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For Sylvia Lee
Hacking and coughing, slapping at scorch marks on their otherwise white robes, the souls of the dead stagger toward the Pearly Gates as St. Peter tugs his beard to hide a guilty look. Oh, how they loved them; how could they ever exist without them? So do the souls clamor over their absent anatomy. Only a cynic would argue the souls of the dead ascend with the last gasp of breath. Instead, like a faithful hound curled in the grass by the tomb of its master, the souls mean to hang on, sneaking into coffins, hitching rides to crematoriums, anything to win a last embrace from a dear one. But then the smell begins, the fetor of decay, the miasma of putrefaction. Press an ear to the bare earth of a fresh grave and soon you’ll hear a familiar choking sound. A day later a nighttime jogger might spot a geyser of marsh gas or will ‘o the wisp, as the gagging guardian of the recently defunct blasts off toward the balmy air of heaven. Even faster is their escape from crematoriums as eruptions of greasy smoke racing skyward readily attest. But just as the folks at refineries mix methyl mercaptan with odorless propane to create the stink of rotten eggs, skunk smell, robust farts, so the powers of heaven splatter a suitable stench on the moldering dead. Otherwise a soul might linger until only the chromium balls and polyethylene sockets of phony hips remain. Thus the nasty smell. Those kids practicing kisses or couples fucking in the backseats of a VW bugs, are amorous triflers compared to the ardor of the soul for its partner. As they joylessly wait for reassignment, they dangle their feet into the blue abyss at the brink of heaven like boys on a wall bumping their sneakers on the bricks below. Isn’t it the soul’s initial distaste for its next host and its loyalty to the past that leads to the mix-up of childhood and tumult of adolescence? Such is the miracle of birth as the soul is first thrust into a minuscule egg, then cast squawking into the world as burgeoning rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. For S.L.
“The Miracle of Birth” from The Day’s Last Light Reddens the Leaves of the Copper Beech, copyright 2016 by Stephen Dobyns, BOA Editions, Ltd.