Poem of the Week | November 02, 2020

This week’s Poem of the Week is “Tombstoning” by Matthew Tuckner!

Matthew Tuckner is a writer from New York. He received his BA from Bennington College and is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at NYU. He received the 2019 Green Prize for Poetry from the Academy of American Poets, selected by Rick Barot, and a scholarship from the NYS Summer Writers Institute. His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, Bear Review, Coal Hill Review, Crab Creek Review, Kestrel, TAGVVERK, and Tupelo Quarterly, among others. He currently works as a staff reader for The Adroit Journal.



Ever since my first near death
           experience, I have been collecting

my toenails in a jar labelled Bay
           Leaves at the far end of my spice shelf.

Because I was not suspended
           from the ceiling, but was flat

on the floor throughout my first
           near death experience I did not

meet my spirit in the way I meet
           a new scar, or the third meal

of the day, but it was not nothing
           I met. My spirit was shorter than me,

slightly taller than the slats of light
           that sometimes break through

the borders holding back the spill of
           my teeth. My spirit is the thing

that shouts out as I jump off a cliff
           aligning myself in the tradition

of tombstoning; leaping feet-first
           into the sea from any accessible

high point, forcing the stomach
           to rise into the figure of speech

known as the throat. Consulting
           the Near-Death Experience Research

Foundation, I find out everybody
           who has almost died is still alive

and would like to show it.
           “Former atheist here. Four words:

bright lights…white clouds.” @Sibyl says.
           I tell her that I almost died tombstoning

and she tells me that I have a death wish.
           I would like to say once and for all

that I do not have a death wish. But
           I am concerned that when my spirit

appeared to me from the corner of
           my eyes, a single finger stealing

the life force from the soulhole unseen just
           below my nipple, its heart, just

visible through papery skin, was
           shaped like a heart, not a heart.

A heart like the chipped circle
           smothering all the valentines. Not

a heart like the one with all the blood
           in it. The heart is not heart shaped,

this should be apparent by now.
           A toenail is not shaped like a nail,

this should be fairly obvious.
           The shape of the heart was

painted as an upside down pinecone
           before we ripped the veiny batter

from a cadaver and found
           we were not birthed by seeds.

A jar of bay leaves is a jar of bay leaves
           until you twist its head off.

A contributor going by the name

says the first thing he saw when he was
           born again were his feet. Complete

darkness, and then toes that he could
           no longer maneuver. The torso

only truly resembles a tombstone
           when it keeps completely still,

and hitting the water, begins
           to sink. Digs itself a grave.


Author’s Note

I can remember quite vividly that the first few lines of “Tombstoning” were written in the Devil’s Den Nature Preserve, a local cliff jumping spot, about twenty minutes from my house in New York. I was with my brother and sister, reading, watching strangers dive off the craggy, forty-foot precipice, pull themselves up its face, and throw themselves off it again. They would hit the reservoir and pop their heads above the surface gasping for breath, seemingly surprised to be alive, each and every time. As someone who would rather watch people cliff jump than cliff jump myself, I began thinking of the particular thrill that those who place themselves in the proximity of death fill their bodies with; the ways in which they welcome it. I thought about the telephone pole lodged in the engine of my Subaru, and how it came within three feet of tearing me in half; my shattered left hand in my lap. I thought about the first human heart held by a human hand. Instead of jumping that day, I decided to work on a poem.