Published on Academy of American Poets (


The dead are for morticians & butchers
to touch. Only a gloved hand. Even my son
will leave a grounded wren or bat alone
like a hot stove. When he spots a monarch
in the driveway he stares. It’s dead,
I say, you can touch it. The opposite rule:
butterflies are too fragile to hold
alive, just the brush of skin could rip
a wing. He skims the orange & black whorls
with only two fingers, the way he learned
to feel the backs of starfish & horseshoe crabs
at the zoo, the way he thinks we touch
all strangers. I was sad to be born, he tells me,
because it means I will die. I once loved someone
I never touched. We played records & drank
coffee from chipped bowls, but didn’t speak
of the days pierced by radiation. A friend
said: Let her pretend. She needs one person
who doesn’t know. If I held her, I would
have left bruises, if I undressed her, I would
have seen scars, so we never touched
& she never had to say she was dying.
We should hold each other more
while we are still alive, even if it hurts.
People really die of loneliness, skin hunger
the doctors call it. In a study on love,
baby monkeys were given a choice
between a wire mother with milk
& a wool mother with none. Like them,
I would choose to starve & hold the soft body.


Copyright © 2019 by Robin Beth Schaer. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 9, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“I began this poem after a dear friend died from a brief illness about which she told only a handful of people. Her death led me to think of others I’d lost and recent conversations with my child about mortality. As my son encounters the world for the first time, I re-encounter it with him, both of us reckoning together with how to live and how to die. In this poem, I tried to capture the contemplation a child’s questions can ignite—how a revelation about mortality and compassion can spring from spotting a butterfly.”
—Robin Beth Schaer


Robin Beth Schaer

Robin Beth Schaer is the author of Shipbreaking (Anhinga Press, 2015). She teaches creative writing and lives in Wooster, Ohio. 

Date Published: 2019-04-09

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