The Corpse Washers


Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. Kent H. Dixon)

Also published in Mary: Journal of New Writing

(at the very bottom of the Mallarmé)



They’d gotten used to him, until

the kitchen lamp was lit

to flicker in the eddies of that gloom;

but the unknown one stayed all unknown.


They washed his throat and neck,

and since they knew nothing of his life,

they made another for him,

as they kept on their washing.


One girl had to cough,

and set down the sponge,

vinegar-soaked, on his face.

Then the other paused—a moment’s respite,  

and from her scrub brush, the bristles dripped,

while his horrid hand . . . gnarled as if in cramp,

as if in protest: Tell them all,

he no longer thirsted.


It worked. They cleared their throats,

as one embarrassed and hurried up the work,

so that on the wall among the flowered patterns,

their shadows hunched and lurched,

as if taken in a net;  they writhed in quiet,

until the washing ended.


The night, pressed against the bare window frame,

was pitiless, and the one without a name

lay stark and naked there,

and gave commands.