After the Biopsy

Kwame Dawes

She weighs her joy and finds it wanting,

a body is a conundrum of betrayals—

how easily we forget that the nail

gently brushing a nipple sends light—

oh, the bright light of the world

piercing through our bodies, spreading

the irritable sweetness of delight

and needle pricks, but now, cupped,

her breasts, she knows, carry the weight

of all fears; and the nipples have grown

into wounds, this alarm of milk

turned into a warning of what used to be pleasure.

These days it is hard not to know

that we grow used to our truest

selves, that left alone, untouched,

the body returns to a native smell,

the smell of earth, of decay,

of corruption, and this is the sublime

meaning of faith. We wait

for the conductor of our last days

to arrive, in a lab coat and with hands

smelling of antiseptic creams.

No one has to prophesy death,

the bones pushing against the skin

are the portent of all ends.

We become the memory of substance.

Here is where they say her end

begins, this purple spot, this complex

of dark veins and stone-hard flesh,

this abuse, this intrusion. Her fingers

have grown used to the rise

and roll of a tiny pebble

under the skin. She is playing

with her unmaking. The doctor

offers to remove it all, to take

away the weight of her old pleasure,

to flatten the ground she walks on,

and only then, cupping these ordinary things,

does she begin to weep, her body

warming with the confusing

and overwhelming wash

that she cannot quiet. This is

the shame and pleasure of the song

of loss and the passing of light.

Kwame Dawes is the author of several books of poetry as well as fiction, criticism, and essays. Dawes is the George W. Holmes University Professor of English and the Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner. He teaches in the Pacific MFA Program and edits the African Poetry Book Series for the University of Nebraska Press.
Originally published:
December 6, 2022

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