On the 33rd Hour of the Shift in which I Consider a Dead Man's Penis
by Dawn McGuire

Bed 4 was still warm when I got to him,
not more than twenty minutes dead.
His face was smooth as sweetgrass
after a storm wind, pacific as a boy's sleep
after a tenth-inning win.

I like to know who's dying on my shift—
though some bad nights, I'd jam a stethoscope
to chest, scrawl Morgue across a chart.
I pulled the greasy record off the cart
and read the bone-spare history:

a paragraph a life.
Wayne, James; born: 1908;
railroad porter, short order cook
rheumatic fever, syphilis, a failing
heart, bad circulation.

When a dry gangrenous rot crept up his leg,
a surgeon's note suggested
then quoted Mr. Wayne:
"I don’t believe so. Not today."

Three wives, all "predeceased"
and "many children." Quoting
Mr. Wayne again: "But I just claim
the seven, and on them I don't know much
them being girls, us never being close."

For a second another girl's
unfathered spark escaped
the frayed synapses.
I shut the chart.

My thumb and index finger raise the lids.
The light across the pupil hits the black
oil slick the wildlife sank below.
I rock the head from no to no,
press the pulseless vessels in the neck,

lay my stethoscope against the heart's
dense, airless offices.
James Wayne is dead.
I fix my name to this and draw the sheet
and turn to go.

Then turn again, uncover him:
the blackened foot,
the leg that died a month ago,
the skinny sabre shins,
the brow of knees, the shallow pelvic rim,

the arc of dark penis
like a question mark,
and me, fixed on it, questioning.
As if it could spill his secrets
easily as his seed.

In its shiny wrapper, death
tumescent, it surprises me
how innocent, specific, composed
just of itself; its fill, empty,
fill, distilled simplicity.

Because we come back to the body.

We come back to His body, we
daughters, multiple as questions.
Countless, uncounted bees
at the bedside, furious, tender
alchemical daughters.

Because here lies the father's body,
smooth as sweetgrass after a wind,
its good, its rotten parts.
But never worthless, not
like a father can be.

It is the hive, the honey, gold,
something to touch, to long after,
long after the small bodies,
chaff of his seed, are flung
from his remote and ruined offices.

This poem was also published in Nerve Cowboy.

Dawn McGuire is a neurologist and researcher in AIDS dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. As an undergraduate, she won the Academy of American Poets and Morris Croll Poetry Prizes from Princeton University. Her first book was published in 1982. After a long poetry hiatus during medical training, she recently won prizes from Villa Montalvo, The Clackamas Review and The Spoon River Poetry Review. Her book, Hands On, was published by ZYZZYVA in January, 2002 and can be ordered through editor@zyzzyva.org. Dawn lives in Berkeley with her partner, two children, and Horace, an ancient basset hound.