Spirit Photography





A few hours before her best friend 

died, my mother pulled 

back his blanket and took 

a photograph of his naked body. 


They’d traveled together to Crete, 

gotten stoned in a two-room apartment 

above a bar in Illinois, cooked the same 

beef stew a hundred times 

over twenty years, always my mother chopping 

onions, him stirring the pot—a big black pot 

they’d brought during their escape

from the Midwest to California. 


The photo—lesions on his thighs, 

his muscles carved out of him, mouth 

already the slack O of morphine. 


She developed the film herself 

in the darkroom she’d built 

at the back of our house, 

where she’d taught me how to wait 

in darkness as an image bloomed 

to life on a white sheet of paper. 


She hung the photo in her office 

on the wall behind her desk 

for almost a year, and I hated 

to go in there, to see his body 

whittled down and bared. 


But it was my mother 

who taught me how to write 

poems without meaning to, 

every time she stopped 

to photograph a house 

burned in a fire, a pair of twisted 

hands spray-painted on a wall. 


After storms, she would walk 

the neighborhood and collect 

the empty bird nests blown 

out of the trees—enough to fill 

a bookcase as tall as me. 


And when I had my own cancer, 

she flew out to Texas, cooked stew 

in my kitchen. And because I knew 

she wanted to but would not ask, I offered— 

lifted my shirt to show the line 

of staples holding my abdomen 

together, said, “Go on, take it.”