The following poem was conceived in its entireity while I took a long walk in graduate school in the extreme New Orleanian summer heat. As my feet pounded pavement the words and syllables tumbled out, and as the phrases shaped and fell into place, I struggled to remember them in their proper order but the lines kept coming. This was William Wordsworth's writing process, I remembered thinking, and I admired Stephen Dobyn's long narrative style then so that may have influenced the passage of this work, as well.
"Body Language," written in 1995, was published soon after in Ellipsis (University of New Orleans). It won best poem of the year.
The head had really done it this time.
Journeying without the body
was a thing it did on occasion but
it had never ended up under
a soundproof cake dish
on a stainless steel counter
in an out-of-the-way diner before.
Despite some very clever chapters
of charades, the body’s language failed.
Sure, our head looks like the one
in your photos, but how do we know
those IDs aren’t stolen? The body
knew the manager was right and requested
a booth in the non-smoking section
to have time to think. The head
was doing quite well for itself, enjoying
the body’s predicament from the corner
of its eye whenever the body wasn’t
looking wistfully back. The manager
had organized the slicing, distributed
pieces from the hindbrain first where
the sweet cherry filling was ripest.
The head’s dark hair modestly covered
the excavation, cascaded onto the cake stand
under the glass dome and brushed the dirty
counter whenever October blew in.
It was bringing the diner an awful
lot of business and the body understood
the manager’s reticence. It’s my head,
she wanted to yell (but could only mime),
tapping the picture on the counter and
pointing at the House Special du Jour.
The head’s eyes watched the body’s fingers
frustratedly pointing her way, lips curled
at the edges. How the dumb body was stumped,
unable to resolve the situation without her
help. I understand your dilemma, the manager
repeated, counting change back to a couple
who had enjoyed slices of the head, bought
another apiece for the road, and promised to send
friends. . . .But surely you can see the delicacy
of our position. Excuse me, as he rang up another,
then addressing the headless body for what
he hoped was the last time said, Look.
You’re the fifth body to try this. With
such a head, we must be more careful
than its owner was. The body, ashamed,
knew the manager was right and left
without another gesture. Let it be
said on the body’s behalf that it returned
hours later in what it assumed was night,
camouflaged in Ninja wear and hid in the shrubs.
The head, two-thirds consumed, lay flat,
counting holes in the suspended ceiling.
Tired of this fiasco, it missed the goofy body
and so resisted the knife, blunting the diner’s
best blade; the manager, worried sales would
be dampened, was going out now to scout for another.
The body held its ground until he left then
rushed inside, knocking over the biggest waitress
(who stayed down to nurse the rip in her nylon)
and ran off with the head’s remains. Reunited
in the warmth of their own home, the head
(despite its somewhat missing language lobe)
helped the body voice its awkward message
to itself: “It is not a matter of ‘settling’
because there is no choice. I would love
you if you were only an eye and I, the hand
that kept you.” The head understood that
the body was right--they belonged together,
and kissed the body’s hand. It knew, too,
it possessed the eye the body spoke of,
a controlling, lustful wanderer that would be
an eternal source of pain for them both.