…the structure of every organic being is related,
in the most essential yet often hidden manner,
to that of all other organic beings, with which
it comes into competition for food or residence,
or from which it has to escape, or on which it
[ i ]
Sometimes I come here to be with the ghosts. Sometimes to look at the men. It’s 10 degrees out and I can see steam from a hidden chimney out the museum’s window. With this corner in whale song, it’s easy to watch the tourists and pretend I’m underwater.
[ ii ]
These people in the museum
don’t want to learn about themselves.
They point at the skeletons and say,
not me, not me, not me.
They are proud of every vertebra,
of every plate fused in their skulls:
stapes, incus, malleus.
They laugh at the ground sloth,
supinating giant, happy he’s gone
—as though they weren’t placental, as though
reason were thicker than blood.
[ iii ]
When she says, no honey,
the baby’s just sleeping,
she mistakes the corpse
as outside herself. As if
these hollowed skins
could inflate without us.
We think nature is cruel
but Mothers aren’t faster
than bullets, hey?
[ iv ]
—Is the whale alive?
It must be. We see it spout
and leap. It eats. It moves.
But our unyielding hunger
pulls it out of the water
with sticks, takes it apart
to verify and measure
its one humongous life—
but it’s never there.
[ v ]
These people in the museum,
they look at the stenciled bodies, glad
monsters aren’t real.
If only you were with me now
in this Hall of Early Mammals.
I am unstitching.
These fleshless statues, the parts
of myself I regret
only once they’ve turned to stone.
(Budding Horn of Shame)
I feel this lineage in my shadow, the pull
of warm blood, the fanged, the crumpled—
the ring of camels in their death poses.
[ vi ]
It’s about killing something bigger than you are.
It’s about a foot on the trophy
and a thumb through your belt loop.
Take the herd of elephants. Yeah, the baby.
A better way to own a body
is to take off its skin.
Because no one cares about a life—
we want a permanent collection.
We only learn the animal’s name if we killed it.
[ vii ]
In front of the museum, Teddy Roosevelt on horseback.
In one hand the reins, a promise in the other.
On his proper left, an African naked save his rifle.
On his proper right, an Indian. Erected in 1939
when the museum was openly racist.
[ viii ]
—How do you convince a whale to die?
on the bottom of the ocean
he is a meteor,
everything he’s ever loved.
Tell him to transform
into a dollop of ink, a handful of pennies
slip-slipping to the seafloor.
Tell him to loosen up. We’re all
given a body and there must be extras
Tell him how exhausting it is
to keep swimming. Yes
the water holds him up,
but it also makes words like
hydrodynamic, hydrostatic, hydrophoresis.
Tell him it’s this
or the ships.
he’s been carrying so much air
it must be easier to dive
filled in. Imagine,
he could let the heat out
with no consequence.
Tell him to think about
all the friends he’ll make
down there. He’ll never
have to blink again.
[ ix ]
And yet so many of me didn’t survive.
voice breaking, a tenor left
in the silt bed, swift asphyxiation.
Eight-year-old me, unable to keep up
with the neighborhood boys,
cast into a tar pit.
Thirteen freshmen—all me—
caught in a drought,
buried in sand,
their quiet sprawl.
I wish the new animals of myself
didn’t carry these weaknesses—
the vestigial way
I shorten vowels,
walk with my hands in fists.
a veritable museum of failure.
[ x ]
But the crowd
only sees spectacle.
The children gawk
behind their strollers,
the ladies faint.
And the gentlemen,
their hats fall off,
these lives before them.
[ xi ]
I don’t know whom to trust
so many specious selves
feel the next me
[ xii ]
—Why doesn’t the whale fall?
Because it’s filled with steel, suspended
where the dorsal fin brushes the ceiling,
mid-dive enacted in scaffold and lattice.
It used to be painted gray with distended eyes
because none had been seen alive,
only along the coast, washed up, ready to pop.
The museum-goers who are brave
and trust the engineers of the 60’s
lay underneath the blue whale.
This must be what it’s like to die:
surrounded by strangers, something
large and impossible descending
toward you, backlit, but never getting
any closer no matter how hard you try—
until you get up, leave to the commissary
for some hotdogs and pop.