Thomas David Lisk
from John Torrington Revisited
“The iron earth’s resistance to graves.”
Jay Wright, “Zapata and the Egungun Mask”
The noonday clouds were only mists,
but lying stunned with heat
and buried, fretful, in my beach
vacation life, I saw or thought
I saw a blouse balloon across the sky,
cool soft lines of white and blue,
ticking plumped with down
on a pillow twisted on a motel bed.
Except the body sporting it was frozen dead.
In a rented bed that night
I remembered twice and searched the picture out again.
Dead since 1846 and photographed
in vivid color for Smithsonian
(the issue lined a little coffin by the bed)
a body faces out in two dimensions and in time.
Skull-skin black as a grillburnt hot dog,
eyes like firecracked glass marbles
and jaw bound up like a cartoon with a toothache,
he looks as if he might have
perished on a painful thought,
Or did he freeze solid in a double mind?
The case against mortality can always be reopened.
The case is empty.
Petty Officer aboard Her Majesty’s the Terror,
companioned by the good ship Erebus,
a minor member of a major expedition,
he served a master looking for a passage
over what might have been the world,
sailed from England’s hedgy green
to march and trudge and let himself be pulled
on dogsled runners slick as polished bones
until he hit the iceencrusted circle at the center
of the surface of the blockedup earth,
and crack, his corpse became a rock in time.
Unless he died in summer and gulls cried
and bent to peck for tender
morsels at the surface of his corpse.
The case is full, the body empty.
He need not close his lips;
his teeth are flakes of alabaster.
A dotted kerchief chinstrapped
his lower mandible until both froze,
the hundred-forty-year-old rag a frame
his shrinking lips approach
only to disappear as ungraphed ice
advances and recedes
then stops, its mystery map a guide for now.
No matter how he struggled to get through,
he began and ended breathing in and out,
ice beading cilia in his dying nostrils.
Now we know a name.
John Torrington, not yet a frozen dream,
lay in his coffin like a jetsam tanner.
His blouse wrists button near the seam
where cuff meets sleeve, high above his hands
Brass gallus fasteners, stiff discs on
clay-tan trousers without belt or loops
offer humble ease with raglan sleeves
and a single snowy button at the throat.
These objects contain him dead.
He owned them while he was alive.
They will never be severed.
Perhaps he hid a cache of silver
now frozen short of verdigris.
Reach into his pockets and see.
Cuddled in wool in endless snow,
he dreamt of sweatsprinkled shores
where sand accepts more
fluently whatever’s hidden there,
and almost naked men and women
bake to celebrate their torpid peace,
or knock back scotch rocks
between bright asseverations
around a vinylcovered wooden bar
lifted by a crane and shipped
to Charleston’s old slave market
in a wired pineslat crate.
A cardboard carton marked “Land’s End”
and centered with my place and name
once held a shirt equivalent to his.
Ordinary life affords its ordinary vehicles.
The edges of this picture of a corpse
make a second coffin for one that pocked the skin
of Beechey Island, Barrow Strait, NWT, Canada
Inside the double box, his flat-strapped hands
are pallid tallow candles whose flames flicker
in a peaky canvas tent in a roaring wind,
a steady fire that all at once went out:
a holy picture ringed by living lights,
the illuminations of an untraceable now.
Thomas David Lisk’s These Beautiful Limits was published by Free Verse Editions /Parlor Press
in 2006. He teaches literature at NCSU.
Thomas David Lisk‘s These Beautiful Limits was published by Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press in 2006. He teaches literature at NCSU.