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Morton Marcus

photo by Jana Marcus

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2016 Morton Marcus Poetry Prize Winner:

Nicholas Tolkien

the fox cubs cower in the dark rustling overgrowth
while mother fox, darts her fervent eyes through the weeping forest
this is a coagulated strangulation, the distant trapdoor footsteps
of the predators hunting rifle, snaking its muzzle through her forceps
she smells their human breath and it dazzles her guts, like a swashing wound
bleeding red vermillion, seeping before it has been opened up, like an eviscerated appendage
and her little cubs eyes rattle like light bulbs, hearts racing like pin wheels
the smoggy rake of death rapes its guzzling tentacles closer
and fanning herself, like a warped vixen, curdled by agony
she covers her babies like a demersal fish, chained to its hallowed depths
silence is her only weapon; she closes her eyes and dreams of her own mother
carrying her prey back to her hungry young pups; the taste of flesh; soft and matted
now she has become the hunted, her trembling eyes water with fear - they are near
and licking his crusty lips, his finger solemnly reaching under the trigger - he gazes at her
and for a moment; their retinas meet like powerful weather systems; passing through each other
and then, with a murdered tongue and collapsed synapse - he clicks; and she is penetrated

she cradles it, a soft pelt and with fragile hand; she begins her tender work
there is so much beauty in death, she opines - like the red sunsets of rigor mortis
or how the fox's nerve endings hold secret emotions like spaghetti on a fork.

you can tell all the most intimate details about a creature in the position they died in.

her hands are as nimble as a ballerinas feet; they do the bodywork electric
and with a sprinkling of salt, of frozen skin - she listens closely for its death song

like a surgeon, with extreme precision she makes the first cut, along the spine
and breaks the bone, skun to the ankle, past the hock - and peels its skin away
perfectly skinning all the way to the last toe before the claw bed
now she skins up over the base of the ears to find the yellow egg yoke cartilage
but she cannot hear what it heard in its final reckoning; the cubs frightened yelps
"be very careful with fox ears" her mother said - "you must turn them inside out"

fox beasts are god's creatures - you must make them lifelike
even when they're separate pieces

now the ears have left the skull - she carefully moves to its beautiful eyes
"work slowly across the fox's face" her mother said softly on her first cut
the eyes are the most interesting part; to take the eye lids from the iris
push your finger through the eyehole and gently pull the skin up off the sockets
detach the fragile membrane and slowly cut around the lids until the tear duct is free
and slowly, she begins to carve like a pianist, spreading her fingers among the keys

suddenly she slices through the eyeball and it falls outwards, upon the ear pockets
she cannot look; she has failed in her work, its soft skin will never be beautiful
and her mother, scowling - lifts the eye into her hand and throws it into the trash
she slowly takes off her gloves and sees her hand is shaking from embarrassment
she pulls it behind her back, trying to hide it from her mother's more experienced eyes
"glass eyes - that's what we use, its eyes don't matter, only the holes"
"but what does it matter if it cannot see anymore" - she splutters, why does it need to be stuffed?
her mother's brown eyes gaze at her child for a moment and she whispers "to preserve its

she opens the book

the face is the most important aspect of your taxidermy and will determine if your fox looks lifelike or fake.
glue on the eyes and adjust the eyelids over them.
refer to photographs of live foxes to mimic a realistic expression.

there is such beauty in its emptiness, to render itself living even in death

whiplash and twenty more where that came from
he stands there, weeping like a fucked fish, unable to scream in the vast ocean
and again - snap! she feels the cracked buckle against his back
and no more, please no more - she covers her ears
"stop fucking crying!" he screams but all he sees are his father's shoes
he notices how the laces are undone, he wonders if he'll trip
for now the pain has numbed his eternal mechanisms, his bone shattering
he is as vulnerable as a choking fish, caught on a line, quivering in the autumnal equinox
the intersection between the living and the dead
in his hands is the carcass of his dog, savaged by tire and gasoline
it didn't even stop, didn't even wait but kept going like a ferocious oscillating guillotine
"it's just a fucking dog" his father screams, the carcass leaking spinal fluid
"stop crying!" but he can't help it, he can't be strong any longer and her own eyes curdle with acquiescence
innocence is like a blood flow - draining from us in one gallon, oil leaking from a tanker - smoke
fumes billowing
and her eyes are wide open

he sits upside down in the puddle in the middle of the school playground
and rides his bike out through the garbage heaps where the drug addicts inject themselves with heroin
sometimes he watches her when she collects the dead lizards or throws rocks at the squirrels
he wonders why someone so beautiful could kill such tiny things
and whenever she catches him watching; he blushes a grim smile and runs to hide behind the
skeletal tree
he thinks about his dog - the way it began shitting blood on the carpet
and the moaning it would make in the morning when he tried to wake it
his father would beat it for its bleeding and perhaps, he thought - this repeated the relentless sickness
but how did it begin and why did it begin? why would you have a dog in the first place only to
abuse it?
where do dogs come from and where do they go? where will he go - ah, he sighs - he's not a
he remembers the way his mother, "whore" as her father affectionately remembered her every evening
when the jack daniel’s bottles had been unzipped from the cupboard where he kept the rifles
took him to the lake and undressed in-front of him, the way she told him never to look at a
woman the same
she told him his eyes would fall out of his head and his guts would turn to fire
but when he watched the little girl with the piercing brown eyes - his stomach ache subsided
how could his mother be wrong?

she has watched him forever and the morning she had seen his dog run out into the round
and get "juiced" by a large truck that ran through it like a hungry river gorging to its mouth
she had waited till the neighborhood hubbub had died down and rushed out like a secretive thief
and wrapped the dead dog in a linen towel, making sure to sprinkle salt over his cracked skin

dutifully, like a servant of heaven spreading angel's hair like cloth upon a seam
she had labored over the dog for days, skinning it with steady hand to maintain its integrity
she had popped out the eyes, as careful as a spider's web and built the matrix of fiberglass
so she could softly encase its precious fur in the mold; breathing life through its silent nostrils

she remembered how it used to bark and howl in the middle of the night
and now it stood there; a perfect excavation, an echo - the remains of a being
she thought about her father; his final restless nights battling the demons inside of him
and how she looked down at him, in the casket at the funeral and his eyes fell open

slowly she glued new glass eyes on the dead dog and closed her eyes

she thought of her mother's favorite prayer and the teaching of her hands...

and finally she let the defunct creature stand in one final, strange violation of its inanimate nature

a bird flies through the barn door of a house and we see it but then it flies through the other door
and it is gone forever

will she be stuffed one day, propped up to stand forever in the garden of heaven?

she left it there, on the porch - waiting for him like a christmas present
the stuffed remains of his dead dog
he stopped there for a moment and she saw the bones in the back of his neck arch forward
and she could feel his eyes, peering into the waters of her soul

there is so much beauty in the world, too much beauty sometimes you can't even breathe

he slowly turned around and looked into her eyes (they had never spoken before)
"did you do this?"
she lifted the back of her ankle and parted her lips into an embarrassed smile
and blushed childishly

"you're a freak"
he murmured and scampered away, like a bee cowering from its sting
and she stood there, like a torn flower - tears rolling down her cheeks

she was like a baby fox, hiding in the bushes, its sobbing eyes watching humans
dragging away their life giver

and her eyes are wide open

the hardest animal for a taxidermist is the fish
its skin loses all its color once it drains out
so you have to paint its entire body

even the sculptors of dead animals must have the eye of a painter

last week her mother wrapped her up in a reindeer snow hat
and took her ice fishing in Saginaw bay

she caught a mackinaw - it would be her finest creation

first she removed the eyes and spread borax over the inside of its skin
and slowly she kept the fins wet as she shaped the fish into a pose

finally she placed a glass eye into the back of its socket
but it still could not see again

so she took her brush and began to paint each scale with the colors of life
softly sketching each fragile shade of blue from its head to its tail

she remembered her mother taking her to lake natron
where the statues of calcified flamingos
rest softly on salt islands

it was here that her fascination with preservation began
how we could capture bodies like memories
and retain their shape
and make them more beautiful, even in their death

now she leaves the painted fish on his doorstep
and she wonders

who will see the fishes tears?

Nicholas Tolkien is a 26-year-old poet, playwright & filmmaker born in London. Growing up in the fashion world, Tolkien was inspired to write by listening to the stories told by his grandmother, Anne Steinberg, an author in her own right and the music of his grandfather Mark Steinberg. Combining a love of the written word and musical forms, Nicholas Tolkien has written poems all his life and is also the director of several motion picture films. Tolkien now resides in Santa Barbara, California.

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