from “The Book of the Body”
“O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you…”
Today I open the book of the body and read about beheadings.
—Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric”
It took three strokes to hack off Mary Stuart’s head,
the first struck the back of her head,
the second bit her shoulder and through her subclavian artery, spraying blood like a garden hose,
the third did the job.
Sikh guru Tegh Bahadur, who warned,
the mind remains in the mind and so death seizes him by the hair,
was decapitated for refusing to convert.
The book says that at his wedding Tegh Bahadur’s face was handsome as the moon.
The heads of looters stuck on poles outside Singapore’s Cathay Cinema
where Japanese officers manned the radio and watched American movies
broadcast the same message
as the execution of Daniel Pearl, and those of others who did not make it to video.
If the head was taken away, how did they identify the body for burial?
Perhaps the mother claimed her daughter by the birthmark on her left buttock.
Perhaps the father asked for his flat-footed son.
Perhaps the disciples placed his rough palm on their shaved heads.
Surely the lover knew,
not by the marks of imperfection, but by those of perfection,
toes, shins, kneecaps, thighs, sex, belly, sternum, nipples, shoulders—
lessons recited during caressing nights for such a night.
Today I open the book of the body under the sun in the Long Meadow,
for I want to believe that since the soul has such a bad job history
the body is a better teacher of moral philosophy,
and I read about the body, like a flower, bowing down before power.
What kind of a reformer is that?
It was believed that for fifteen minutes after her death Mary kept on praying.
We no longer believe her prayer,
but we want to read her lips before they stop.
Like the fragrance which remains in the flower, Tegh Bahadur rhapsodized,
the Lord dwells deep within.
I will continue reading the book of the body
though sunlight falls on the blades of leaves like guillotines.