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Poetry and Medicine
April 8, 2009

Before Rigor Mortis

Author Affiliations

Poetry and Medicine Section Editor: Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor. Poems may be submitted to

JAMA. 2009;301(14):1414. doi:10.1001/jama.2008.770

You might think the three doors of death
   would be fog-clenched, choked
in sulfurous muck, the rasp of meat-eating
   birds in your ears, but never
would you imagine, could you imagine,
   the exaltation in the crown
of doves, the sudden weightlessness
   once unbound from that midline monster,
its demands to squeeze 60 times
   each minute, the blessed escape
from the imperious dominion of that white sponge
   of brain, its stores of worry,
scurry of minions, legions of mice
   to work the pedals of its wheel
around and around,
   to be unleashed
from weight—of bones, thighs,
   hunger—for coffee, whiskey, desire
to watch fireflies, gossip
   on the screened porch, wait
in the post office line, chew licorice, press organic
   cotton close to your skin,
released from incessant adrenaline, millions of years
   in the making, arrow heads, blue-and-white
porcelain, opposable thumbs, self-seal envelopes,
   umbrellas, all of this—forsaken,
as a spaceship exits earth's atmosphere,
   the known world transformed, erased,
ever-lasting peace embraced by cells,
   mitochondria set free from their preoccupation
with ATP, glucose phosphorylation,
   adrift from the mores of physiologic demands,
the currency of carbon transfer, once lodged
   inside the novelty of a vacuum's perfect haven,
heaven, at last, beyond the realm of twin bellows
   like slaves in a galley, rowing back and forth
to move air in and out
   12 times each minute, released
from the bog of a half-full
   bladder, the descent of earlobes, emancipated
from the curse of oxygen
   as it turns blue, falls off its hemoglobin horse,
from all of this labor and pain—
   of bone on bone, warts, hemorrhoids,
cracked teeth, flesh dispensed
   within the onset of luxurious eternity,
at last—to unfurl, unwind, uncoil
   DNA, uncrimp proteins, disconnect axons,
shoot off the fireworks of a body
   that has finally found its eternal rest.

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