Shooting the Skulls: Devotionals

Shooting the Skulls: Devotionals

A meditation on Andrea Modica’s portraits of skulls unearthed from the Colorado State Mental Institution

            For Holly Martin

C4: male, 39 years old

What dreams remain encased inside this freckled
gourd, this ostrich egg cradled on cardboard
like the pate of a man caught catnapping on stacks
of factory cartons? My uncle, our line’s humored,
grizzled hero, who’d survived Dien Cai Dau
to find he couldn’t work a paint gun trigger
to spray his house planks gold and rose. Shadows
from morgue lights fissure the cracks: the skull shivers
on its paper mantel. I only think the rest
of a man’s attached: crouched, fetal inside
his nightmare’s flak that drifts into a mist
of candied paints. I squint, but cannot find
the hairline hasp forensics says was groined
by lobes that tried, and failed, to fuse to one join.

Portrait of D6: Male, 38 years old/B17: male, 38 years old

                  Propped on their brain cases,
they’re twins: two boles of smoking
aluminum, or the scorched pump stubs left off
the French and U.S. bombers a Vietnamese
artist slabheaped as a monument to Hanoi’s
victories.  Hanoi: the city “that should be bombed,”
as the general’s said to have said, “back to the stone age,”
as if time itself were raw material gifted
through mechanics then taken back. Like us:
rough wires and shocks, cartilage, skin. Remnants
of men, their arms tenderly lifting out
another oil-stained engine from its carriage. More
machinery that time’s ground down to parts.
We begin in beauty. What’s left is form.

C18: Male, 36 years old

Elegant as an instep, my profile’s arch
sails above this smashed eye orbit, my crown
a thin moon shaving, diadem of bone: arc
under which the starless universe nestles. Eons
ago, it seems, doctors jabbered at me, prodded.
They measured my genitals and cranium, graded
my skin tone, shocked me with paddles–

Now deracinated, unsexed, steeped in an essential
nothingness, I’m a perfect spark of blank
you still can’t stand to see, dwindled
to sex, age, quadrants as if these were my frank
embodiments: details to be controlled
or touched, wounds without which you fear
I’ve grown exceptional.


No skull stays silent. Each spills its neglects:
the minds that syphilis or violence ravaged
marked by fissures the intern notes, checks
off in yellow for forensics to manage.
Photographs translate; bones speak. Too plainly
for my blind acquaintance who hates their feel
beneath his fingers: anonymous, strangely
blank: nothing about a face is real.
It’s all skull to him: he’d rather fat’s give,
a slackened muscle, some door to stand
between him and feeling, cut off what lives
beneath skin already, each bone branded
with what only death will read: skeleton key
to unlock these rooms of memory.


In repeats, the t.v. pans across a man
dragged from his spider hole in Iraq, thin cheeks
scabs of white. Before that, towers crumpled,
flamed amid a din of voices onscreen
shrieking, while a plane sheared into the Pentagon
wing where my cousin worked. Before that?
Showers of sparks launched through a green night:
desert volleys from the nuclear submarine
this same cousin commands. Now I stand
by a stranger’s cranium missing
its braincase: clods of crumpled foils unearthed,
scorched papers, the thin nugget of a filling–
My eye twitches, then blurs. Before I know it,
tears startle my fingers.

Portrait of F11: female, 39 years old

Unhooded for its shot–a burlap sack–
the skull seems more denuded, its oval ear
canal so delicate, I long to stick
a finger there, to wiggle, poke, and hear
the lambdoid suture crack. Would this cheekbone,
if I struck it, smash? I finger grooves
where vessels plumped the skin. What fun

to imagine how my thumbs might soothe
or stop blood’s flow. What sparks of pain, what groans
I’d make, the fragile joins rubbed, crushed
till a cry’s released: a name, a date, a reason–

To my right, a woman lowers her head to meet it;
smiles for her phone as she snaps a pic, then shrugs:
her fat fist jutting a bald thumbs-up.

F20: male, 29 years old

Only we, the mandible and maxillae, are left:
wind-up jaws dismantled for the joke. Stained
with tobacco and calculus, we’re the fragile rest
of him that feels most human. Our size suggests his brain
was malformed, his body stunted: we were his best
defense, gnashing at the hands that cuffed him,
tearing through cloth ties or plastic, leather, skin–

Fact is, you want him armed, each tooth polished
as a bullet, and hope we clamped ourselves tight
to strangers’ fingers, refusing to be diminished.
That, despised, a figure of indifference,
he still had ways to defend himself, some right
to wound that defined his humanness: a violence
he never lost, no matter what else he’d missed.


These skulls recall for me The Dying Gaul,
that statue’s cast I found secreted
beside a janitor’s closet, dust-veil caul
darkening the groin’s slivered wound-lips.
A child, I traced that snail-shape curled in its nest
of hair, wondering why a man would go to war

naked, and how his sweat-slicked flesh
might feel, slipping against another soldier’s.
Easy to taste. Easy to tear. I stroked the deepest
breast folds, skin-crust chipped at one thigh,
exposing its grubby notch of porcelain:
that time-worn flaw for which he’d been consigned
to the shadows. The same material weakness to flesh
and stone which makes me now remember him.


In Phnomh Penh’s museum, the skulls are stacked
in aquarium tanks: grim toys for hooks to ply
free from the glass. Here, each one gets a tag,
a mount, a photograph to suggest a life,
perhaps a name, might be envisioned. Yet I’m
more moved by what’s anonymous, past; imagine
fields of faces sunken with decay, eyes
jellied in their sockets, heel-meats bruised,
bloated in the rain–
                                    Perhaps the skulls prefer
a lack of names as, scrubbed of self and skin,
they’re trauma’s best witnesses: fused
by time and pain to one crisis, never
to be separated. Lost as men, they become event.
In this, they achieve a terrible transcendence.

C5: female, 34 years old

                          Who am I? A monument
in black and white, bodiless embodiment

that, like an X-Ray or Rorshach blot, contains
multitudes. My bone shards change

shape in mind: morph, corrupting till I’m
anything you want. Why try to find

out what I was? Deformed at birth, driven
from sight, in death I bloom, enliven

those about whom nothing would be written:
soldier, citizen: could you so palpably imagine them

except through me? Unearthed, I’m art.
My dun pate splits to show you–what?

Calcium buckshot, a cuirassed abdomen–
atop a film box stamped “contaminant.”

                             New York, April 2002

At the towers’ excavated site, I followed
a student around its fenced wreckage: photos
of the missing, like stations of the cross,
backdrop to his repeated tale: the ashen crowds
he pushed among, screams of metal, a mounted cop
he watched lunge from the engulfing cloud–

                  Reciting his testimony to any tourist
who would listen, to inscribe himself on that silent
scaffolding–its sheared irons, erasure of rivets–
where some part of my cousin, too, resides;
absorbed into this war memorial to which I
quietly recite his facts, trying to assemble a life
from the rift, its busts of steam that billow
and shroud, churning my voice to stuttered syllables.


What had my uncle seen in the V.C.’s faces?
Black hair, black eyes, his high Chinese cheekbones
mirrored inside thinner cheeks: noses less
wide, yet still recognizable as his own.
Only his skin encased the claim “American.”

Chinaman, the man behind me seethed
at my cousin’s naval academy graduation–

Did my uncle search the enemy body
for some dying light of recognition,
or did he identify his nation in their eyes,
its rage for isolation brutal, clarified?

As now my cousin turns at the stranger’s shout
to search the crowd, our camera’s sodium light
of pride burning briefly in him. Going out–

Portrait of E4: male, 34 years old

Shards of a shattered hoplite helmet? Taped
platings of a Brodie? Squint, and the armadillo’s
self-protective hunch appears, its stippled
skin thrice-banded, flexible, the olive shell
carved like a teardrop so that its wedge head, rolled,
seals the ball. There are no chinks in its armor.
Outfitted for a fight it wouldn’t start, it’s victim
to its own design. I’ve seen boys clamor
and fishtail to hit one, emboldened by its shyness
as they potshot its plates, strafe the sides with BBs–
Why aren’t all things built to repel us?
Across the cardboard, the skull-shell seems
to stick out a paw; pauses, then withdraws:
its split flanks creeping back to the shadows.

VF21: male, 37 years old

Only the grounds from which I’ve been unearthed
label me abnormal. Up close, my foramen
magnum is a sinkhole: nothing more than
variants where bone buckles, mimicking earth’s
tectonic crumples, its calcite scrapes

of shale, escarpments where my hair, a paste
of muds, has since flaked off. My cheek blades
are sheared to tusk-tips. Broken by a spade
that crushed me where I lay,

I’m shattered. Now I coalesce from parts:
mined like a seam of sallow quartz, needles of bone
sharp as the porcelain points on a Christmas star.
So white when cleaned, arrayed, I almost glow
like the Rockies capped with a sugar-crust of snow.


We’ve lost my uncle’s letters from the war.
Conflict slipped if not erased from memory,
while I invent the remnants: some spore
of thought, some sheaf of papers buried
in a desk, real as these photos’ ridged,
turf-pillowed half-faces I watch get stacked,
then ordered on a wall. They are not mine

to grieve, these lives that flared into nothing,
then too much: blunted like crumbling
incisors, cream chits that gleam with gold foil
overlays: nub winkings in loosened soils
someone’s worked free and washed
of grit, parsed into a pattern that doubles
as code: consonantal messages on a bed of moss.


Once I caught a glimpse of him in sleep:
my cousin napping on the couch, chest spattered
with scarlets thrown down from my mother’s
stained glass windows. He lay as if beached,
tremors of shadow running his length as sun
passed behind glass so that I couldn’t tell
whether he or light breathed: the legs root-pale,
belly a shatter of red, blue striations
veining his clavicle. A shirt, stuffed
over the face, cut off his head. Each bit
of him I watched–the rawbone shoulder, puffed
knuckles–seemed to sink under color’s scrim.
What was it I saw that day? Drowned sailor, or mythic
merman? The light, or coming dark in him?

C2: male, 42 years old

Why pretend my trepanation hole’s
a bullet wound, my nose bridge crushed by a rifle
butt? At war between your needs to uncover,
interpret, you make me emissary from a past

I had no part of, evidence for unimaginable
conflicts. Dead, I’m too public. The relic
your memory needs but cannot find, my time
underground an equal estrangement to
your family’s wars. But if each of us slides behind
a mask that cannot fit, nothing comes
alive through the mix: we do not grow closer
but more anonymous–

                                            Look. Even my weight
in hand bewilders you. I’m the architecture
for an elegy you can only guess at.

Portrait of E20: female, 32 years old

This shot swims into sight like the sonogram
a friend has sent, her first child flickering
in the blizzard of her womb, as the cranium
on the table’s grained with swirls from rotting
coffin wood. Like fronds of kelp shuddering
in a shale tidepool, I’d thought, but can’t recall
which image sparked the phrase: child, skull: each
is an unbreachable world, as were my friend
and I starving ourselves through school to reach
some point of being that would render us
unassailable. The skull’s stains curl
like a newborn’s whorl of hair across a fontanel.
What dreams, inside the chamber, remain encased?
The skull, though fragile-seeming, will not break.

C 11: female, 54 years old

Once my throat-silts split the dark. My womb
opened, blow-flies swarmed the hollow of my gut,
my pelvis flowering to a cradle of rabbitbrush.
Hills nuzzled my knees. I heard the moan
of passing cars, felt fires flame up, towers
be raised for my headstone. Had I remained, over
how much more might I reign, my shoulder cuffs
the field’s parentheses, breasts pooling to freshets?
Was it envy that made you recollect me, peel off
my earthworm crown, my negligee of roots?
Your spade edge struck my slab face that time
perfected, and I was hauled up, tagged, numbered.
Rock-maw, cave of unmined amethysts, your
Helen of the Shadows. My schist-hide masks my glitters.

Portrait of A14: Male, 56 years old

I’d cradle him if I could, a lover’s head laid
to my breast: his ossicles’ seismic cursives a map
of madness–heritable grief. Our flesh-chaff’s
its own elegy, monument. The cells of my cousin
circle in my blood, as some part of our uncle
slipped down with him into the cool, submarine air
to peer into a target’s sonar flare–
I long to put them back into the dark,
let them grow new teeth, new skin, return
to what they were or could have been. It’s hurt
that moves me most in men. This one, too,
I’d slip inside: never to be woken or wounded;
to dream of nothing, as nothing more by him
must ever be borne.

Portrait of C8: male, 32 years old

Chert nubbin. Moraine of space. Cranium
honeycombed with bubbles of anemia–
So slight it seems you couldn’t contain

a thing electrifying as thought. Why keep
a skull? Unless to remind ourselves of that zero
animating flesh: material evidence

we each are half a ghost. If there were a bone
for love, or fear, or pain, this calcite loam
comes closest to one. Through you, I’m drawn
deep into the emptiness that you’ve encased,
one more fleck of dark added to the negation

that is most truly us: what’s left the face
of everything to be undone. You: grey,
freckled, weightless. Closer to me than a cousin–

Author’s note: In 1993, hundreds of skeletons were unearthed from the grounds of the Colorado State Mental Institution, tagged and numbered over the years by the late forensic anthropologist Dr. J. Michael Hoffman. While little to nothing is known about the individuals interred in the grounds, several of the skulls bore marks of syphilis, and were likely the remains of patients who had been abandoned or forgotten by their families. Many of the skulls were later photographed by the artist Andrea Modica, and published in a monograph titled Human Being. Some of those images appear here and here.

“C:4 male, 39 years old” was originally published online in a different form by The Missouri Review.

Paisley Rekdal’s newest collection of poems, Animal Eye, won the 2013 UNT Rilke Prize. A current Guggenheim Fellow, she teaches at the University of Utah.


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