—for Lynda and Jorge, 1994
Manhattan’s jeweled island far back
below us, the Towers’ light like two levers
you could bend to turn the Earth over,
this jet flies on into morning,
London somewhere beyond this flat sky
and jagged water where the toys
that are ships glint out of the moonlight
and the whale shapes of low clouds
rise and pass like a call unanswered.
I am leaving behind lives I don’t know
how to speak to in their ending;
the abruptness of tragedy making present, past
—there is no passing in loss so sudden.
A week from now in Cairo, I will stand alone
in a side room with The Book of the Dead
paneled before me while the line
for Tutankhamen’s treasures winds its way
out of the Antiquities Museum.
No glamour in the embalming rituals,
Anubis, and the feather weighed against the heart:
and there are no answers either. Some say fire,
some ice...but the possibilities of death
are all final, and her accident on slick roads,
his death in a trailer flaring out in the night
are more now of ending than I can bear.
She told me editing would teach what I
didn’t need to write, though her own poems
are the lesson I needed most; he barely spoke at all,
a shy man who let his classmates call him “George,”
let me call him “Jorge,” so when one of them said,
“Did you hear about George?,” I didn’t know
who she could be talking about.
He saved his mother and girlfriend and child
from the water heater’s explosion, but, confused
and uncertain, he went back, found himself trapped
and screaming, “Get me out! Get me out!”
All anyone could do was help pay for the funeral,
provide for the needs of the living,
and none of it could be enough. The legacy
of the lives he saved, the lives she changed
is the tally we can keep, but we can’t measure
what anyone might continue to become.
Shadowlands begins on the plane’s screens
to wake us into the new day, and as Anthony Hopkins
brings C.S. Lewis’s joy and pain to life again,
I quietly weep with him, holding my breath
not to wake my seatmate. Wherever we travel,
there is no destination loss has not visited before us.
Conversations with the Dead
My father’s conversation with the dead
today begins as he is sweeping up
the petals which are littering the floor
at the funeral home where he now works.
This new career he has retired into
as greeter, chauffeur, counselor of grief
attires him every day in the crisp suits
and stiff-collared shirts that characterize
the male clientele displayed in quiet rooms
of mourning and remembrance, though
his application of cologne sometimes exceeds
all but the dead can bear. He likes to talk
to the attending families, the friends and co-workers
who gather or wander in between decisions
on flowers and pillows and coffin, verses or eulogies
or music that will sound the resonance of memory
which orchestrates each distinct service of passing
over or on or away or out from lives
whose shifting foundations resist the final note
these souls have tuned and played.
The conversations and details paint the sets
of the stories my father likes to share at dinner
or on weekends in the yard when he recounts
the young man in the extra long box who was laid out
in tennis shoes and T-shirt, or the lady whose toy
Schnauzer accompanied her beneath the ground—
the dog freeze-dried to nestle in the embalmed arms.
He learns of jobs and children, hobbies and possessions
—some too dear to leave behind—and all of this
keeps him coming back, pulls him away
from the mornings and afternoons of CNN
and talk radio which has trained him to speak
to what’s not there, so much so that it is impossible
not to picture him singing softly the hymns
his mental jukebox cycles, jingles and television
themes that repetition’s barbs have hooked him with,
humming and serenading the still company
he keeps in the draped parlor. But it is not only music,
and he must mutter random thoughts, mumble
questions and feign the answers unspoken
by still voices the way he argues with Rush or
Paul Harvey or nods before agreeing with Larry King.
He will not go silent himself with so many things
left to say and away from the living
in marble halls a short step from the tomb,
he has found the ideal audience who always listen,
never tire, and whose response is exactly what he hopes
it will be each time they find time to chat.
Tangle of Shadows
The skin dry, but wet beneath my father’s fingers,
he rolls the corpse on its side to better reach past
the long scars where glass was pulled like splinters
hiding in the pain of blood and bruise and bone,
though it was too late for anything but cosmetics.
It’s 1949 and—at twenty-two—my father spends
his G.I. Bill from the tour guarding German POWs
in Corpus Christi to attend Auburn. Summers
he works at Harvest Mortuary outside Huntsville,
doubling as ambulance or hearse driver for room
& board plus twenty a week. He washes the body
with a smooth cloth damp with formaldehyde and
water from a red bucket at the edge of the table.
To dip and wring the cloth slows him, but he finds
comfort in these motions, a warmth missing from
the long caresses over skin no longer like skin,
no longer holding moisture or giving it away. Still,
it’s better to be here than on call, driving crazy
backcountry pretzelled roads, hovering in the emergency
room to see if his other services are required. It’s hard
to remember those things as he struggles to hold
the sheet in place, shade what’s left of neck and face
from his eyes. This one isn’t as heavy as the farm boy
he drove up to Peters Landing in Decatur County,
the one who had only two spinster aunts and
a high school friend turn out for the funeral. They
had to get the gravedigger and the sturdier aunt
to help with the pine box, and my father said a prayer
when the pastor failed to show. They sang a halting
round of Nearer My Heart to Thee and each cast in
a soggy fistful of sod and dirt before returning
in embarrassed silence to car and truck and hearse.
Now, he licks salt from his upper lip, wonders if
there are black cardboard shoes to fit this one.
In two years, he’ll begin Methodist seminary,
think about marriage and a family, but this
is good work for now and he can’t complain. He
wipes up a spill, rearranges an arm, then spreads
the sheet and adjusts the light till the table’s like
a snow-covered hill at midday—no shadows.
The room smells too clean for anyone to sleep here,
so he’ll carry his cot upstairs, set it up in the attic
where the mortician stores wax busts for practicing
reconstruction. My father will curl against the wall
like he could pull himself into the space between
the bare studs lifting the roof above him—try to sleep—
his huddled shape blanketed from the empty stares
he imagines watching his back from across the room.