My skeleton, my rival

By David Ignatow 1914–1997 David Ignatow
Interesting that I have to live with my skeleton.   
It stands, prepared to emerge, and I carry it
with me—this other thing I will become at death,   
and yet it keeps me erect and limber in my walk,   
my rival.

What will the living see of me
if they should open my grave but my bones   
that will stare at them through hollow sockets   
and bared teeth.

I write this to warn my friends
not to be shocked at my changed attitude   
toward them, but to be aware
that I have it in me to be someone
other than I am, and I write to ask forgiveness   
that death is not wholesome for friendships,   
that bones do not talk, have no quarrel with me,   
do not even know I exist.

A machine called skeleton will take my place   
in the minds of others when I am dead   
among the living, and that machine   
will make it obvious that I have died   
to be identified by bones
that have no speech, no thought, no mind   
to speak of having let themselves be carried   
once around in me, as at my service   
at the podium or as I lay beside my love   
or when I held my child at birth
or embraced a friend or shook a critic's hand   
or held a pen to sign a check or book
or wrote a farewell letter to a love
or held my penis at the bowl
or lay my hand upon my face at the mirror   
and approved of it.

There is Ignatow, it will be said,
looking down inside the open grave.   
I'll be somewhere in my poems, I think,
to be mistaken for my bones, but There's Ignatow   
will be said. I say to those who persist,   
just read what I have written.
I'll be there, held together by another kind   
of structure, of thought and imagery,
mind and matter, love and longing, tensions   
opposite, such as the skeleton requires   
to stand upright, to move with speed,
to sit with confidence, my friend the skeleton   
and I its friend, shielding it from harm.

David Ignatow, “My skeleton, my rival” from Living Is What I Wanted: Last Poems. Copyright © 1999 by Yaedi Ignatow. Reprinted with the permission of BOA Editions, Ltd.,

Source: Living Is What I Wanted: Last Poems (BOA Editions Ltd., 1999)

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Poet David Ignatow 1914–1997

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Subjects Growing Old, Death, The Body, Living, Nature

 David  Ignatow


David Ignatow is remembered as a poet who wrote popular verse about the common man and the issues encountered in daily life. In all, he wrote or edited more than twenty-five books and was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial Prize and Robert Frost Medal, the Bollingen Prize, and the John Steinbeck Award. Early in his career he worked in a butcher shop. He also helped out in . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Growing Old, Death, The Body, Living, Nature

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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