January 17, 2015

Ekphrasis Challenge #2: Artist’s Choice

 

Untitled by James Bernal

__________

M

CLEAN WHITE SHEETS

I asked to be left alone with you.
They weren’t happy about it, but who’s cruel enough
to argue with the widow? One of them hangs like a painting
in the hallway for quite a while before he huffs,
and reluctantly goes. As reluctant to accept the disruption
of me as this clean white room is, with its clean white walls.
Clean white rolling door. Clean white sheets.

I’ve come to dress you for burial. Or cremation.
In all the times we talked about it, you never specified which.
Nor what you wanted to wear. You’d probably pick
the Skinny Dick’s Halfway Inn T-shirt, bought when we visited
Susan in Fairbanks. She always complained about the city’s
20 hours and 17 minutes of night on winter solstice,
but we loved the dark’s invitation to linger longer
in the Regency’s luxury sheets making good
on the T-shirt’s promise of Loose Women Tightened Here.
And if I dressed you in it, what would I wear
to bed on those nights I needed to make you laugh?
Too sick for sex by then, but never for a laugh.

You said you wanted to come back as a nautilus,
a living fossil relatively unchanged after 500 million years
of evolution, with the rare ability to withstand being brought up
from its depths with no apparent damage from the experience.
I pull back the white sheet to remind you that a diabetic
who survived Woodstock on nothing but carrots and acid
was probably already a living fossil.
Why do we cover the faces of the dead?
Are we afraid it would be rude to stare?
Or are we afraid they might stare back at us
with not a hint of recognition?

You are still intact—your generous chest
which never had enough hair to suit you,
your penis mottled by vitiligo, that one-of-a-kind
penis you said would allow me to positively identify you
even if you’d been decapitated.
But you haven’t been. Your head is here.
Everything I’ve ever wanted is here, surprisingly unchanged
after what seems like 500 million years of marriage.
Except the dark outside the window now
is threatening. As are white sheets.
Which will never find their way onto my bed again.
No matter how high the thread count.
No matter how Egyptian the cotton.
Hotel rooms are going to be hell.

Ekphrasis Challenge #2
Artist’s Choice Winner

[download audio]

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Comment from the photographer, James Bernal, on his selection: “It might come from my background of reading into photographs and making up little stories about the subjects, but I loved everything about ‘Clean White Sheets.’ It was very funny but also very real and honest—I almost feel as though the author truly knew something I didn’t about the recently deceased. I feel like I know who that person was and the life he lived and that he was loved. Thanks M, I’ll never be able to look at this photo without imagining a lonely night at Skinny Dick’s Halfway Inn.” (website)

Note: This poem has been published exclusively online as part of our quarterly Ekphrasis Challenge, in which we ask poets to respond to an image provided by our current issue’s cover artist. This winter, the image was a mysterious photograph by James Bernal. We received 294 entries, and the artist and Rattle‘s editor each chose their favorite. Timothy Green’s choice will be posted next Saturday. For more information on the Ekphrasis Challenge visit its page. See other poets’ responses or post your own by joining our Facebook group.