“American Museum of Natural History (Love, Love, Love)” by Aryk Greenawalt

Aryk Greenawalt


I. Lobby of the American Museum of Natural History, Manhattan, NYC

On the phone, my mother tells me it is normal to forget everyone I have ever loved. She tells me it is normal to forget I loved them. It is normal to be nine years old, surrounded by red-eyed girls at our very first sleepaway camp, staring into the night while they cried and imagining my mouth as a fist. My mother doesn’t know I keep my bully’s mother’s Facebook on my feed, doesn’t know that when I told my first boyfriend I missed him, I had my fingers crossed. My mother thinks there is a heart in me yet.

I was four when I decided to be a paleontologist, not yet in school, carcharodontosaurus easier on my teeth than my middle name. I sounded out the names. In dreams I was in Nevada or California, working sites in the desert, uncovering trilobites and teeth the size of my arm. My father took me into Manhattan every Christmas Eve, sat on the bench beneath the brachiosaurus while I traced its spine in the air, its smallest vertebra larger than my head. The holiday crowd parted around me. My father followed me from room to room and waited on benches designed for bored parents, but I knew them all—sauropods, theropods—and I could identify skeletons without reading the plaques. 


II. Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, Fourth Floor

I have forgotten everyone I’ve ever loved. Sediment on riverbeds. Stone and ash. Sweep the mud over my old middle school, the girls in my carpool, the freshman who texted i love u while I was on holiday. New York grinned with plesiosaur teeth. Here, in the American Museum of Natural History, when I look behind me at the teeth and thumbs of people whose numbers I deleted, who I watched walk away and who I walked away from, I see the space where a heart would go. What can I do with all these scattered parts? Drop them behind me like footprints. Make them fossils. Put something beautiful here, and I will piece it together. I will call them each by name. I will give them a name that isn’t theirs and call it into the night. No one remains to tell me I am wrong, to put salt in my eyes and call it love. If I am crying, you are walking away. If you are crying, I am walking away. But the bones stay. Give them distance. Make them fossils. I have never known a love I could hold while it was alive. 

Here, on the archivists’ table, we have human beings reduced to their parts: vertebrae, mandibles, phalanges. Give me the names before I forget altogether; give me a placard, and I will classify them. This is not my history, but I am trying to piece it together: the people who touched me, who wrote their names in yearbooks, whose eyes and hair merge into high school crowds and cinema exoduses; the ribs like crooked evergreens, knees shifting in my hands, my hands in the heart cavity, feeling for something to hold onto.

What’s left of everyone I have ever known could fit in the palm of my hand. I could fill a museum with the people I have split clean through with my chisel and brush. I could fill the halls with textured sweaters, raincoats, the bridges of noses. I invent the details. I can only be trusted to love when no one needs me to love them. 


Interlude: Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals

In a ditch in the woods behind my house, we found a skull: no blood, viscera shriveled on bone. The serrated hollow of its nose, its antlers detached cleanly on the ground. My brother cried the long hike home. I said, Its ribs, its ribs. Maybe I was the only one who saw them. The next time we went into the woods, it was gone. All the while I had been folding myself up to give it myself as a heart. I don’t remember a point in my history where I could say I believed in love, but, looking at the space where there had been a skeleton, I thought I knew.

My brother is the only person who stayed when he could have left, even when I held him down for seven years, thumb and forefinger griping muscle. How can I write this poem without making myself heartless? My bloods say, you are cruel. My bones say you have a claw like a velociraptor, always raised, and you drag it down the face of everyone bold enough to call you theirs. Say, you are bones in the ground. You are bones rising out of the ground. 

You are bones, and I am walking away. 


III. Hall of Ornithischian Dinosaurs, Fourth Floor

In 2017, a study moves the T-Rex to a new branch of the dinosaur family tree: ornithoscelida, bird-limbed. I imagine paleontologists disassembling him, carrying him in carts to the Hall of Ornithischian Dinosaurs, the glass case left empty behind him, footprints in the sand, claws scraping tile. If he was an ancestor of birds then he is still with us. Goodbye, Meryl Streep, your voice tracing genealogies in a room dark and ridged as the Great Blue above the Hall of Ocean Life. Goodbye Gavin on the bench beside me, our father in the back, his lips moving with the words, the light on our hands. I thought I knew everything. I thought when I moved to a place that did not know the bones and blood of me, I could excavate a new me, pull it from the earth and brush the dust away. I thought I could be someone who did not leave. Strip me of my half a century left; make me bones in the ground; trap my footprints in sediment and say you knew I would come back.

from Rattle #71, Spring 2021
Tribute to Neurodiversity


Aryk Greenawalt: “My surreal approach to poetry comes directly from my worldview as a nonbinary autistic person (I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome but choose the label “autistic” to show solidarity with all my siblings on the autism spectrum, and to show that there is no hierarchy of value in autistic people, because we all have innate value). The world is indecipherable, so I make my own riddles and unravel them. People are indecipherable, so I create my own. The world slides around me like shower water, so I slide around it back. I write around it. I make crevasses and write in them. I write it into a world in which I have the control, in which I make the rules, where the world and I are perfectly understood by each other. I pursue amorphism: I eradicate the difference between the Thing and that which is outside the Thing. I tell the world: two can play this game, and I show it the playing field.”

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