Pickled Heads: St. Petersburg by Susan Blackwell Ramsey


Susan Blackwell Ramsey’s “Pickled Heads: St. Petersburg” was selected for The Best American Poetry 2009, but was first published in the Winter 2007 edition of Prairie Schooner. 2007 was Lincoln’s fourth-hottest year on record, with an average temperature of 48 degrees Celsius. In contrast, St. Petersburg, Russia, experienced snowfall on two-thirds of the days from November of 2007 through February of 2008—quite a frosty winter!

by Tory Clower

Pickled Heads: St. Petersburg
Susan Blackwell Ramsey

For years they floated in adjacent jars,
  two heads on a dusty storage shelf,
abandoned in a back room of the palace:
  Mary Hamilton and Charles Mons.

We want to make things last. Salt, sugar, sun
  will work, and tannin from chestnut bark, and brains
spread on the skins that toted them, and sometimes
  words. But new two hundred years ago-

these “spirits of wine.” (Fermenting’s nature, but
  distilling’s art.) Not all steam is water,
just as not all passion’s love. Boil wine,
  catch what evaporates, trap that alcohol

and it preserves whatever you drop in,
  the head of your wife’s lover, for example-
Peter ordered his queen to display it on her mantle-
  or your mistress, killed for infanticide.

They say Great Peter kissed the dead head’s lips.
  The bodies sinned, the heads were saved. Don’t be
distracted by stories of Joaquin Murrieta
  glaring in a jar in California.

Though he was gunned down by someone named Love,
  his problems were political, not erotic.
He really should remind you of Evita,
  beautifully embalmed, better than Lenin,

then passed around, hot political potato,
  hidden in attics, propped like a doll behind
a movie screen for weeks, deaths unfurling behind her
  like a red scarf from Isadora’s car.

And even if Jeremy Bentham’s head was found
  once in a luggage locker in Aberdeen,
once in the front quadrangle being used
  as a football by medical students, he died

a natural death and landed in that cabinet,
  stuffed, propped, dressed, through his own will,
wax head on his shoulders, catastrophe in the drawer,
  still convinced Utility was his goal.

The uses the dead are put to by the living.
  Peter saved one for hatred, one for love,
and they outlasted hatred, love, and Peter
  to become flip sides of Death’s two-headed coin.

Heads win. Maybe the story
  isn’t the heads but Peter, unstoppable
monster consuming youth, a Minotaur
  trapped in the labyrinth he built himself.

Finally Catherine freed them. After decades
  she found them, observed how well their youth and beauty
were preserved, and had them buried, though no one says
  whether bottled or free to stop being beautiful.