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DEATH CENTOS
BY DIANA ARTERIAN
UGLY DUCKLING PRESSE
2014

death centos

Diana Arterian’s chapbook Death Centos is currently available in a limited edition set ($125) that includes two additional works of art. The first of these is a broadside, designed as a version of the Goose Game, with an inward-spiraling design that depicts a life cycle. The second is a game piece, accoutrement for the board: a small sculpture made of white brass, replica of a 2-franc piece (no longer in circulation), evocative of funerary customs in which the deceased are given money to help aid them in their respective journeys to the afterlife. The center of the letter-pressed broadside holds a statement from Arterian regarding her aesthetic intentions for Death Centos, in which she writes, “I have placed [my subjects, whose words comprise [these centos] on even ground . . . I have bastardized history in order to provide a poetic space in which they are marshaled together, allowing them company in the terror of the unknown.”

Indeed, the form of a cento – a quilt of human thought and experience, couched in the language(s) and perspectives of many – seems ideal for Arterian’s task of simultaneously memorializing and combining the last words of historical figures. These centos seamlessly combine the last words of geniuses such as Emily Dickinson, who described the onset of death with immutable innovation and elegance: “I must go in, for the fog is rising”; venerated historical figures, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who reinforced the importance of beauty, art, and faith: “Make sure you play ‘Precious Lord’ tonight – play it real pretty”; religious leaders, such as Jesus of Nazareth, who invoked the value of family, love, and unity among human beings: “Woman, behold your son; behold your mother”; and common criminals, guilty of unspeakable acts of violence, sadism, and evil, e.g., Lavinia Tucker, who revealed a chilling lack of either delusion or remorse to the last: “If any of you got a message for the devil, give it.” These quotes, like all employed in the text, are credited; those who spoke them are listed on the innermost edge of each page, alongside the binding. However, the speakers cited are not listed in an order that corresponds to the placement of their words in each poem. By scrambling the identities of the speakers, these poems successfully render death a truly egalitarian process: not only must we simultaneously confront criminals, admired personalities, and venerated leaders, but we are deliberately deprived of the opportunity distinguish among them. Thus is the reader compelled to acknowledge their common humanity – and, in this way, Arterian’s project seems to become less about providing these souls company among one another in the terror of the unknown, and more about giving them equal real estate in the psychic space of the reader.

For this reason, terror seems neither the most defining nor the most compelling quality with which death is portrayed in this collection that interrogates what it means to die, and how we use those final moments before death – both our own and those of others. In fact, death is associated more immediately with happiness than with fear or suffering: Arterian opens the collection by quoting, via epigraph, the last words of her grandfather: “I’m so happy.” In addition to its direct declaration of joy, the context provided by this epigraph encourages the reader to understand death as a unifier – familial – an occasion that facilitates communication between the individual about to depart and the rest of the living world. Four times in the text, death is referred to as “going home,” and once as “taking refuge,” suggesting that human finitude, rather than merely stimulating fear, may serve as an intensifier for our natural propensities for forging connections, exchanging knowledge, and learning from the experiences of others. This text specifically differentiates, via section titles, between the dying and the condemned; to succumb to our physical finitude, then, is not to be sentenced. We may have to die, but we are not punished by death – a view that suggests a paradoxical sense of agency; readers are encouraged to regard the moments immediately preceding death as an occasion that provides the about-to-die with a reasonable expectation of being not only heard, but remembered – a secular brand of immortality.

And, ultimately, these centos suggest that our participation in the immortalization of others – the post-mortem maintenance of their identities – is a communal project, one that is also egalitarian in that it renders the individual will less important than the collective memory that keeps it alive. “Only you have ever understood me/ and you got it wrong,” Hegel tells his favorite student, and then takes his leave. Even as death erases his identity and sends his ego spiraling through the ether of the unknown, his faithful student transcribes and remembers his final speech. And so our collective attention to another human being’s last conscious moments allows us to help preserve the self that is being effaced, as we choose to integrate their departing wisdom into their own lives via language and memory. However, Hegel’s words – and Arterian’s lovely, haunting centos – also highlight the true terror of death: in being immortalized by the memories of others, how much of your true self, as you’ve defined it, will live on? How much of you is in your own words?

 

Automatonophilia

Love of things that falsely represent a sentient being

You married a marionette for the lumbering way
that she succumbs to teeth. You saw; she sways

and says okay. And she admires the daze
you move in, hydroplaning days away:

exultant accidents. Instead of me,
a blissful wooden girl; a wooden knee

submitted for exhibit. Deadened trees:
the shelter you inhabit. And didn’t we

expect it, eking out animatronic
epochs on the sofa? Both electric—

me with boredom; you ran programs: tricks
for trenchant eyes. Disguised, the lists you ticked

led straight to this. Your love nest: nuts and bolts,
no musts. No lust. No faults, and no one’s fault.

Automatonophilia from Nathan Sharratt on Vimeo.

______________________________________________________
Jessica Piazza‘s first full-length collection of poems, Interrobang, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press in 2013. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. She is co-founder of Bat City Review, an editor at Gold Line Press, a contributing editor at The Offending Adam and has blogged for The Best American Poetry and Barrelhouse.

Elegy for a Forty-Three Pound Woman with Mental Retardation

Autumn and you are in your mother’s house.
__________Plants no longer turn
_____but fail down to the soil
_______________from which they sprung.
To be sure I can’t speak properly to you until Winter
_____when the kindly rescuer appeared to find you
alive and moving, resuscitating a growing need on a soiled mattress
__________—whisper body—
one chain away from death in a room you’ve never escaped.
_____Thus you, my joyless seed, sprout.
____________________Could you often hear
_____the butchers’ feast being torn into by mouths in the outer rooms?
Partitioned again the body that is end-stopped. This world
__________did not fall from my head.
_____An ornate impotence arose with the descent of you, and instead
of the too much to say to tell a truth, I’m burdened by a phlegm-thick mouth, my sounds
_______________throat bound and the entire vocal
__________apparatus breaks at the appearance of
_____the French word for apology. I do not sorry.
And so it is that experience becomes
____________________remoteness from you and where and how
_____you were recovered, nude save a diaper, which you filled
__________somehow.
____________________You haunt my lunches henceforth:
eyes obsidian looking back at me: with the warning, this is you.
_______________I waste my food, mingle it with all the others
_____in the cafeteria’s heaping garbage bin. Always luxuriating
in decomposition I think of your hunger and your distance
____________________from being sated. Yet you have
have survived the compost heap, becoming a new
__________drift engendered from a decayed parent system.
_____Was it not a type of softness, kindness that laid you initially
down ___onto the mattress? And you thinned like a blade
unable to come to an end. I know you are alive somewhere,
_____tube dripping
__________protein into your stomach, and I know too because
our luck doesn’t run in that direction. Of all the mad things to wish,
____________________your death is the one unmet by my madness.
_____Just be dead already so I may lead the choir
_______________through practice of your dirge. I’ve chastised
____________________them for prematurely practicing their lilts
_____and guffaws and their throaty chuckles. Rare phenomenon, white music,
_______________denying your own existence yet still issuing waste,
and until there is a word for that,
__________a name for you, the limpid melodies composed
_____and my static accompaniment on the piano falter in your name.
_______________You heard all this and worse
while in your mother’s house where
_____your sole wish was to cut yourself open, expose your perfect interior
_______________to the eyes circling about you.
Perhaps you too heard your requiem. All the more reason to cut off an ear.
Mutilation is a lesser goal of the slaughterhouse. Peer inside it.
__________Equiposed between the animate and the inanimate the terms
_____are laid thus: You, profoundly disabled; me, profoundly incapable.
_______________My thinness, keep your thoughts on me and
__________what I bleed on the killing floor. Here am I
leaning over the butcher’s block with knives
__________shiny and clinical—that much I can promise you.
_______________Disarticulate the memory from the body so finally, here, away from
your mother’s house, in the abattoir-of-what-we-can’t-give-you,
__________I determine our roles in the fantasy
until the fated removal occurs and I the butcher hold
_____the beef heart in my palm, and I lob
____________________the organ onto the table. Its dark melt pools.

_________________________________________________
Ethan J. Hon is from Omaha, NE. He is an editor at JERRY Magazine and a contributing editor at The New Inquiry. He is adjunct faculty at LIM College.

INVISIBLE FUNERAL IN ONE ACT

A bird runs into a window

Enter: A woman (who looks
like me) staring at the patterns
on a Persian rug __Enter: A stagehand, carrying a
mirror

The woman tapes black
construction paper over the mirror When she stares
at the rug and then back at the blacked-
out mirror, neon ghosts of
paisley fractals squirm

A bird runs into a window &
I watch It strikes its beak with its
own beak

Previously Entered: Maurice Blanchot

Maurice Blanchot stands by a desk lamp
in the corner & notes: __It is striking that at
this very moment, when the cadaverous presence
is

Enter: the woman (who is me) staring at
the reflected patterns on her face__ Enter: the television
projecting a woman (who is not me) staring at
a family photograph and saying
___________& I didn’t
___________recognize

Maurice Blanchot scratches
his head __He writes: __when the cadaverous

presence is the presence
of the unknown before us, the mourned deceased
begins to

A bird runs into a window & I
watch & call it by its cadaver name

Enter: the woman, the woman, the philosopher, the
bird __They hold mirrors in front

of their faces __They stretch out
their arms __They will never accidentally crash
through

How else would you touch that othered
eye
___________the mourned deceased begins
___________to resemble himself

(It strikes its arm with its
own arm __It makes a palindrome out of all
its eyes __It lies
in this mirror-plated coffin & talks
of regurgitated worms __I
watch)

Exit: me


___________________________________________________
Elizabeth Cantwell lives in Los Angeles, where she is earning her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. Her poems have recently appeared in such publications as PANK, The Los Angeles Review, La Petite Zine, Indiana Review, and Matter. Her first book, Nights I Let The Tiger Get You, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press.

______________________________________________________________
Bradley Harrison grew up in small town Iowa and is a graduate of Truman State University. Currently a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas in Austin, his work can be found in Gulf Coast, CutBank, The Los Angeles Review, Hunger Mountain, New Orleans Review and other journals. His chapbook Diorama of a People, Burning is forthcoming from Ricochet Editions (Fall 2012).

Maternalique

Sure as a first balled fist,
____________________it wells
you awake
_______as from a quake–

_____the want
_______________to give a swaddled
__________star to the night’s arc.

You step out
_____and the landscape lengthens.

Each parcel of dark
_______________a mouth to be fed,

each umbra hunkered
__________to its suckling.

The fog rocks the gray,
_____loving it with its life.

You walk, emboldened as a nova.

You unfurl.
____________Half-ready to catch the moon’s fall.

______________________Your hand halfway

to the soft part of that skull.

______________________________________________
Stacy Gnall
 is the author of Heart First into the Forest (Alice James Books, 2011). She earned her undergraduate degree at Sarah Lawrence College and her MFA at the University of Alabama, and she is currently pursuing her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. Her work has previously appeared in The Cincinnati ReviewThe Florida ReviewThe Gettysburg ReviewIndiana ReviewThe Laurel ReviewThe Spoon River Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio she now lives in Los Angeles.