L’Inconnue de la Seine

Issue SixIssue Six PoetryPoetry

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By Cheryl Pearson

In the late 1880’s, the body of a young woman was pulled from the Seine. The pathologist at the Paris Morgue was so taken by her smiling expression and her beauty that he made a wax plaster death mask of her face. In the 1960’s, the cast was used for the first resuscitation mannequin, and consequently employed around the world in first aid training. The young woman remains unidentified, but her face has been called “the most kissed face of all time”.



Mild as a saint when they dredged her,

milk-white and streaming water.


High-born, surely, with those bones.

One of them swears he danced with her


under gold leaf at the Opera Garnier.

I couldn’t forget that smile if I tried.


They cast her face in wax and plaster.

Beauty must be preserved. Why else


fill cabinets with butterflies? They do not cast

her slim hands, redundant thighs, or breasts.


Later they’ll give her a common trunk,

lend hospitals and clinics her likeness.


How to coax a heartbeat back. Not with magic,

but practice. How to rub the lips with alcohol


then blow. Her name is forgotten. Even so,

she smiles for each pummel, each kiss.