Plumped up from the frail rigging
in which you’d left, you wore
the glossed distaste the undertakers
gave you, lips pursed, as if you’d seen
a thing you didn’t like. But I was there
after your breath stopped, and I saw
your eyes open to it, your mouth
just starting a smile, ready,
as you always were, for the next leg
of where you might be going.
It was wonder, I swear, as if
you were eager to see it through, beyond
the body, though you mouthed the glycerin
swabs until the end, so much breath in you,
such heart. What I read said you would sleep,
more and more, until you eased away,
but you stayed awake. Across long days
and nights, you were present for your death.
You never wanted to miss a thing.
Afterwards, there are no more
nurses in the room with the doctor,
and you realize there’s been
an official decision about the absence
of desire. A board somewhere sat
and determined it: male doctors
may examine the remaining breast
unaccompanied after mastectomy.
The two together may have been
enough to require a chaperone,
but not the one only, though
it still registers its sharp pleasures.
You are damaged beyond desire, they are
saying, for what else could it be,
the closed door so frank, so telling
in its silence, like a tongue at rest
on the palate’s floor.
It’s the absence
of the breast now draws the stare,
as if we could not be done
with it, the objectified body,
but no, here we go again—the check-out
guy checking out your flat side
outflanked by the mismatch, which
is why some of us let go the precious
muscle from our backs to make
that inert placeholder we never feel.
The absence of desire
is the other side of the wolf-whistle,
the counterpoint to a tune. O
how that comes through like
crescendo, who makes the rules,
the body’s boundaries. It’s an odd
world-tilting moment when the nurse
stays outside and the door closes
to what they clearly now think of you.
Kathryn Kirkpatrick is Professor of English at Appalachian State University where she teaches creative writing, environmental literature, and Irish studies. She is the author of seven books of poetry, including collections addressing climate change, human illness, and nonhuman animals (Unaccountable Weather (2011) and Our Held Animal Breath (2012). The Fisher Queen: New & Selected Poems is forthcoming from Salmon Press in 2019.