“The Man with the Corpse on His Shoulders” by James Cushing

James Cushing


I know a man who carries a corpse on his shoulders.
Yesterday, at sunset, I thought I saw
a lump of what had been a foot, or a smear of what
maybe was a face, just to the side of my friend’s pant leg
down by the unshined toes of his brown saddle shoes.
It was the dead, gray, mortal thing, beautiful and real
in some way no one can explain—the corpse he carries
and the way he carries it—so much so that
when I hear a bossa nova, I think of him, and when
I try to write a poem, sure and frank and flashing
with sex and wisdom and all the things I want to include,
like my friend and the corpse he carries, I think of him again.
Today he told me “Stay away from me, I’m sick.”
I told him his shoes were in a poem I was writing,
but that’s not true: the shoes escaped me
while he hoisted his corpse. Back home,
he props it in its chair for the night, so it may watch
him dreaming.

I carry a corpse, too.
Here it is, in my black-and-tan book bag, next to my green
Plato. Look at it. His face, uncorrupted, has lost what rage
it ever had. His white hair, grown past his shoulders,
feels so delicate; strands show up on tabletops, sweaters,
bowls of soup. His veiny hands, covered in loose,
translucent skin, clasp one another as though he were
meeting himself and felt on fire with the need
to touch. Some trouble with his belt: it keeps unbuckling,
catching my book bag, scraping my right ear
as I force his body into it. The bag-weight hurts my shoulder,
pulls me to the right as I try walking a straight line.
I love the work I make when carrying him, love
the hurt of his buckle on my ear, the chafing of my
shoulder, the ache in my arm, my full bladder, sleep-amoebas
swimming in front of all I see.

Through this nest of floating
shapeless things, I see my friend walking to his car, stopping
to adjust the corpse’s feet so they don’t kick him every step.
I see him the way I sometimes see haloes a few inches above
the heads of strangers, or statues making tiny movements
with their eyes. I think I’ll ask him if I may sleep tonight
in his back yard. The radio predicted comets, shooting stars,
and it’s dark enough out there for them to seem real.

from Rattle #29, Summer 2008


James Cushing: “The question ‘who you are and why you write poetry’ is quite relevant to this poem. I wrote this poem for, and about, a dear friend and fellow-poet who teaches with me in the English Dept. at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. His name is Kevin Clark, and he also has a poem in this issue. I think we are wounded into poetry. Something unexpected rocks our developing world, and we (some of us) find language as the healing, strengthening tool. Kevin Clark has told me that the death of his father, Allan was the starting-point for his poetry—that loss, at age twelve—and that this loss has been a factor in his career as a poet. When I learned that describing his response to that loss was also describing myself, the poem took shape.”

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