By Scott Cairns b. 1954 Scott Cairns
You’ll need a corpse, your own or someone else’s.   
You’ll need a certain distance; the less you care about   
your corpse the better. Light should be   
unforgiving, so as to lend a literal
aspect to your project. Flesh should be putty,   
each hair of the brows, each lash, a pencil mark.

If the skeleton is intact, its shape may
suggest beginnings of a structure, though even here   
modification might occur; heavier
tools are waiting in the drawer, as well as wire,   
varied lengths and thicknesses of doweling.   
Odd hollows may be filled with bundled towel.

As for the fluids, arrange them on the cart   
in a pleasing manner. I prefer we speak
of ointments. This notion of one’s anointing   
will help distract you from a simpler story
of your handiwork. Those people in the parlor   
made requests, remember? Don’t be concerned.

Whatever this was to them, it is all yours now.   
The clay of your creation lies before you,
invites your hand. Becoming anxious? That’s good.   
You should be a little anxious. You’re ready.   
Hold the knife as you would a quill, hardly at all.   
See that first line before you cross it, and draw.

Scott Cairns, “Embalming” from Philokalia: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2002 by Scott Cairns. Reprinted with the permission of Zoo Press.

Source: Philokalia: New and Selected Poems (Zoo Press, 2002)

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Poet Scott Cairns b. 1954

Subjects Living, Death

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Scott  Cairns


Scott Cairns was born in Tacoma, Washington. He earned a BA from Western Washington University, an MA from Hollins College, an MFA from Bowling Green State University, and a PhD from the University of Utah.
Cairns is the author of eight books of poetry, including The Theology of Doubt (1985), The Translation of Babel (1990), Philokalia (2002), Idiot Psalms (2014), and Slow Pilgrim: The Collected Poems (2015). His writing has . . .

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SUBJECT Living, Death

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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