What the Heart Weighs
In the Catacombs, Paris 1997
Death is bones the color of leather,
death is a skull with sockets like lace.
We spiral down & down like a feather
caught in a column of air; we face
the walls that twist & tighten & stone
steps that refuse to echo our feet. We turn
& turn & dizzy we finally halt,
thirty meters below the Paris sun.
The air still & cold, Lord, so cold,
the gush of blood in each ear silenced.
We thread long narrow lanes to
visit the dead by the thousands,
freed of the weight of viscera, of love,
their long bones hollow save for
capillaries stilled to petrified foam.
My body hangs heavy from my shoulders,
a cape I wear of organs & flesh. My face
the flat stare of Renoir's woman
stunned on absinthe.
The Egyptians claimed at the moment of death
the heart was weighed in the underworld
by the goddess Ma'at against a feather of truth--
light hearts gained the afterlife,
the heavy were devoured by a demon.
I think how much like gods our parents--
wounded gods inventing gods as clues
to their own fallibility. Cruel mother
to stepmother or witch
so children can bear her split
as both source of life
& as adults, we learn we are spilt
many, many times, the way the seemingly solid
earth is cobbled
from massive plates gristly & moaning
at the faults. Our skulls only gradually
join, fissures fuse
to a solid dome of protective bone.
In French, earthquake is tremblement
de terre. Our "terror" comes
from the Greek, to tremble.
Those terrors that shake us
from sleep are the worst. We were so safe,
slept like Medea's children. Innocent
in dreams, we wake to her betrayal,
her truth: we are only fragile bones.
After hours, years, we rise
from the catacombs, free,
blink noonday sun like newborns,
cling to each other, touch
the simple joy of muscle
& flesh & heat of skin laid sweet
over these armatures of bone.
I love you more then
than I have ever loved
& know too, I must soon forget
or go mad.
*WHAT THE HEART WEIGHS is the title poem of Richard's full-length collection, coming from Red Hen Press, which went to press at the end of July. It appeared in the chapbooks I Burn for You (Inevitable Press, 1999), and Richard Beban: Greatest Hits (Pudding House Press, 2002).