Honorable Mention – 2020 James H. Nash Contest

The Mortician


He sees the whole naked parade,
the king and the pauper,
the modest grandmother
who all her life undressed in the dark,
the debutante who would never think
of leaving the house without her makeup,
every hair in place, with matching purse and shoes,
the young virile captain of the football team
hard-bodied, invincible,
the little girl down the street
who every day fed the ducks by the lake.

He sees them all—
neighbors, strangers,
contorted, cold,
face up, lying on the metal slab,
skin with a lacy blue hue, eyes half open,

some with limbs cocked sideways,
bones poking out from rents in flesh,
hair caked with blood, face ashen gray,

others more fortunate
who fell asleep with a peaceful visage
and a slight wry smile,

but who all,
if they only could,
would protest
that they don’t like being viewed
in this ignominious way,
with pubic hair exposed,
the secret birthmark on the inner thigh revealed,
old private scars crisscrossing the protuberant belly,
perhaps a catheter still in place
attesting to those last debilitated days.

He sees them all
in their egalitarian poses
and he lovingly
puts the arms and legs
in their proper places, and
paints the life back on their faces
and trims and cleans the nails,
and dresses their nakedness,
to ready them for this
last social obligation
where, just as when they were born,
they will be the event of the day.

KEITH BYLER is a native St. Louisan and a mostly retired physician who spent ten years in the trenches of the emergency room followed by 20 years in private practice. His writing is often informed by his professional experiences as well as his love of the natural world. His poems have appeared in Emergency: True Stories From the Nation’s E.R.’sHurricane BluesMargie: The American Journal of Poetry, Untamed Ink, Floodstage, Thema, as well as his medical school newspaper Still Kickin’. He is also a winner of the Metro Arts in Transit 2008 Poetry in Motion Contest.