after Joel Peter Witkin
1. The pale one, gaunt and green. Just walked out of an Otto Dix painting, but her girlfriend is even uglier. Her Mad Hatter headgear and bruised pupils have their own currency, but her waddle is Humpty Dumpty, or Twiddle Dum Dee. She is doughy and dumpy, rolly and lumpy, with hirsute arms and stubby paws. I like her immediately.
2. Although she looks fifty, I know she is only half my age. When I was her, I tried, too, to be as odious as possible, shaved the sides of my head, and then all of it. Wore a flowing turquoise peasant mumu and combat boots.
3. They are selling fox paw pendants, rings with teeth, and itty bitty exoskeletons of rare insects. I hold up a brooch of claws and copper wire, try it on my lapel, lay it back in its bed of ribbons and stones. An open jaw relic glimmers with skinny silver chains. I picture the pair of them out treasure hunting in the moors, excavating dead things from under roots and boulders, cold graves.
4. The Jack Sprat one has kohl-sunk eyes. Turns them on a new customer. The wife who could eat no lean scoops up a bleached bone, tells me to hold it to my throat. I feel that wild thing ignite behind my thyroid butterfly, that sense of immensity and power that only death can stir.
5. I ask her how she came to be interested in dead things. She wasn’t, she says, until she met her girlfriend. The tall one has a PhD in insect taxidermy. She herself is finishing her masters degree in human neuroscience. I’m impressed. I buy the lynx necklace. It feels like a wishbone in my palm.
6. Most moments you forget, but some you remember. The first kiss with M. The last line of cocaine. Seeing Bobby Martin saunter up the drive the day he died a thousand miles away. And this one: the moment I took a man’s brain out of a Tupperware and held it in my hands. There were thirteen corpses in the medical morgue that afternoon. I was a visitor, a witness to the students’ human dissection. But all the oozing juice and lipid drips could not distract me from the epic hush of that hunk of dense plasticine. All of the dendrites and synapses were silent, the whole of a life was reduced to a putty mass pumped full of Fermaldehyde. Even so, you could tell: this was rare physical contact with someone’s actual engine. My hands were cupping the seat of the soul.
7. My fixation with death started early. I had to make my peace with the mechanics of murder and the reality of temporality. I was a highly sensitive child, noticed it everywhere, in between the electric sparks of living. I couldn’t let it fell me, so I became fascinated instead. A girl I loved was gang raped and strangled at seventeen. A girl I knew had to get away from her father. Tied a tender knot around her neck, slipped from a backyard cherry tree alongside its blossoms. That was just the beginning.
8. It was what Mother was always threatening to do, but never did.
9. I would stand like a shadow in the doorway and try to reach her, listen to her howl and keen like the ducks she felled on our farm, in the seconds before their silence.
7. The flesh grows weary. Barely middle aged, and I’m already old. I repent of all I did, on purpose by mistake, to poison myself, to stop living. God forgave me, but my body won’t.
8. Still, after giving up everything else, I can’t give up the wine. It’s the only thing that feels like blood.
9. In an ancient Maya cemetery, the week of my art exhibition in the Yucatan, Manuel and I took pictures of the rusty tin boxes giving up their ghosts. There were bones everywhere, skulls propped under vines, leaves blooming in their sunken sockets. It was so hot and humid, and so strange, it was as if I was under water.
10. Witkin used the same things as we did at the graveyard, for his photographs, the same things as the taxidermy girls, as the doctors in the laboratory morgue. Dead things, and the living dead, arranged, sutured, assembled. He had to work in Mexico, where the things he needed for his images were not illegal. Heads, limbs, eyeballs. His black and white medleys of scars and sadomasochism, lard and lust, blood and dust are harrowing, and beautiful. I usually detest shock value art, dismiss it for being too easy. But there is something compelling and compulsive in his grim tableaus. Authenticity? Maybe. Something essentially Catholic. Something pure. They are gelatin-filmed, and macabre, but feel close to the truth.
11. The artist says his works are closer to the Beatitudes than to snuff.
12. When he was five, he witnessed a car crash. In the noise and excitement and terror, he found perfect stillness as a rolling stone tumbled through the chrome and steel shards and landed beside his innocence: the eyes of a pretty little girl stared back at him, unblinking. Just her head, shredded asunder from the rest of her. It was one of those defining moments you don’t choose but never forget. Her absolute loneliness.
Lorette C. Luzajic
There is no accompanying image to this piece because all of the photographer's images are incredibly disturbing. It is up to the reader whether they want to look up the works. They are gruesome and shocking and show decay, death, deformity, illness, sex, and pornography.
This poem was first published at South Florida Poetry Review, and in Pretty Time Machine: ekphrastic prose poems (Mixed Up Media Editions, 2020).
Lorette C. Luzajic is an award-winning, internationally collected visual artist with works in more than 25 countries. She studied journalism in university but prefers creative writing, often about art. Her most recent of five poetry collections is Pretty Time Machine: ekphrastic prose poems. She recently won first place in a flash fiction contest at MacQueen's Quinterly, and has been nominated several times each for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her poems and very short stories have been widely published, including recent or forthcoming appearances in Bright Flash, Club Plum, Halfway Down the Stairs, Gyroscope, Free Flash Fiction, Communicators League, and more. She is the founder and editor of The Ekphrastic Review.
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