Semblance | Paulann Petersen


—two postmortem photographs, circa 1890

A newborn lying on a settee
covered with a darkly patterned
fringed scarf. This child in a white dress
twice the length of its body. Deep lace on the hem,
smocking at the yoke. 
                                       A christening gown.
The baby on its side, one arm under its head,
arm and head tipped up by a white pillow
embroidered in pale floss. The child's hand, tiny,
curving toward its temple—like a fluted,
half translucent shell. 
                                      Fine nose, fine mouth,
the eyes closed. Lids so thin they darken
into a soft smudge. Guise of sleep arranged
in a fashion an infant's body, alive,
would never choose. 
                                     I study two photos of this baby
hanging side by side in exhibit, one taken from perhaps
eight feet away, the other from much closer.
And then, I step toward
a closer look. 
                        In one photo the pillow is plump,
barely dented by the weight of the newborn's head.
In the other, the pillow creases to cradle that elbow,
curving hand, that head. After arranging this baby
and taking a picture, someone had second thoughts,
rearranged it, and took the photo again. And yet—
its hair. 
              In the longer shot the newborn's hair—
what would have covered the pulse
at the soft-spot in its crown—is a dark,
distinct tuft. In the closer shot only an even fuzz
shadows its skull. 
                                Two. Different babies,
their features almost identical, both dressed
in that long gown, laid out in that same strangely
adult way. Twins—dead within days, hours
of each other. 
                         Or sister and brother born
a year or two apart and made to look the same by
what finery could be gathered for the sake
of memento, two made equal
by a photographer's art. 
                                           Someone prepares
the body for such an occasion. But no. Not
the mother. Not her. She waits with her family
in a nearby room. 
                               The photographer takes—
from a fine blanket—that small body,
its skin smooth and cool as the skin of a rose.
He slides the dress over its head, threads
those tiny arms through the not much larger sleeves,
slumps the baby's head as he fastens the collar
at its back. 
                    The sofa, the scarf, the pillow all ready,
he eases this slight weight down, arranges
the length of white fabric—the baby on its side,
one arm crooked under its head to soften
the neck's jarring angle, lace at the hem
pulled smooth, eyelids pressed down tight.
Impeccable repose. 
                                   He steps backward.
A last check. Mantling his head and shoulders
in black, he leans to the lens, studies the old,
odd jolt of a world suddenly lurched
upside down. Then waits for the blinding flash
to burn such 
                       thin semblance of sleep away.

                       —Paulann Petersen


Notre Dame Review, No. 44, Summer/Fall 2017
One Small Sun, Salmon Poetry, 2019


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