When We Dead Awaken by Katharine Johnsen


My father died in 1912, making my younger brother, Paul, the head
of our family. He makes my decisions for me: calling me the heart, himself the head.

Our sister played piano, I had my sculpture, and Paul had letters.
Then he became a devout Catholic and a diplomat, the fountain-head.

He continues to pose for me—has been a practiced model since he was a boy—
and keeps the bronze busts as souvenirs, though now finds me off my head.

Rodin was respected but not famous when we started working together:
I molded his women’s delicate hands and feet; he shaped their heads.

It’s been said Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken, was about us: though
I am no Irene. I had not yet had my fits, never raised a knife behind his head.

Above the doors on his Gates of Hell, the Thinker sits, as if Rodin
has imagined Dante contemplating his Inferno, fist to forehead.

Perhaps it is Adam—looking upon the destruction caused by his sin—
or the sculptor himself, halted in thought, on the Gates the images in his head.

Together we raised Dante’s figures from the bronze doors. He never finished Eve;
Camille, he’d say, something’s wrong with her: her stomach, her hands, her head.



Read TJ Jarrett’s interview with Katharine Johnsen in Women in Form



Katharine Johnsen earned her MFA in Creative Writing as the Bernice Kert Fellow at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and her BA from Emory University. She is the recipient of a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize and a scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference; her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Mid-American Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and elsewhere.