Source image: Frederik Ruysch, "Alle de ontleed- genees- en heelkindige werken…van Fredrik Ruysch… vol. 3," 1744. From the collection of the National Library of Medicine. H/t The Public Domain Review.


It starts as a fragment of sky
that detaches itself from the stratosphere,
something in my eye as I look up.
I call it the Land of the Dead,
its messenger gliding toward me,
star-ermine cape scalloped with black wings,
to land at the foot of the kapok tree
between buttresses
that remind me of the house we lived in once—
you said a gale had ripped off its roof.

Furniture inside for the afterlife—
and you laid out on the table,
a skeleton curled like a foetus
that the king vultures pierce,
their beaks inside your bowel,
their heads painted with prisms,
their white eyes haloed with red.
Kings of light
who once wore the constellations as headdresses,
death eaters
now bringing up lumps of your flesh,
putrid at first, then sweet.
Maggots shrink back into eggs, flies buzz to their pupas.

If I sniff I can smell the stink that’s followed me ever since you died.
Who knows what the mind can do
but here your corpse
is becoming fragrant,
your face pointed east where the sun rises
as our family arrives,
their tears flowing up, back into their eyes,
their tissues folded into pockets.
They hug each other then carry you
into the hut, remove the herbs
packed in your heart, your intestines.
A brush paints backwards, removing the annatto dye
that’s protected me against your ghost,
dressing me in red jaguar clothes.

Now the surgeons arrive, scrub their hands, peel on stained
white gloves and green masks
and unpick the stitches across your abdomen,
a scalpel erases its cut,
iodine is wiped off your skin.
You wake as you are counting backwards. When you get to one,
the anaesthetist’s needle pops out of the cannula on your hand
and as the gurney is wheeled down corridors
the sedative wears off.
Now you’re back in the ward, anti-psychotics
sucked out of your blood into the saline drip.
Poisons rush up syringes; pills appear on your tongue
and fly back into nurses’ hands.
Your teeth plant themselves in your gums
and you menstruate.
Wrinkles smooth themselves out
as your hair grows auburn.

Here comes the hard part, the Land of the Dead
floating just above my head
because all along as you’ve been healing
I’ve been getting smaller until
I’m a newborn, resting against
the buttress of your thigh, a liana
linking me to you from my navel.
The kapok tree drops a shower of red blooms around me
as I cry out and take a sharp breath.
I’m lifted up, lowered into the ledge of your womb
where I settle in a foetal position facing east.
The king vultures have followed me in
and someone is zipping up my roof with a scalpel.
I squeeze my eyelids shut and my eyes sink into their sockets
then vanish.
My lips close and fuse.
My ears no longer hear your heart.

I’ve gone back as far as I can. You must do the work now
my pregnant mother, you who once told me
what your psychiatrist said—that
you should never have had children.
You were crying at the time and I consoled you
in the hall of my bedsit, cradling the black phone.
The vultures stayed with me all my life. I wake some nights
and their starry heads are above me, as they were
when I lay inside you, my organs shining in the dark
like caskets of jewels to be plundered.

Pascale Petit

Pascale Petit lives in Cornwall, UK. Her seventh collection, Mama Amazonica, will be published by Bloodaxe in September 2017. Her sixth, Fauverie, was her fourth to be shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and five poems from the book won the 2013 Manchester Poetry Prize. Petit has had three collections chosen as Books of the Year in the Times Literary Supplement, Independent, and Observer. Her books have been translated into Spanish (in Mexico), Chinese, French, and Serbian and she is widely traveled, including in the Peruvian and Venezuelan Amazon. In 2015 she received a Cholmondeley Award.