Mudlark Poster No. 43 (2002)

Mark Cunningham   |  Body

The Pimple | The Pituitary Gland
Cataracts | Mucous | The Thyroid Gland
The Clavicle | Sweat | The Lymph System
Stand Still | Ball-and-Socket Joints
The Bruise | The Omentum | Appendix
and Tonsils
| Menstrual Cycle | The Colon
The Fart | The Thighs | The Heel

Author’s Note

“These poems come from a manuscript of poems on parts of the body; the manuscript currently bears the title Body.”  Mark Cunningham received an MFA from the University of Virginia, and he still lives in the Charlottesville area. His poems have appeared in ANOTHER CHICAGO MAGAZINE, THE PROSE POEM, and the SYCAMORE REVIEW.

The Pimple

          Coral red, tarnish of unclean bronze, the body a sea change, shoals lodging, reefs clotting, adolescence rising in hormone-steam and local eruptions, and you wordless amid draining debris.
          Later—what to say? It’s self-evident, singular now, the flesh dulled to a simmer. Some fluid, a mummified core, maybe a blood rush. You want to get back to that.

The Pituitary Gland

          This acorn tucked under the brain strives for one thing only—for the body to shoot up, always grow. I’m six feet tall, but my daughter comes up to my eyebrows, while I barely reach the eyebrows of her dates. Is it enough? The universe is expanding: the suburbs will swell. The pituitary releases hormones; hands and feet fill out, the better to cover ground. We invade desert and jungle, bomb cave and industrial complex: more eggs and sperm develop. I’m confident we can keep up. The anterior lobe has evolved from the roof of the mouth, the posterior lobe from a knot of embryonic nerve tissue. A big mouth and some nerve will get us through.


          A Filipino boy in Los Angeles is disciplined by his school for bringing a hamburger as an example of his family’s favorite meal. When lubrication congeals, the lens you see through hardens. Even atoms are not marbles and wire but a wobbling mush, like applesauce. Blindness and a falling into the roar. When the 82-year-old Monet had his removed, paintings of the lily pond and Japanese bridge broke red, brown, purple, vortexes of mud and water. When you first look, you can’t make out a thing.


          It filters dust and pollen as air currents the nostrils, funnels waste without much mess. Lining the mouth, stomach, and intestines, it lets you keep your distance until everything has been screened. That spraying sneeze—who knows what further social blunders it saved you from. A vale of tears? The world is duller and blunter. Whatever enters the body legitimately passes through this. All else is violence.

The Thyroid Gland

:    a formal feeling comes:    later:    right now:    you can’t decide:   
what to wear:    anyone might come:    around the corner:    sit alone
in a room:    you can hear yourself swallow:    each time you swallow:   
you cut off your air supply:    the more you think about it:    the more
you swallow:    you need to take:    a deep breath:    THE IODINE
CLOUD SPREADS:    scrape:    the No Fear sticker:    from your
windshield:    imagine instead:    you’re dressed up inside:    presentable
to whatever appears:    not stiff:    composed:    you’re off:    to a decent
start:    even asleep:    you wear your bow tie:

The Clavicle

          Long and narrow and notched: a real skeleton key. Turn it and your arms open or close. Curved like the sign at the start of a musical score. So every movement forms a note in the symphony of daily labor, the social harmony? In a pig’s ear. Told to show a little pride, you straighten your shoulders like a carpenter’s level; your head balances where the bubble rests. Still, you don’t work every minute. You’ve lain awake while someone nearby slept, breath weaving back and forth like a needle caught at the record’s end. Does that sound bother you? Buy a CD player: it stops when its programmed time is over. All done by lasers.


evaporates at night or in winter before it lingers on the skin, but remember the times it beaded and rolled to where your body and another pushed together, thighs slick, your body not life itself but something that holds it up, a momentary declension, present tense. How long till you’re wrung dry, scattered as dust? Think about it: your shirt darkens under the arms. Maybe if you sit quietly? The chemical shifts of the kidneys, liver, the heart go on. Let a friend hold your hand; take what comfort you can. Five minutes, ten. You wipe your palm.

The Lymph System

          You seize the day: seven years later you wake up hearing the half-whisper, half-echo: mistake. Try to fix it... later wake up.... Rush and clutch, clutch and rush: capillary logjams leak interstitial fluid. Most soaks back in; some filters to different tubes, is nudged to nodes at the knees, groin, and collar bone to sift bacteria, to the spleen to scavenge blood—but it’s pushed only by muscle pressure. Things really do come clean one step at a time. Yet hurrying only wears you down further. Matthew Arnold said that fifty years might be too soon to move an idea into action. Can that be right? Better mull it over. Not right now, maybe. But sometime.

Stand Still

          The basic instruction—don’t go—is too negative. Inertia is not an activity. Perhaps plant your feet. No: you must distinguish between you and your environment, which doesn’t obey when you say wait. Dogs pause, yes. But, for that matter, you have little control over your heart. And you can hold your breath for only so long. And if you use a plastic bag to hold it longer, you’ll lose your focus and become part of the earth (that again), and the earth is careening through space. Even the dead move at eighteen miles per second.

Ball-and-Socket Joints

          The simple skills make you happy. And why not? Civilization, too, builds itself on things kept close to the body, a plow, a paintbrush. In early cities, everything was in walking distance. Myths built up, the remembering of Osiris, of Jesus. But now painting and violence have become abstract. The ruins of the century show where one over-reacher after another fell. Refugees are still arriving, bringing only what they can carry. We’ll regroup, protect ourselves, start over. If I don’t make it, bury me as in one of those ancient sites, photographs of which give me such hope, the dead seated, elbows wrapped around knees, patient, hugged in, ready no matter what’s waiting on the other side, heaven, hell, or archeologists.

The Bruise

          The rest of your life in a seven-second flash: small detonations ripple over shin and knee, along ribs, under fingernails: an undeveloped film of night bombardment. Fortunately, time settles into the house in a more domestic way. A little less flexibility in your dreams. One more light burned out in your skin.

The Omentum

:    the bubble swelled:    sagged:    you sucked in:    too hard:    and
swallowed the clot:    you imagined the pulpiness inside:    inflating:
with each breath:    some air always remains:    neither used nor
exhaled:    since then:    exams and bank loans:    you know if you watch
a cloud coast off something hangs:    in memory:    even if you never
find it again:    it’s not a question:    of eating your cake:    and having it
too:    you can’t help eating:    then you can’t get all of it:   to leave:
there’s no mathematical reason why:    time doesn’t move backwards:
it doesn’t:    life is one long:    inhale:

Appendix and Tonsils

          Stubs at the back of the throat, lose thread at the start of the colon. Not everything is tied up neat. A stomach ache after lunch might not go away. Your voice could disappear over night. Your mother knew this as she asked where exactly it hurt, or peered into your mouth with a flashlight. The dreamy excitement, the ting of danger, held you still, as when your grandfather took you fishing and you cast out beyond your reflection. Was that a nibble? You dared the invisible jaws to rise to your bait.

Menstrual Cycle

          Even as you ran the bases at kickball or rode home in the backseat, your body steeped in its developing fluids, every moment cells damaged, repaired. Now this: a single cell, barely visible to the eye were there an eye to see it, borne like dandelion down over tiny reed-like cilia. In no wind, in no hurry, just the pull of one night into the next. Something that, seventy years from now, could become dust. But not yours—for two days there’s the possibility of new life. Still, the ovum is not the seed, not all of the seed, and as for borne....
          The image develops no further. Another sheet wads itself up.The body starts again in its lunar silence.

The Colon

:    life sprawls:    mouth and anus:    separate:    from cave to royal
palace:    kitchen and bathroom move:    farther apart:    paranoiacs
inscribe their fears onto the “body without organs”:    turn it into
a “body of law”:    you yell at your daughter not to be a potty mouth:   
then at the office you strain:    all day:    the colon becomes:    twisted:   
a primitivist:    it would spend its time draped in the body:    like a python
in a tree:    most people add one thing a day:    the sage drops:    one thing
a day:    no need to hurry:    or tense up:    a few minutes:    the body
will fix:    its center of gravity:

Note: “The Colon” was published, in a very different form, in CLUTCH.

The Fart

          At times a gust husks off a leaf or shears a whole branch. What remains, which seemed so well anchored, is visibly shaken. Inside, too: a tremendous meal, you’re stuffed, there’s not a centimeter of you that isn’t blocked in, when suddenly—. Memento mori? Forget death. It will feed itself. Artaud claimed that, pressed by forces denying him infinity, he made his corporal pain manifest: he farted potential. The body is always avant-garde. The past, even an hour ago, stinks.

The Thighs

          Cancer: two lines of white spots converging into one longer line. The torso: two lines for the abdomen merging into the pubis, then one centered line for the length of the legs. Along that line, between Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis (the Northern and Southern Asses, whose loud braying routed the Titans), a blur as of something rubbed bare. A badness where they brush together or against pants. Here the sky thins and spirits spill through the floor of heaven into the world. The skin a different smoothness, as of snow packed high on mountains, slicking in trickles, glazes. Outlasting its peaks.

The Heel

          Wittgenstein asks, “One can own a mirror; does one then own the reflection seen in it?” You don’t own the mirror, either. Paint peels, metal oxidizes. The seconds pass, your sphere of habits can’t stop that, your life, other lives, a field blown by the earth’s turning, hardly noticeable, hardly. A little whisper, that’s all fear is. “You make your biggest mark the moment you hit the earth, then comes the pinch, then the small change.” The body is a door to dust. With every step, you try its worn knob.

Copyright © Mudlark 2002
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