I have sacrificed almost the whole race of frogs.         .
(Marcello Malpighi, physician, 1628-1694)




The past tense becomes our subtle under-
taking as we rummage through bureaus
and boxes of the dead’s things: a life pithed
and particular to a time and a place. One
century as the logical conclusion to twenty.
Among the photographs and false teeth,
the cigarette cases, prosthetics, and beaded
hairpins, Grandmother’s homework is revealed.

Exposed, she wrote, a preserved specimen of frog
was examined, the external structures noted,
a drawing was made. Then graded and stuffed,
parched as dull wheat, in a pine desk drawer.

Her proof her drawing—the empirical moment—
a well-preserved tucked-under secret.


Phylum:                           Chordata
Sub-Phylum:                    Vertebrata
Class:                               Amphibia


With scalpel-edged delicacy from sternum to pubis, I dissect my frog.
Record in colored pencils on loose leaf. Private school children get
       fetal pigs
and felt tip markers. They are encouraged to label fried chicken—
       its external structure
as well as its smooth and elastic musculature—but the frog in formaldehyde
       democratizes us.

Let the frog stand for coming of age and common experience.

We are Descartes searching south of lung, behind kidney for the pure frog,
the Platonic ideal. But we can’t shut up, can’t stop repeating. We little
carve cadavers with little histories. We carve up the past as though it were
       only present.
Russian spies and astronauts dropped among us, run-aways, dope fiends,
       Indians, agitators,

prisoners of war—all. Because Phylum: Humanitas: Sub-Phylum: Class.
Because exposed and splayed out they speak a thousand languages of
and happenstance, are vague remnants of familiarity who read us Kipling,
       were killed
quietly by the phylum, have died forgetting our names.


Let the frog stand for these
a madness, a prophecy
a rain of them





(after Giordano's painting, "The Massacre of Niobe," ca 1680)



the things he chooses to leave out. But not Giordano. At least two hundred times I’ve seen his mythical subject with that abrupt bottom-of-a-foot dead center of the enormous canvas resting on a bearded corpse next to a mask—a fabric lion face furled and frayed around the edges. I come to this particular museum often because it is not the Prado and is down the street in my hometown in the South and so has as its permanent collection what the more illustrious museums either did not want or could not want or would not fit. Each of the times I visit—and without baroque hyperbole—this (expressionist, yes) mask takes me by surprise and to tell you the truth, I’m quite certain that brother Giordano meant to paint shoulder armor with epaulets because that would be appropriate to the confounding tension between (the thin line between) the upward pull of the Baroque and the vast epic space of the Modern poised for Progress and expansion. No, Giordano probably did not intend the implied treason, the affront to popes and princes—why, to suggest that their regality were somehow false and flimsy—well—you have to think about the expectation of art in the 17th century; the twinning ideas of mastery and perfection. What it might mean to be… human. Nothing less at stake here than the very plinth of Western civilization being articulated in pictures. You have to think about how the image enters the world of the viewer (how the thing is lit, for example, how its heft of shadow presses on or grazes over the eye—all it sees and so on): you have to think about Poussin—eternal presence, Sabine rape—and how Giordano must have compared himself to Caravaggio’s theatre, to Rubens’ pinkpinks, to Velázguez for Christ’s sake. But consider the frame they inhabit, the lines and folds. Consider that, perhaps, Giordano’s art was a freer art and, perhaps, he painted that mask or the idea of that mask on purpose as if to say in 1680/now:       the stage has been set, the canvas empty What a real surprise then… a mask (a mask!) in the midst of this massacre surrounded by hard stares, taut horse bits and circled mouths of horror and extreme angels or gods who sit on figured clouds and shoot imperfect arrows into the backs of citizen slaves or mothers (but this is not the age of revolution—you hear no Goya scream at the back of your throat yet just the soft incredulity of mythical footsteps running away across damp leaves)





  My mother has gone to view the dead body of my aunt and to bury her. It is very important she insists for people to see the body dead, to make that break with life. This is something she will keep on doing whether I like it or not. I suppose if we don’t see these dead bodies, the dead would just go right on living, causing all sorts of trouble. My husband’s grandfather, for example, visits his wife every night, crawls right out of his grave, climbs her walls, demands pork chops, wants to have sex. I have a few dead friends back in Tucson who remain very much alive to me; distance renders such notions possible. If you stay in one place long enough and a virus or a war moves through you could even lose count of your dead as they go on about the solitary business of each day: washing the chinaberry stains from their cars, stripping down for a nap under a hot sun on an especially cool afternoon, hanging clothes like banners on a makeshift line that cuts the throat of the sun, listening to cicadas scream and drone, still waiting for remission, cease-fire, or cure. I have seen many dying but not dead. Is it fair to keep the dead alive? I have another dead friend for whom I wrote a memorial poem. I never saw his body either, but as I wrote, surrounded by memory surrounded by finality’s fine point, there he was: shrouded in every syllable as I placed each in its own inky coffin. He is dead every day.