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Halloween 2013: Poems on Bones

October 31, 2013



Elise and Pumpkin - photo by our tenants, Gwen & Charles; We grew the pumpkin and Gwen and Charles carved it.


A few days after I broke my heel bones, my writing partner Christine came by, bringing two white Guadalupe candles, the glass holders decorated with intricate drawings she’d copied of the bones in the feet. She invited me to lie down on the couch to rest. She lit the candles and did a meditation invoking the bones to knit back together. Each day now, I light the candles. As they sputter and flicker, I appreciate those tender feet, those bruised and cracked bones, slowly mending. As the afternoon darkens, I love the glow of the candles, the incandescent bones.


On the eve of Halloween, as ghouls and skeletons ready themselves to haunt the streets, I am contemplating bones. I marvel at how strong they can be and also how fragile, how they can knit together when broken, how they remain for many years after the flesh dissolves.

In celebration, I am sharing some poems about bones:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that does fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! Now I hear them – Ding-dong, bell


From Shakespeare’s The Tempest




Gull Skeleton

In the first verse I find his skeleton
nested in shore grass, late one autumn day.
The loss of life and the life which is decay
have been so gentle, so clasped one-to-one


that what they left is perfect; and here in
the second verse I kneel to pick it up:
bones like the fine white china of a cup,
chambered for lightness, dangerously thin,


their one clear purpose forcing them toward flight
even now, from the warm solace of my hand.
In the third verse I bend to that demand
and - quickly, against the deepening of the night,


because I can in poems - remake his wild eye,
his claws, and the intense heat his muscles keep,
his wings’ knit feathers, then free him to his steep
climb, in the last verse, up in the streaming sky.


Jonathan Revere



Lines Inscribed upon a Cup Formed from a Skull


Start not—nor deem my spirit fled;
In me behold the only skull,
From which, unlike a living head,
Whatever flows is never dull.


I lived, I loved, I quaff'd, like thee:
I died: Let earth my bones resign;
Fill up—thou canst not injure me;
The worm hath fouler lips than thine.


Better to hold the sparkling grape,
Than nurse the earth-worm's slimy brood;
And circle in the goblet's shape
The drink of gods, than reptile's food.


Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,
In aid of others let me shine;
And when, alas! our brains are gone,
What nobler substitute than wine?


Quaff while thou canst: another race,
When thou and thine, like me, are sped,
May rescue thee from earth's embrace,
And rhyme and revel with the dead.


Why not? since through life's little day
Our heads such sad effects produce;
Redeem'd from worms and wasting clay,
This chance is theirs, to be of use.


George Gordon, Lord Byron



The Twa Corbies


As I was walking all alane

I heard twa corbies making a mane:

The tane unto the tither did say,

'Whar sall we gang and dine the day?'

'—In behint yon auld fail dyke

I wot there lies a new-slain knight;

And naebody kens that he lies there

But his hawk, his hound, and his lady fair.

'His hound is to the hunting gane,

His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,

His lady 's ta'en anither mate,

So we may mak our dinner sweet.

'Ye'll sit on his white hause-bane,

And I'll pike out his bonny blue e'en:

Wi' ae lock o' his gowden hair
We'll theek our nest when it grows bare.

'Mony a one for him maks mane,

But nane sall ken whar he is gane:

O'er his white banes, when they are bare,

The wind sall blaw for evermair.'

GLOSS:  corbies - ravens;  fail - turf;  hause - neck;  theek - thatch




[This next one not quite bones, but almost]

The elderly Buddhist nun Ambapali, a once beautiful courtesan, said:

My feet were beautiful
Delicate as if filled with cotton.
Now because of old age
They are cracked and rotten.
This is the teaching of one who speaks the truth.


From The First Buddhist Women ©1991 by Susan Murcott.


For more poems on bones, see:

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