Duplex (Pain’s a Language); Root; I’m No Mary Oliver; & A Dead Shark Isn’t Art

A Dead Shark Isn’t Art


In 1991, English conceptual artist Damien Hirst created
the controversial art piece The Physical Impossibility of Death
in the Mind of Someone Living. A simple construction.
Steel. Glass. A solution of formaldehyde. The body

of a tiger shark suspended, floating, inside. One reporter

described it this way: “In keeping with the piece’s title, 

the shark is simultaneously life and death incarnate

in a way you don’t quite grasp until you see it, suspended


& silent, in its tank.” A dead thing that cannot die. 

An ex of mine once wrote a poem after Hirst’s creation.

As I understand it, it’s fear that keeps the thing that’s dead

alive. Hirst himself said, to the man he paid to kill it, 


that he wanted “Something big enough to eat you.”

I will admit I heard all this & began to hate him. To hate

art & its economy of flesh & spectacle. The poem

my ex wrote was about the first man who assaulted them.


It’s never quite clear in the poem who stands on which

side of the glass. Which one of them is meant to be the shark.

The first shark rotted away inside the tank. Was gutted.

Stretched over a fiberglass frame until it was barely a body


at all. In 2003, the Stuckists, an anti–Conceptual Art collective,

borrowed & displayed their own shark. Caught, preserved, & hung

14 years before in the window of a Shoreditch electronics store.

Their exhibit, timed to coincide with the display of Hirst’s 


creation, was titled A Dead Shark Isn’t Art. How long

have I been trying to write this poem back to them? To make

sense of all my memory’s violences & the reader’s hungry eye. 

I’ve already failed at this poem so many times. I know


what it is to become a dead thing on display. To feed myself

on the spectacle of slaughter. I can count the dollars I’ve 

been given for imagining my own corpse behind the glass pane

of a poem. & this too is failing. I went back & checked.


I never say the word. Not once. Not in any iteration of this

poem. Not even this one. What language is there for survival

when even the word rape is a trigger? The sound—a raised palm

I flinch away from. I read somewhere once that if a shark 


ever stops moving it will die & spent the rest of the day searching

the corners of my jaw for hidden teeth. There is a fact in this poem

I’m running away from. The night our relationship ended, my ex

trapped me on my apartment’s slim balcony. Between us, nothing 


but the sliding door’s thin glass. Dim light. Our pupils

thrown wide. Their mouth caught mid-scream. Please,

tell me, in this image

which side of the glass is which?


torrin a. greathouse is a transgender cripple-punk poet and essayist. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, and the University of Arizona Poetry Center. They are the author of DEED (Wesleyan University Press, 2024) and Wound from the Mouth of a Wound (Milkweed Editions, 2020), winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. She teaches at the Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.