Curating the Dead

This entry is part 10 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems


Broken-nosed cherub

They were the grinning stars
of our childhood museum,
looming above the conches
& fossil ferns, the brain coral
& the blue & green glass bottles
that once held medicine.
We’d found them in the woods
not far from the houses,
their other bones littered about,
but it was only them we carried
home, those skulls: two cows & a mule.
Our elderly neighbor remembered
the mule’s name: Charlie.
Some of the teeth were loose
& soon went missing,
like strip-mined mountains.

We didn’t think about their deaths
or even what they’d been
before, as working livestock;
they were still live enough for us.
The zigzag sutures where
the parts of the skull fit together
made them self-evidently whole
& perfect, & the way the lower jaws
hinged behind the empty eyes
inspired awe. Every kid,
no matter how bored, would stop,
lift the mule’s top jaw
& make him talk.

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9 Replies to “Curating the Dead”

  1. Once you own actual bones, you understand that the “bones speak” trope is not metaphor but reportage.

    Double-love this, and would even if I did not kiss a hippo skull every night. The invocation of a Walter Rothschild/Tring child-assembled museum is wonderful, and particularly I am taken with:

    The zigzag sutures where
    the parts of the skull fit together
    made them self-evidently whole

    Architecture is surely more than sufficient magic when you are v. young.

      1. Why did I guess that you would?

        He’s an old acquisition from NYC Maxilla & Mandible, and so much more beautiful than Julian Schnabel’s specimen. FB photos can only hint at his charisma and kissability. (To be fair, he was a bit rank for a good three years, and occasionally emits a dog-magnet scent mote even 15 years on.)

        The varying textures are fascinating, and convince one – beyond the ability of a textbook – that bone is as dynamic and mutable as any other body system.

  2. Beautiful poem Dave. I find it unaccountably sad that a little mule sufficiently well known to have the affection of a name bestowed upon it, should have sickened and died alone in the woods, decomposing down to a heap of dis-articulated bones and a skull.

    It’s strange, this compulsion to collect skulls. I have two myself in the studio, a ram’s and a fox’s. The fox in particular is a beauty, all flowing, back-sweeping contours, its teeth needle sharp and perfect. It must have died young. Nevertheless like poor old mule Charlie, with no flesh to secure them snugly, the teeth slip their sockets and drop out, a scattering of tiny polished ninepins around her.

    1. Thanks. Clive, keep in mind our former neighbor made stuff up at random, so that may or may not have been true. (For example, she told us an old, falling-down shack in the woods belonged to a hobo. Two decades later I met a guy who spent summers up here in the 50s, and who led me to the spot where that shack had stood — a children’s clubhouse.) I always assumed they took it out and shot it, but the odd thing was that it was so close to the tenant house. You’d think they would’ve wanted to get farther away from the smell.

      “A scattering of tiny polished ninepins” is indeed, as Luisa suggest, a very poetic image!

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