In bereavement books they tell you to sleep with a pillow pulled down beside you. Not quite a Dutch wife, that is a bolster held between the legs in the tropics to soak up the sweat, not quite a Dutch wife. ‘The pillow will comfort you in the long unbroken hours. If you sleep you will unconsciously benefit from its presence. If you wake the bed will seem less large and lonely.’ Who writes these books? Do they really think, those quiet concerned counsellors, that two feet of linen-bound stuffing will assuage a broken heart? I don’t want a pillow, I want your moving breathing flesh. I want you to hold my hand in the dark, I want to roll on to you and push myself into you. When I turn in the night the bed is continent-broad. There is endless white space where you won’t be. I travel it inch by inch but you’re not there. It’s not a game, you’re not going to leap out and surprise me. The bed is empty. I’m in it but the bed is empty.
The next day I cycled to the library but instead of going to the Russian section as I had intended I went to the medical books. I became obsessed with anatomy. If I could not put Louise out of my mind I would drown myself in her. Within the clinical language, through the dispassionate view of the sucking, sweating, greedy, defecating self, I found a love-poem to Louise. I would go on knowing her, more intimately than the skin, hair and voice that I craved. I would have her plasma, her spleen, her synovial fluid. I would recognize her even when her body had long since fallen away.
The multiplication of cells by mitosis occurs throughout the life of the individual. It occurs at a more rapid rate until growth is complete. Thereafter new cells are formed to replace those which have died. Nerve cells are a notable exception. When they die they are not replaced.
In the secret places of her thymus gland Louise is making too much of herself. Her faithful biology depends on regulation but the white T-cells have turned bandit. They don’t obey the rules. They are swarming into the bloodstream, overturning the quiet order of spleen and intestine. In the lymph nodes they are swelling with pride. It used to be their job to keep her body safe from enemies on the outside. They were her immunity, her certainty against infection. Now they are the enemies on the inside. The security forces have rebelled. Louise is the victim of a coup.
Will you let me crawl inside you, stand guard over you, trap them as they come at you? Why can’t I dam their blind tide that filthies your blood? Why are there no lock-gates on the portal vein? The inside of your body is innocent, nothing has taught it fear. Your artery canals trust their cargo, they don’t check the shipments in the blood. You are full to overflowing but the keeper is asleep and there’s murder going on inside. Who comes here? Let me hold up my lantern. It’s only the blood; red cells carrying oxygen to the heart, thrombocytes making sure of proper clotting. The white cells, B and T types, just a few of them as always whistling as they go.
The faithful body has made a mistake. This is no time to stamp the passports and look at the sky. Coming up behind are hundreds of them. Hundreds too many, armed to the teeth for a job that doesn’t need doing. Not needed? With all that weaponry? Here they come, hurtling through the bloodstream trying to pick a fight. There’s no one to fight but you Louise. You’re the foreign body now.
Tissues, such as the lining of the mouth, can be seen with the naked eye, but the millions of cells which make up the tissues are so small that they can only be seen with the aid of a microscope.
The naked eye. How many times have I enjoyed you with my lascivious naked eye. I have seen you unclothed, bent to wash, the curve of your back, the concurve of your belly. I have had you beneath me for examination, seen the scars between your thighs where you fell on barbed wire. You look as if an animal has clawed you, run its steel nails through your skin, leaving harsh marks of ownership.
My eyes are brown, they have fluttered across your body like butterflies. I have flown the distance of your body from side to side of your ivory coast. I know the forests where I can rest and feed. I have mapped you with my naked eye and stored you out of sight. The millions of cells that make up your tissues are plotted on my retina. Night flying I know exactly where I am. Your body is my landing-strip.
The lining of your mouth I know through tongue and spit. Its ridges, valleys, the corrugated roof, the fortress of teeth. The glossy smoothness of the inside of your upper lip is interrupted by a rough swirl where you were hurt once. The tissues of the mouth and anus heal faster than any others but they leave signs for those who care to look. I care to look. There’s a story trapped inside your mouth. A crashed car and a smashed windscreen. The only witness is the scar, jagged like a duelling scar where the skin still shows the stitches.
My naked eye counts your teeth, including the fillings. The incisors, canines, the molars and premolars. Thirty-two in all. Thirty-one in your case. After sex you tiger-tear your food, let your mouth run over with grease. Sometimes it’s me you bite, leaving shallow wounds in my shoulders. Do you want to stripe me to match your own? I wear the wounds as a badge of honour. The moulds of your teeth are easy to see under my shirt but the L that tattoos me on the inside is not visible to the naked eye.
For descriptive purposes the human body is separated into cavities. The cranial cavity contains the brain. Its boundaries are formed by the bones of the skull.
Let me penetrate you. I am the archaeologist of tombs. I would devote my life to marking your passageways, the entrances and exits of that impressive mausoleum, your body. How tight and secret are the funnels and wells of youth and health. A wriggling finger can hardly detect the start of an antechamber, much less push through to the wide aqueous halls that hide womb, gut and brain.
In the old or ill, the nostrils flare, the eye sockets make deep pools of request. The mouth slackens, the teeth fall from their first line of defence. Even the ears enlarge like trumpets. The body is making way for worms.
As I embalm you in my memory, the first thing I shall do is to hook out your brain through your accommodating orifices. Now that I have lost you I cannot allow you to develop, you must be a photograph not a poem. You must be rid of life as I am rid of life. We shall sink together you and I, down, down into the dark void where once the vital organs were.
I have always admired your head. The strong front of your forehead and the long crown. Your skull is slightly bulbous at the back, giving way to a deep drop at the nape of the neck. I have abseiled your head without fear. I have held your head in my hands, taken it, soothed the resistance, and held back my desire to probe under the skin to the seat of you. In that hollow is where you exist. There the world is made and identified according to your omnivorous taxonomy. It’s a strange combination of mortality and swank, the all-seeing, all-knowing brain, mistress of so much, capable of tricks and feats. Spoon-bending and higher mathematics. The hard-bounded space hides the vulnerable self.
I can’t enter you in clothes that won’t show the stains, my hands full of tools to record and analyse. If I come to you with a torch and a notebook, a medical diagram and a cloth to mop up the mess, I’ll have you bagged neat and tidy. I’ll store you in plastic like chicken livers. Womb, gut, brain, neatly labelled and returned. Is that how to know another human being?
I know how your hair tumbles from its chignon and washes your shoulders in light. I know the calcium of your cheek bones. I know the weapon of your jaw. I have held your head in my hands but I have never held you. Not you in your spaces, spirit, electrons of life.
‘Explore me,’ you said and I collected my ropes, flasks and maps, expecting to be back home soon. I dropped into the mass of you and I cannot find the way out. Sometimes I think I’m free, coughed up like Jonah from the whale, but then I turn a corner and recognize myself again. Myself in your skin, myself lodged in your bones, myself floating in the cavities that decorate every surgeon’s wall. That is how I know you. You are what I know.
The skin is composed of two main parts: the dermis and the epidermis.
Odd to think that the piece of you I know best is already dead. The cells on the surface of your skin are thin and flat without blood-vessels or nerve-endings. Dead cells, thickest on the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet. Your sepulchral body, offered to me in the past tense, protects your soft centre from the intrusions of the outside world. I am one such intrusion, stroking you with necrophiliac obsession, loving the shell laid out before me.
The dead you is constantly being rubbed away by the dead me. Your cells fall and flake away, fodder to dust mites and bed bugs. Your droppings support colonies of life that graze on skin and hair no longer wanted. You don’t feel a thing. How could you? All your sensation comes from deeper down, the live places where the dermis is renewing itself, making another armadillo layer. You are a knight in shining armour.
Rescue me. Swing me up beside you, let me hold on to you, arms around your waist, head nodding against your back. Your smell soothes me to sleep, I can bury myself in the warm goosedown of your body. Your skin tastes salty and slightly citrus. When I run my tongue in a long wet line across your breasts I can feel the tiny hairs, the puckering of the aureole, the cone of your nipple. Your breasts are beehives pouring honey.
I am a creature who feeds at your hand. I would be the squire rendering excellent service. Rest now, let me unlace your boots, massage your feet where the skin is calloused and sore. There is nothing distasteful about you to me; not sweat nor grime, not disease and its dull markings. Put your foot in my lap and I will cut your nails and ease the tightness of a long day. It has been a long day for you to find me. You are bruised all over. Burst figs are the livid purple of your skin.
The leukaemic body hurts easily. I could not be rough with you now, making you cry out with pleasure close to pain. We’ve bruised each other, broken the capillaries shot with blood; tubes hair-thin intervening between arteries and veins, those ramified blood-vessels that write the body’s longing. You used to flush with desire. That was when we were in control, our bodies conspirators in our pleasure.
My nerve-endings became sensitive to minute changes in your skin temperature. No longer the crude lever of Hot or Cold, I tried to find the second when your skin thickened. The beginning of passion, heat coming through, heart-beat deepening, quickening. I know your blood-vessels were swelling and your pores expanding. The physiological effects of lust are easy to read. Sometimes you sneezed four or five times like a cat. It’s such an ordinary thing, happening millions of times a day all over the world. An ordinary miracle, your body changing under my hands. And yet, how to believe in the obvious surprise? Extraordinary, unlikely that you should want me.
I’m living on my memories like a cheap has-been. I’ve been sitting in this chair by the fire, my hand on the cat, talking aloud, fool-ramblings. There’s a doctor’s textbook fallen open on the floor. To me it’s a book of spells. Skin, it says. Skin.
You were milk-white and fresh to drink. Will your skin discolour, its brightness blurring? Will your neck and spleen distend? Will the rigorous contours of your stomach swell under an infertile load? It may be so and the private drawing I keep of you will be a poor reproduction then. It may be so but if you are broken then so am I.
the clavicle or collar-bone: the clavicle is a long bone which has a double curve. The shaft of the bone is roughened for the attachment of the muscles. The clavicle provides the only bony link between the upper extremity and the axial skeleton.
I cannot think of the double curve lithe and flowing with movement as a bony ridge, I think of it as the musical instrument that bears the same root. Clavis. Key. Clavichord. The first stringed instrument with a keyboard. Your clavicle is both keyboard and key. If I push my fingers into the recesses behind the bone I find you like a soft-shell crab. I find the openings between the springs of muscle where I can press myself into the chords of your neck. The bone runs in perfect scale from sternum to scapula. It feels lathe-turned. Why should a bone be balletic?
You have a dress with a décolletage to emphasise your breasts. I suppose the cleavage is the proper focus but what I wanted to do was to fasten my index finger and thumb at the bolts of your collar-bone, push out, spreading the web of my hand until it caught against your throat. You asked me if I wanted to strangle you. No, I wanted to fit you, not just in the obvious ways but in so many indentations.
It was a game, fitting bone on bone. I thought difference was rated to be the largest part of sexual attraction but there are so many things about us that are the same.
Bone of my bone. Flesh of my flesh. To remember you it’s my own body I touch. Thus she was, here and here. The physical memory blunders through the doors the mind has tried to seal. A skeleton key to Bluebeard’s chamber. The bloody key that unlocks pain. Wisdom says forget, the body howls. The bolts of your collar-bone undo me. Thus she was, here and here.
the scapula or the shoulder-blade: the scapula is a flat triangular shaped bone which lies on the posterior wall superficial to the ribs and separated from them by muscle.
Shuttered like a fan no one suspects your shoulder-blades of wings. While you lay on your belly I kneaded the hard edges of your flight. You are a fallen angel but still as the angels are; body light as a dragonfly, great gold wings cut across the sun.
If I’m not careful you’ll cut me. If I slip my hand too casually down the sharp side of your scapula I will lift away a bleeding palm. I know the stigmata of presumption. The wound that will not heal if I take you for granted.
Nail me to you. I will ride you like a nightmare. You are the winged horse Pegasus who would not be saddled. Strain under me. I want to see your muscle skein flex and stretch. Such innocent triangles holding hidden strength. Don’t rear at me with unfolding power. I fear you in our bed when I put out my hand to touch you and feel the twin razors turned towards me. You sleep with your back towards me so that I will know the full extent of you. It is sufficient.
the face: there are thirteen bones that form the skeleton of the face. For completeness the frontal bone should be added.
Of the visions that come to me waking and sleeping the most insistent is your face. Your face, mirror-smooth and mirror-clear. Your face under the moon, silvered with cool reflection, your face in its mystery, revealing me.
I cut out your face where it had caught in the ice on the pond, your face bigger than my body, your mouth filled with water. I held you against my chest on that snowy day, the outline of you jagged into my jacket. When I put my lips to your frozen cheek you burned me. The skin tore at the corner of my mouth, my mouth filled with blood. The closer I held you to me, the faster you melted away. I held you as Death will hold you. Death that slowly pulls down the skin’s heavy curtain to expose the bony cage behind.
The skin loosens, yellows like limestone, like limestone worn by time, shows up the marbling of veins. The pale translucency hardens and grows cold. The bones themselves yellow into tusks.
Your face gores me. I am run through. Into the holes I pack splinters of hope but hope does not heal me. Should I pad my eyes with forgetfulness, eyes grown thin through looking? Frontal bone, palatine bones, nasal bones, lacrimal bones, cheek bones, maxilla, vomer, inferior conchae, mandible.
Those are my shields; those are my blankets; those words don’t remind me of your face.
The Special Senses
hearing and the ear: the auricle is the expanded portion which projects from the side of the head. It is composed of fibro-elastic cartilage covered with skin and fine hairs. It is deeply grooved and ridged. The prominent outer ridge is known as the helix. The lobule is the soft pliable part at the lower extremity.
Sound waves travel at about 335 metres per second. That’s about a fifth of a mile and Louise is perhaps two hundred miles away. If I shout now, she’ll hear me in seventeen minutes or so. I have to leave a margin of error for the unexpected. She may be swimming under water.
I call Louise from the doorstep because I know she can’t hear me. I keen in the fields to the moon. Animals in the zoo do the same, hoping that another of their kind will call back. The zoo at night is the saddest place. Behind the bars, at rest from vivisecting eyes, the animals cry out, species separated from one another, knowing instinctively the map of belonging. They would choose predator and prey against this outlandish safety. Their ears, more powerful than those of their keepers, pick up sounds of cars and last-hour take-aways. They hear all the human noises of distress. What they don’t hear is the hum of the undergrowth or the crack of fire. The noises of kill. The river-roar booming against brief screams. They prick their ears till their ears are sharp points but the noises they seek are too far away.
I wish I could hear your voice again.
the nose: the sense of smell in human beings is generally less acute than in other animals.
The smells of my lover’s body are still strong in my nostrils. The yeast smell of her sex. The rich fermenting undertow of rising bread. My lover is a kitchen cooking partridge. I shall visit her gamey low-roofed den and feed from her. Three days without washing and she is well-hung and high. Her skirts reel back from her body, her scent is a hoop about her thighs.
From beyond the front door my nose is twitching, I can smell her coming down the hall towards me. She is a perfumier of sandalwood and hops. I want to uncork her. I want to push my head against the open wall of her loins. She is firm and ripe, a dark compound of sweet cattle straw and Madonna of the Incense. She is frankincense and myrrh, bitter cousin smells of death and faith.
When she bleeds the smells I know change colour. There is iron in her soul on those days. She smells like a gun.
My lover is cocked and ready to fire. She has the scent of her prey on her. She consumes me when she comes in thin white smoke smelling of saltpetre. Shot against her all I want are the last wreaths of her desire that carry from the base of her to what doctors like to call the olfactory nerves.
taste: there are four fundamental sensations of taste–sweet, sour, bitter and salt.
My lover is an olive tree whose roots grow by the sea. Her fruit is pungent and green. It is my joy to get at the stone of her. The little stone of her hard by the tongue. Her thick-fleshed, salt-veined swaddle stone.
Who eats an olive without first puncturing the swaddle? The waited moment when the teeth shoot a strong burst of clear juice that has in it the weight of the land, the vicissitudes of the weather, even the first name of the olive keeper.
The sun is in your mouth. The burst of an olive is breaking of a bright sky. The hot days when the rains come. Eat the day where the sand burned the soles of your feet before the thunderstorm brought up your skin in bubbles of rain.
Our private grove is heavy with fruit. I shall worm you to the stone, the rough swaddle stone.
the eye: the eye is situated in the orbital cavity. It is almost spherical in shape and about one inch in diameter.
Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. Light is reflected into the eyes by whatever comes within the field of vision. I see colour when a wavelength of light is reflected by an object and all other wavelengths are absorbed. Every colour has a different wavelength; red light has the longest.
Is that why I seem to see it everywhere? I am living in a red bubble made up of Louise’s hair. It’s the sunset time of year but it’s not the dropping disc of light that holds me in the shadows of the yard. It’s the colour I crave, floodings of you running down the edges of the sky on to the brown earth on to the grey stone. On to me.
Sometimes I run into the sunset arms wide like a scarecrow, thinking I can jump off the side of the world into the fiery furnace and be burned up in you. I would like to wrap my body in the blazing streaks of bloodshot sky.
All other colours are absorbed. The dull tinges of the day never penetrate my blackened skull. I live in four blank walls like an anchorite. You were a brightly lit room and I shut the door. You were a coat of many colours wrestled into the dirt.
Do you see me in my blood-soaked world? Green-eyed girl, eyes wide apart like almonds, come in tongues of flame and restore my sight.
Image courtesy of Marc Perkins