Back to Issue Forty-Five

Tonic Reflex



For years I imagined Death
in his greatcoat, peeling
a withered orange
or gargling with snow.
For years, I imagined.
Then, I became a mother,
and then I saw him
every day. At first
he was reluctant to come out
from wherever he had been
before: he required a vacuum extractor
and a cap made of sackcloth
to cover his eggy skull.
He was yellowish, very small.
Nevertheless I was afraid.
A nurse pricked his feet
every few hours; the blood
wouldn’t say what they
wanted. If I slept, I dreamt
the sheets, however light,
pressed over my nose and mouth,
suffocating me. When I awoke,
he who had never before been there
remained, in a plastic box
on a metal cart in the maternity ward,
where doctors bring little Deaths
into being every night, even
in the springtime,
and also at decent hours
like a quarter to four in the afternoon.

Out my window, the old world
blooms its blooms. The nurse explains
the primitive reflexes:
the startle,
the tonic:
how he’ll turn
his head one way, extend his sickle-arm.

Lizzy Beck lives with her family in Western Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in Tinderbox Poetry JournalThe Cincinnati Review, LEON Literary Review, On the Seawall and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Find her online at

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