Outdoors, the Everglades presses close
to the walls of the Sunrise nursing home, a vegetal effrontery
on the verge of entry, but the lawn crew anticipates the problem.
Predatory palms, fertile to a surreal extent, idle in the dirt,
while the gators, babies in their mouths, trawl the waters
appetized by this oozy imminence. Panthers thread their teeth.
If you plant a seedling here, it kabooms, like a cartoon explosion.
Flamingos, rosy with krill, lust after darker merchandise.
But nothing's doing yet.
Inside, the dying party and my mother,
oxygen prods in her nose, like an electrical outlet,
dressed in the new floral moo moo her friend Irene brought,
("Make sure to reimburse her, dear")
sits leashed to her oxygen tank and sups on brisket (low in salt),
kasha varnishkes (a Jewish crowd), and a fluid (restricted intake).
She is supposed to chat with her roommate,
the one drooling in her chin bucket. The social worker, a Martha Stewart
thought the event would be cheering,
but I disagree. Why prolong them as humans?
The landscape waits impatiently like an early bird at a tag sale,
the grand opening of a part store for pantheists; I have a better party theme.
Spare yourself the clean-up and wheel them outdoors,
back into their true home, where they can soil themselves without shame
and get on with it, stripped of garments,
heat popping like flashbulbs for the last famousness.
To expire here in the hiss and whispers, the red ants like Christmas lights,
the embrace of fronds, the merciful slash of razor grass,
bodies given over in a generous heap, a mopped Thanatopsis.
This attic trunkful of treasures promises creative conversions
(like Picasso's bicycle-bull) or other feasible reincarnations:
why, here's a face so wrinkled, it could easily be lizard,
or legs so thin they'd be great for up and coming egrets.
Hearts, of course, correspond to frogs, and from time to time, arums.
What could a spleen he? A fish. A kidney? You tell me.
Even the abstractions of disease and old age
could be put to use: pain like thunder, eyes to color the wide dry sky,
trembling, the caterpillar tents in trees,
cancerous cells turned pleasant in a new context. Yes!
Because the dying are ready for this, too--
in their rag-tag float, they participate in a larger festival,
costumed characters in the ultimate Mardi Gras parade, just look:
white hair in pigtails and silver barrettes, she holds her baby doll,
and he sits in a giant wheelchair-stroller, diapered, napping.
Like livestock, the hoi-polloi line up for the dining hall,
long before the dinner bell, moony cows facing the door. No talk
but for this little lady, eyes bright as a poodle's, who wants to kiss me,
stroke my cheek, and so is led away to the activities room
where they teach the seasons. Enough!
Let other creatures feast on them, as free food at nature's fairgrounds,
their bodies differing little from the usual fare,
the fried dough, hot-dogs, cotton candy, warm beer,
the batteries that turn and turn this Ferris wheel under the stars.
The Mystical Manicurist
I'm tired of the usual stations of the spirit:
the hackneyed eyes, breath and its R&R business,
Om till you doze in the head's mail-order hammock.
I'm a manicurist who believes in the mystical promise of onyx,
the future of this public protein
these home-made opals grown in their own setting.
National treasures. Here, at my fingers' ends, the flesh thins into paper,
grows beyond itself, lunula rising, like moon or mountain,
ten Chinese scroll paintings, ten bone nightgowns.
So I manicure nails like ministers process souls.
Holding a client's hand, a chandelier of fingers,
I am lit from without, want to swoon, or to commune with these humble
At my altar, I deploy cotton pledgets dipped in remover,
clean flecks of old polish off each nail, then file the sides
as a carpenter saws wood, satisfied by this small-scale carpentry.
Sculptor, I shape the spatulate, bugle or skirts into ovals,
form pendants in the nailbed; afterwards, the fingers soak in the bowl,
like flamingos in pools. Those pungent orangewood sticks push back
encroaching cuticles, punts through muddy water.
Next I dip the camel hair brush into the polish. As I make the stroke,
I feel the liquid cohere, targeted and whole,
a dew drop quiver on the flower, just so, a tremble of jello.
Then spread to the edge, luster or matte, the color.
Oh, how the nails have waited for this cover, thirsting drink from its
purdah over the face, heads bent to receive a blessing.
They look like Egyptian beetles in their new carapaces.
Who needs a building to worship? Pray to your manicured nails!
When I was young I cannibalized them
ripped, smarting, hanging, and harvested them weekly,
peeled the nail off like string cheese, when the gap might invite infections,
cured only by immersion into boiled water and Epsom salts
to break the skin, coax pus out, or in worst case scenarios, ready for lancing.
That was my dark night of the nail.
Now evangelical, I want to extend my keratinous parish
to all the birds and beasts, order up pedicures for every ungulate.
I lust to paint horses' hooves, pig's cloven heels,
include the bear claws, the sheep's oxfords.
I could do their heady extensions as well, those forty-point moose antlers-
six feet across, the bighorn sheep with their shofar horns,
extravagant market of elk, caribou, and deer
their bone grown from pedicels, thrust out of their delicate heads,
fresh after sloughing their velvet rags.
Let me manicure those horny males
that charge and thrash for the sake of more life,
those lovers who dig their nails deeply into the other's skin,
green-faced witches sifting through herbs;
cocaine snorters corralling powder, apes with good grooming,
Asian aristocrats with their curlicues, those without combs or silverware,
card dealers in Vegas, kids with poison ivy and bug bites, nose pickers,
needle threaders, hunters of the haystack, crotch itchers,
roosters scratching the ground for seeds, pregnant women with knotted
Only our nails can pick anything out of this spill of creation,
its infinitesimal detail like beads that we struggle forever
to sort and string into a jewelry of our own design.
DEBORAH GORLIN is the co-director of the Hampshire College Writing Center, in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her book of poems, Bodily Course, won the 1996 White Pine Press Poetry Prize. A poem of hers will be appearing in the Best Spiritual Writing 2000, due in the fall.