One One
Touring County Mayo, Eire
The Buick
How I'll Tell Him
A Story
Water Wheel

TIMES TEN: An Anthology of Northern California Poets